How to Teach the Most Valuable Skill Your Child Will Ever Need

Overview: This article tells how to teach independent learning to your kids of almost any age and gives ideas and strategies for this very important life skill.

When was the last time you got to take a nap during a homeschool day? Or go to the restroom without someone knocking at the door while you're there? Or get any time at all that you could count on being uninterrupted? If it's been awhile, I might have a solution for you.

And the neat thing is that this solution is something you can actually feel good about. Because it involves teaching your children one of the most valuable skills they will ever need.

In fact, the skill I'm talking about today is CRUCIAL for preparing your child for college — and for the rest of their life. You owe it to your child to teach them this and to teach them WELL. It can affect their career and their self-fulfillment, at the very least, and probably much more.

This article tells how to teach independent learning to your kids of almost any age and gives ideas and strategies for this very important life skill.

What am I being so vehement about? What could possibly mean so much for my child's future?

I'm talking about teaching our children the skill of INDEPENDENT LEARNING.

Helping them LEARN HOW TO LEARN — and how to do it with no help from anyone.

I've already discussed all the benefits of independent learning in my post entitled This is what happens when you use Independent Learning in your homeschool. If you are not aware of the benefits, you might want to click on over and read that. Suffice it to say that your child can learn anything they want to learn for the rest of their life if they have mastered the skill of independent learning.

Today I want to focus on how to teach this skill to your child. It is not a difficult process.

The end goal is for your child to do ALL the work of learning so that all you need to do is supervise, answer the occasional question, and grade their tests and papers. Sounds great, doesn't it? Yes, there might be naps in your future, after all. :-)

1) You can start as soon as they can read independently. We started our eldest in about second grade, because that was when her younger sister started kindergarten and needed more of my time to learn to read. Not to mention the three even younger than that who DEFINITELY needed mom to help them through their day, lol.

But beginning later is NOT a problem. Many moms like to keep the family together for many, if not most or all, subjects when the kids are in the elementary years. Totally fine. :-)

With an older child, the process of teaching them independent learning may actually go faster than if they were younger. On the other hand, the danger may be that since they are so used to having you teach them, they may balk at doing it themselves. And we know that middle schoolers are pretty good at balking, lol.

So when to start is up to you — use your best judgment regarding your child's needs and your goals for your family.

2) Begin with one subject only. This is a PROCESS, y'all. Don't tell your kid one day that they are on their own for everything, lol. Baby steps. :-)

How to choose which subject? Well, that depends a lot on which curriculum you are using. Some curriculums lend themselves well to independent learning; others really need mom to teach and facilitate.

We always started with math. We used ABeka math in the early years, because it was bright and colorful, and the workbooks were easy to write in.  But if you are doing a math curriculum that relies heavily on manipulatives, then you might not want to choose math as the first subject for your child to learn independently.

(That is one positive aspect of workbooks and textbooks — it is much easier to foster independent learning with them. Unit studies, unschooling, Charlotte Mason, etc. do seem to require more hands-on time from mom, so you might have to adapt this process in creative ways to make it happen with those types of curriculum.)

Other possible subjects to start with would be English, handwriting, spelling — even science or history if the child is mostly reading and answering questions with those. Subjects for which the child is notebooking can also work well.

3) The actual process of teaching this skill happens in three steps: reading/watching the lesson, guided practice, and independent practice. It involves you gradually easing yourself out of their learning process over time. This is not something you have to plan on paper; just follow the flow and take cues from your child about when you can ease off and let them handle more and more on their own.

a) The first few days or weeks, have them read/watch the lesson alone and then ask them a few questions to see if they understood it. Once you feel fairly confident that they are comprehending without any prompting from you, you can stop asking them about it.

b) At the beginning, do help them answer the first few questions or problems. This is called “guided practice.” It helps identify any areas they might not fully understand and gives you the chance to fill in any gaps. Work with them long enough, with them taking over more of the solving/answering process with each successive problem/question, until they can do one completely on their own while you “stand by.”

This step should not happen for the entire lesson. Only help them through a FEW of the questions or problems. Even if they feel like they aren't ready to move onto the next step, you may have to push them a little bit. Remember, this is something they've never done before, so they may want to lean on you a bit. Be strong! :-)

c) Then set them loose to do the rest of the problems or answers on their own. This is the “independent practice” part. But again, doing baby steps is key. So for awhile you will want them to check the answer WITH YOU after EVERY ONE. This prevents them doing the whole page while making the same mistake over and over again. You will catch it the first time, and the second time, lol, so hopefully it won't happen a third time.

This routine — have them read on their own, test their comprehension, do guided practice of a few questions, then check each problem one at a time — can go on for as long or as little as you like. Use your kid as a guide — if they get comfortable quickly, then you don't need to spend much time in this phase. If they like having you there for each step, then stay there for awhile. But eventually you will want to kick them out of the nest, so to speak, and move onto the next phase.

4) Now it's time to turn them loose with the answer key and have them do ALL the problems on their own, checking THEMSELVES after each one. Again, checking after each one is CRUCIAL, at least for awhile, so they can make sure they don't waste a lot of time doing something all wrong and only finding out at the end. You wanna talk about frustration for everyone…

Just a quick note here: The answer key is an IMPORTANT learning tool. Do not consider it to be only mom's property, so that the kid may not look at it on their own upon pain of death.

NO, obviously we do not want our kids to cheat by looking at the answer key and writing down the answer without even doing the problem. But AFTER they have done the work, checking it right away is providing the feedback they need to foster learning.

And sometimes, when they are stuck on something and just can't get it, the answer key will give them the information they need to figure out what would have been the correct procedure. Then they can try the next problem using that procedure.

Here's another thing that is completely OK and should be encouraged: looking back at the text. Even in math, this can be a very profitable practice. Do you want them asking you EVERY question they have? Then YOU would not be enjoying the benefits of independent learning, lol.

For many questions, the answer is found in a lesson they completed previously and may have forgotten a detail or two about. They should learn to try to find the answer themselves in the textbook and use you as a last resort. You can teach them how to use the table of contents and the index to find places to look. This is a GREAT skill for them to learn.

Eventually they may not need to check the answer key after EVERY problem or question. In math it may be a good idea anyway, depending on your child, but in other subjects they can probably complete the entire question set before checking their work. And so they will proceed day after day, completing the lessons in the curriculum all by their little selves. It's a great thing. :-)

And then it becomes time to study for the chapter test, which is another facet of independent learning.

1) For math this is a simple matter of redoing several of the problems from each lesson, or completing a review set, if the book provides one. The child can pick and choose which problems to do, and how many of each, based on how confident they feel about each type of problem. The answer key (and solution manual, if provided) will be important resources in this process.

At first they may need your guidance to help them determine where they should focus.  The goal is for the child to feel confident with each type of problem — and how to differentiate between the types of solutions required — before taking the test. I usually schedule one to two study days before the test to have time to reach this point.

Realize, too, that the test itself is a tool for learning. If they don't do well, it is an opportunity to fall back and regroup, studying the areas of difficulty, and try again with a different test form. If they pass with no difficulty, that is feedback that they need to feel confident tackling the new topics of the next chapter. It's a win-win — even though it may be difficult for your child to see it that way sometimes, lol.

2) In other subjects, there may be more instruction needed from you about best study practices. I always started this process in seventh grade. Before then I never expected the child to be able to read a text and study for a test. I think the elementary years should be much freer than that. But I have always felt that middle school is a great opportunity to gently prepare for high school.

I have found the Apologia science books, starting with Exploring Creation with General Science, to be great tools for teaching how to study for a test. They do provide a chapter review and study guide, but these don't give an indication of exactly what will be on the test, so the child still needs to study more in order to do well. The following process is what I use for Apologia, but you can adapt it over any subject and with any curriculum.

Initially, I don't expect them to do the first test on their own with no help and get an A. This would be an exercise in frustration. Instead I let them take the test completely open book. This gives them the flavor of taking a test, and they see how the test covers an entire chapter of material — but they don't need to stress about knowing EVERYTHING.

For chapter two they have to memorize the vocabulary words. They can take the rest of the test open book, but first they need to write out those vocab definitions with the book closed.

For chapter three, I pick a section of the chapter that they have to study for mastery, and those questions on the test must be done without the book (in addition to the vocabulary words). I show them different study techniques (a topic for another blog post, lol) and they spend time implementing them for just that small quantity of material.

Then, over the course of the first semester, as they complete chapter after chapter, I make them responsible to study and know more and more. By the start of second semester they are taking the entire test without the book — but maybe for a test or two they get the option to pull out the book for anything they don't remember. They have to mark the question(s) on the test that they did that for.

Do you see how it's a process? By the end of 7th grade year, if not before, the child is studying for and taking a difficult science test with NO help from me. So now for the subject of science over the rest of their homeschool education, they will be learning independently. Including Chemistry, y'all. High school science? DONE.

In fact, by the time the child is in high school, MOST (if not all) of their work should be independent.

Admit it, there is no way you are going to be able to keep up with Biology and Geometry and World History and British Literature and French. YOU JUST CAN'T DO IT.

So either you find online classes or you hire a tutor or you send them to dual enrollment — all of which can add up to buck buck bucks — or you teach them independent learning. You will be there as a resource, and maybe sometimes you'll have to skim a chapter to learn a concept really quickly to help them through it, but on the whole your main job is to grade tests and papers. And nag them to stay on schedule, lol.

I would go so far as to say that it would be VERY difficult, if not impossible, to homeschool high school if you have not taught your child how to learn independently. Even if they are taking all online classes, it would be necessary for them to do it mostly by themselves. Unless you want to take every class with them.

But the good news is that it is a very doable thing to encourage your kids towards independent learning, even from a young age. And when you have accomplished that, you have done a good thing for your child.

And for yourself! Go ahead, curl up with your favorite blankie and catch a few z's. Because now you will be able to! Isn't that a wonderful thought?? :-)Save

It's Not That Hard to Homeschool

12 thoughts on “How to Teach the Most Valuable Skill Your Child Will Ever Need”

  1. This is great. I would love for you to write one specifically on challenge a. I am trying to teach him to be a self learner but it is sooo hard. Lot of hand holdin

    1. Yes, I know exactly what you mean, Jessica. Great minds think alike, because a post specifically geared towards fostering Challenge A ownership is already on my list of posts to write. :-) Thanks for confirming that it’s a good idea! :-)

  2. I agree with every point Annie, mother of six here, constantly encouraging them to be more independent. I can’t do it all, I’m finally beggining to realize that.

  3. Hi Annie,

    Do you have recommendations for specific curriculum that lends itself to independent study? I saw your Apologia science plan for middle school and beyond and your post on math, but what works well for the other subjects? I have 8 children, 6 of whom are school-aged (grades K-9th). Of course that leaves me with many grades to teach and many hands to hold. We use My Father’s World for our history and Bible spine, and they work independently (supposedly) on the other subjects. My oldest are more independent, except for math and their IEW writing class, but we’ve had a lot of life interruptions this year, so much of what we do together (history, science, etc) has gotten put on hold much more than I’d like. I was looking into distance learning classes by Abeka , BJU, or Alpha Omega, but am leery of the huge initial costs to begin with all new curriculum, plus what if they hate it? I’d love for school to just continue on without mom driving it along at all times. I did start teaching textbooks for math for one of my girls, and I will say that I do really love that (the others use Math U See which is too time consuming for mom). Anyway, what works well for say third grade on up for independent study (especially grammar/language arts/writing)? Thank you!

    1. Great question, Dyan! My personal favorite for grammar/language arts/writing is Rod & Staff. We did use them for history for a couple years also, but not for long. But we started using their grammar program (which includes writing) when my oldest was in middle school, and then all the others began it earlier and earlier, lol. It is SO thorough and very easily done independently. For the younger kids we did often do exercises orally, but it is not necessary. (We skipped the class practice part, usually, unless it was something the child needed more practice with.) All four of my kids that have taken the ACT/SAT have gotten EXCELLENT scores on the English sections of the test, and I attribute it to their thorough grounding with R&S. And it is inexpensive, because once you buy the hardbound student and teacher books, then for each succeeeding child you only need to purchase workbooks and test books that are under $5 apiece. You do have to be willing to handle Mennonite references and phrasing, and the books are black & white — but I feel that solid grammar instruction is more important than pretty colors. Here’s a link:

  4. I was homeschooled myself from third grade through high school. Doing school on my own was how I learned best. I really hated being homeschooled, until my mom had to go back to work when I was 13, and then I was essentially on my own. I loved just being able to open the book, read the material, do the work, and be done. Being taught a lesson as though I was in a classroom, and dealing with an excessive amount of manipulatives just seemed like a waste of time to me – even as a young elementary student.

    Now with homeschooling my own children, I am seeing the same frustration in my oldest (age 6, 1st grade). When I assign her a lesson and she is able to do it on her own, she is much happier, and the school day goes much more smoothly.

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