Steps to Independence

by Jimmie Lanley on September 9, 2011

Maturing in independent learning is one of my goals for Sprite’s middle school years. I have found that keeping my list of broad goals right in the front of my Mom Notebook keeps me focused on making opportunities for them in the weekly lesson plans.

As amazing as it is, it is far too easy to forget the overarching goals in favor of the tiny details of reading assignments and exercises.

I thought I’d take a moment to share specific things I do to nudge Sprite towards more independence in her learning.

1. Using lists

I am a list maker, and Sprite has inherited that from me. Of course, it’s not so much the list as the satisfaction one gets from crossing off a completed task.

Sprite loves to know “what else do I have to do today?” I used to be irritated by that question. It seemed to say, “Let’s just get this over with. I hate this.” But that wasn’t what she meant at all. (Funny how talking to your kids clears up so much!) Knowing what is left to do helps her have the big picture for the day’s work. She’s not expressing distaste, but a desire for more control over her homeschool day. And she finds the countdown to done very motivating.

Lists don’t have to be fancy. She sometimes marks things off of my own planner or makes a post-it note list like the one pictured. That’s all it takes, so we keep it simple.

2. Being alone

Giving her some directions and leaving her to work is something that we worked up to. It does take time. But now with Sprite in seventh grade, she can get up in the morning and know exactly what to do in a few subjects. She seems to enjoy telling me that she’ll check in after she has done her math, Bible, and vocabulary.

When she’s ready for more direction, I offer that. And then I leave her to work.

I’m always available for help, but I think that being out of the room prompts her to try to work out her initial problems on her own before asking me to come back. She has now grown to like working alone where she can listen to her own choice of music (and set the the volume she prefers) and sometimes audio books.

3. Asking her to assess her learning

A question I like to ask is, “How did you do?” I want Sprite to evaluate her own learning before I give any assessment. Was the work easy or hard? Was it done with excellence or were there distractions that fostered mistakes? Is there something we can change so that next time the learning goes smoother?

For those of you with middle schoolers and older, what do you find most helpful in moving them towards independence?

{ 20 comments… read them below or add one }

Melissa Telling September 9, 2011 at 3:22 pm

My assignment sheets reflect the different level of independence my middle /highschool students have reached. The younger ones get a weekly assignment sheet with each days assignments divided out. (I work with them on most of this.)

The older kids get a two page assignment sheet at the beginning of the year with all their assignments, divided by week, for the entire year. It is up to them to decide how to schedule the work each day. (They mostly work alone, unless they have questions.) I check them at the end of the week & make sure they are not getting behind. This works pretty well, . . . usually.

This morning I was going over my 13 year old’s schedule, when I found a glitch in the system. We started school on Tuesday and she was already behind in EVERYTHING and complained that her math was “too much” for her.

After further probing, I discovered that she had mistaken the page numbers I had assigned her as chapter numbers, and had spent the last three days finishing 1/3 of the Algebra text! Maybe she’s learned to work a little TOO independently; she never came and asked me about it, just followed the schedule and kept plugging away!


MarshaMarshaMarsha September 9, 2011 at 7:41 pm

Oh my, Melissa! I bet she was SO relieved to find out that she is quite ahead in her math!


Melissa Telling September 12, 2011 at 10:57 am

Yes, she was. She’s especially excited to have 2 weeks off math to get caught up in her other subjects.


MarshaMarshaMarsha September 9, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Being organized and having a plan allows you to give your children independence and a measure of freedom in their homeschool day. I have found that it is often my fault that there is a hangup in the day– oh, you’re going to do your next math lesson when I haven’t graded yesterday’s lesson yet?

My boys love having control over their day. Austin will often get up super early and have all of his independent work done before I have breakfast. And Noah, he loves his sleep and would much rather get a few more winks in in the morning even though it means his school day lasts longer than Austin’s.

My goal is for complete independence by high school. I don’t understand why so many parents send their kids away to school in the high school years when those are precisely the years that you should reap the fruits of your labor.


Ruth September 9, 2011 at 9:47 pm

My son’s 11 y/o….here’s what I heard every 15 minutes last school year…..”what do you want me to do next?” ugh! Homeschooling is about him not me. I was bound to work on his independence this summer once and for all so I gave him chores…wash dishes, wash clothes, feed the dog, check the dog’s water bowl, wash the car, set the table, water the plants, take the garbage out, vacuum, clean your room, organize your dresser, organize pantry, make a grocery list….all things I knew he would not volunteer to do eventually he stopped asking me and soon turned to things like reading, math drills, drawing, 3D puzzle, painting and the like. So I asked him why he didn’t ask me what to do next anymore….he said, “because school work is easier and didn’t require physical labor” ….WOW! Now, he pulls out an weekly assignment sheet and makes a list of his reading, writing and math schedule….we check it together because we still need to work on self-check but we are using MASTERMINDS -Math Riddle for Middle School which has worked wonders for self-check….so we were only do reading comprehension and writing together!


lee September 9, 2011 at 11:16 pm

Our homeschool has worked that way since they learned to read. I gave them their pile (books, papers, whatever they needed to finish) and left them alone. We live in a small space. I was always only a few meters away (couldn’t resist using meters 🙂 When the pile was done, the work was done. Now I have their assignments online so they can see the day laid out in front of them on the computer. Their done when they’ve gone through them all. No one ever asks what’s next or when am I going to be done. They know they have to finish the work. Having it laid out also eliminates the urge to negotiate for less work. It’s already written out what has to be done. My daughter will even say things like, “The computer said that I need to tell you about chemical reactions…” I have things like that (narration) built right into the assignment list so they don’t get skipped.


Angie @ Many Little Blessings September 11, 2011 at 10:07 pm

Great post! I had to share it on the Homeschool Classroom Facebook page. 🙂


Eddie September 12, 2011 at 5:21 am

Great post! And I definitely agree about the satisfaction of box-checking – I’m sure M would too since she’s checking things off in the agenda this year.

Another thing I’m doing to foster M’s independence is making sure she has life skills mastered; when I moved out in my teens, I was sadly lacking on home maintenance and a number of other skills. To that end, I have found printouts of regular cleaning checklists, seasonal ones, cooking skills, sewing skills, emergency reparation, first aid, etc. and she’s ticking each new skill off as she learns it.


Chris September 12, 2011 at 6:47 am

I’m afraid to ask this, and not even sure how to ask what I’m really questioning… but I have two questions for y’all. Although I understand that a lot of hs is about fostering independence, isn’t there also a place for time together (isn’t that also the point?) – reading, discussing, explaining, etc.?

My kiddos are 8 and 10, and there seems to still be plenty of “me” time where I have to explain things for them to accomplish their tasks (grammar, science, history). I don’t do other things while they’re doing school, I’m in it with them. Do the workbooks and assignments become more self-explanatory as they get into middle and high school, so I’d be more hands-off as each year progresses? On one hand that sounds wonderful, on the other, it possibly sounds very isolating. One of my favorite things about hs so far (2nd year doing it) is that we spend time together exploring subjects (well, at least history and science are fun, the rest, not so much).

Love to hear thoughts.


Ruth September 13, 2011 at 12:05 am

No, don’t be afraid to ask…it’s all about BALANCE, though. I believe whole-heartedly in learning with your child(ren) but it helps if he can find the answers he seeks on his helps to make an effort and not to always depend on mom or dad to GIVE the answers and tell you what to do next. I feel that if you invest most of your time teaching about the resources available that you’ve spent your time well….and it’s time to but it to good use. In my experience, I have found teaching my son to be self-sufficient has been a big help towards his independence….so in that respect I am helping him grow up gradually so that it’s not all a big surprise when he’s a highschooler.


Jimmie September 13, 2011 at 8:18 am

Great question, Chris. (And please, never be afraid to ask anything here.)
There is absolutely a time for working together! I still read books to my daughter. She still does some oral narrations. We work together on her writing assignments. But yes, there is a progression in which she needs my direct supervision less and less.


Lindsay July 10, 2015 at 10:33 am

I think it depends on the kid. My oldest gets really frustrated when she has to rely on my for her day-to-day activities. So she has an assignment book that lists the week’s work that she is responsible for. I still do read-alouds, teach Grammar, history, and Bible. But she knows what work she has to do in those subjects, and other self-taught subjects like Math, and video/computer stuff like Foreign language.
But, another thing to think about is your goal for homeschool. Mine is not to have the most educated children on the planet. I want my children to know HOW to learn. So when they inevitably come up against something they don’t know, they know how to research, find answers, and they enjoy that process. And so our long-term plan is that our kids will be self-taught in high school. I will be here, we will still do a couple of subjects together, but they need the skills, like time management, self-pacing, research, reading and comprehension, etc in order to be successful outside of my home.
I think of it this way. I will still be with my kids every day, all day. I’m still able to teach by actions all the things I want them to leave home with – especially virtues, Godly servanthood, housekeeping skills, honoring family members, etc. School takes up very little of our day, so we have plenty of time and freedom to do other things.


Melissa Telling September 12, 2011 at 10:54 am

Chris, I have nine children. So for me it is important for the older children to work independently so I can focus on teaching the younger ones. I figure the older ones have had their turn and I want to have time to do all the “fun stuff” with the younger group. If they have questions, I am there to answer them. And if they learn something interesting, they will tell me about it outside of “school hours.” But if they want to discuss things during school hours, they do it with their siblings who are also studying that subject.

Although we do things this way because of practical considerations, it is also what my children prefer. They enjoy setting their own pace and not having to wait for me to do things with them. We do it this way because it works for all of us, but it is certainly not the only way. If you want to maintain more of a hands-on approach by teaching rather than requiring self-study, your children will still learn to work idependently as they complete their assignments. That’s the way they do it in the institutional schools.


Amber September 12, 2011 at 2:32 pm

This is exactly what I’m doing with my 12yo daughter this year. She’s now in 7th grade and I want her to be ready for high school in 2 years. I’m teaching her how to manage her time, create her own goals and rewards, etc. I love it!


Anne Galivan September 13, 2011 at 2:48 am

I’m entering my 22nd year of homeschooling, have two grown children as well as a 17-year old and a 9-year old that are still homeschooled. I absolutely agree with you about teaching your child to be an independent learner. I did the same thing with my three older children – usually by 6th grade I gave them their assignments (I would prepare several weeks of assignments ahead of time) and then they were required to get the work done. As you say, I was available if they had questions but my kids pretty quickly learned to figure things out on their own. There were maybe some subjects where I had to (or wanted to) sit down and go over things, say history or composition, but the majority of their schooling was done independently.

It certainly paid off when they hit 11th grade because at that point my kids dual-enroll at the community college and their ability to be self-directed is a great plus. My 17-year old is dual-enrolled, taking Trig and Spanish on-campus and a humanities/English course online. This is his second year taking classes at the community classes and he is doing extremely well…so I encourage you too – keep up the good work!


Kendra September 18, 2011 at 6:19 am

We’re actually doing the same things you mentioned. 😉 I always ask, “How do you feel you did?” But I have learned it must be done in a cheery voice or they panic. We also have a weekly list hanging up for checking off. I also remind my eldest that he can go where ever he wants to do his work and just pop in when he’s done or needs help. We’re getting there.. slowly, but surely. 😉


PrairieJenn September 18, 2011 at 6:12 pm

I definitely agree that it takes a balanced approach at this age. My oldest is by no means ready for completely independent learning, and I’m glad too…I enjoy our time together reading and learning alongside one another. I also think that it’s also important for this age to have a voice in what and how they are learning:)


Chris September 22, 2011 at 8:49 am

Lots of wisdom here. Thanks all for sharing. My older one (boy, 10) is in no way interested in getting his work done – he’s my procrastinator. My younger one (girl, 8) is my list checker. She will initiate, she’ll get it done. And then some. My boy is the one I really need to work on independent study – but he seems to struggle with really reading instructions thoroughly – so I’m trying to help him work thru that, letting him answer the questions and progressively figure it out on his own. I think this whole year will be devoted to that (5th grade). A few times he’s done his work early, but his motivation is so that he can play. I’m hoping that’s a good enough reason at this point – I’ll take what I can get. Thanks again!


Chris September 22, 2011 at 8:50 am

so my “number” 8 and a parentheses made a shade-wearing smiley face. Funny. Sorry…. that was a girl, 8 years old… in above note… 😉


Annie February 15, 2015 at 8:37 pm

Thank you for posting this it has helped me. I’ve only been homeschooling for almost three years and my son will be in the 6th grade next year and I’m FREAKING OUT!!! This has helped me.


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