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5 Ways to Encourage Independent Learning

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There are many different types of homeschooling parents. I have always been the type to enjoy getting in there and learning alongside my kids. But, I also always looked forward to having more independent learners. I used to daydream about all the things I could get done if I had just an hour or two a day when all of my kids were working independently.

The daydream has become a reality, y’all. I do sometimes miss the years when I was more involved, but I’m not going to lie. The freedom of homeschooling teens is pretty awesome.

I’ve updated an older post with some tips on how we got to this point. I left the photos of my sweet babies back in the day purely for the cuteness factor. Because {sniff} I miss those sweet little faces.

Middle school is when I really like to start really encouraging independent work. In addition to the benefit of more time for the teaching parent, independent learning also allows for a more personalized education for the kids. They can more easily follow their own interests when they’re working on their own at least part of the day.

So, how do you encourage independent learning?

1. Spend plenty of time laying the foundation.

It’s counter-productive to push independent learning too early. Spending lots of time working one-on-one with your kids when they’re young gives them the confidence and ability to work on their own when they’re older. Making sure kids are strong in basic skills, such as reading, writing, and math computation, sets them up for productive independent learning throughout life.


2. Start simply.

Let your kids start out working independently in areas where they’re confident. The first work my kids started doing on their own was their Explode the Code books. They made a fantastic starting point because all the lesson formats are the same. So the kids were familiar and comfortable with what the lessons.

After Explode the Code, we’d usually move on to math because once new concepts are explained the review problems are familiar.

And, then {cue the hallelujah chorus} we discovered Teaching Textbooks.


3. Keep a system of accountability in place.

I give my kids assignment/check sheets. They check off each assignment as they complete it.

When the kids were younger kids and first started working independently, I would check their work early in the evening. That allowed enough time to sit down and finish it rather than watch a favorite TV show {gasp} if their work didn’t get completed.

An even worse fate than missing a TV show was having to do their work at the dining room table with me the next day instead of taking it to their rooms or the living room.

They quickly learned that it was better to get their work done during the school day. (No, I wasn’t a complete ogre. There was always leeway when needed.)

4. Provide incentives.

Sometimes, in the early stages of learning to work independently, having an incentive program in place can be useful. I used a sticker chart with Brianna. I’d set a timer for a reasonable amount of time. If she finished her math (the subject in which she liked to drag her feet) before the timer went off, she got a sticker.

She could collect the stickers for a week and turn them in for a small prize or save them for a month for a big prize. It doesn’t work for every kid, but sometimes it’s helpful to show a kid that if they just get busy and do their work, it’s done.

5. Provide resources.

Often when a child is just learning to work independently, it’s hard because there’s just so much to remember. Providing tools to help overcome obstacles and get to the business at hand can really go a long way in helping your child learn to work on his own.

We’ve used math mini-offices, a writing mini-office, and learning centers to accomplish those goals. You might also try your own version of workboxes.
Brianna used workboxes all the way through high school.

What tips have you discovered that have helped your kids move toward more independent learning?

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Kris Bales is a newly-retired homeschool mom and the quirky, Christ-following, painfully honest founder (and former owner) of Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers. She has a pretty serious addiction to sweet tea and Words with Friends. Kris and her husband of over 30 years are parents to three amazing homeschool grads. They share their home with three dogs, two cats, a ball python, a bearded dragon, and seven birds.

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  1. this has been a struggle for us, simply because my daughter is so strong willed, she spends her day seeing what she can get away with. we recently started a weekly passport. I think I may add an incentive feature! Thanks for the tips!

  2. Thanks for posting this. I'm trying to work toward my girls working more independently, all in baby steps. Your dreams are my dreams, too. I'm going to take a look at your incentive program as well as the mini-office idea.

  3. Ahhh yes! So glad my daughter is already in that phase. So much so that I am more of a distraction to her sometimes. 😉

  4. Hi Kris! I have an unrelated question. Next year I am planning to do an American History curriculum with my (then) 9th grade son. I am very interested in the IEW US History supplement Vol. 1 and 2, but read that getting the Structure and Style materials (with dvds) would be necessary. As you have mentioned in your posts, I am reluctant to pay $50 for each history supplement AND buy the Structure and Style dvd package (expensive) when I don't know much about it. However the reviews are so excellent that I really want to utilitize it. I am also unsure if I will need to start him on the Structure and Style assignments BEFORE we do the history supplements. In other words, I am confused. Can you give me any insight into this?

    Thank you for any advice you can give!


  5. Hi, Nicole. I honestly have no idea because we've not used any of the supplements, having started with the TWSS/SWI combo. I would strongly encourage you to join IEW's Yahoo group (it's linked on their website) and ask your question there. Jill, who moderates the email group, is a wealth of information and I know she could give you excellent advice.

  6. Kris,

    Great tips! All of my children do chunks of their work independently – my 8th grader does almost everything independently and joins us for history. Workboxes helped more than anything to make my boys more independent. As well, making things as easy as possible for them to work independently helps as well (as you mentioned). Reference books, extra pencils, ANYTHING they will need should be readily available to them. I think it also helps for them to know that you are there to help if needed. If I'm not working independently with one of my kids, I'm usually buzzing about getting laundry in or fixing food so I'm readily available if needed.


  7. Really great tips! I often think that there's no way I'm ever going to have independent workers. But, then again, they are already doing a lot more on their own than they were even a year ago. I guess we just need to keep chugging along and encouraging it.

  8. Great post and ideas. I'm trying to get my three oldest working more independently so I can spend more time working with my younger ones. I also liked your mini-office ideas(I followed your link). I think these would be much better for things they need to refer too quickly when working than the notebooks we've been using. I'm going to get some in the works and see how this helps.

  9. I took a different approach to how to use my free time as my kids got older and started to work independently. When my oldest four were 18,17,14 and twelve, we fostered, then adopted a sibling group ages 9,3,2 and newborn. Ha, ha. So much for time for my projects. Beginning the journey all over again.

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