Tips For Helping Your Child Become an Independent Learner

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Helping children become independent learners has never been more important than right now, with so many students attending school remotely because of the coronavirus. First of all, lots of parents are struggling to be their child’s on-call virtual school assistant on top of all the other things they need to do—so it would be a game-changer for many families if their kids could handle more of these tasks on their own. But even without the pandemic, there are many skills associated with independent learning that all kids need to develop, like better time management and organization. Experts say that when children are able to think for themselves they become self-starters, an essential skill for success both in school and life. 

It’s not as easy as placing them in front of a screen, logging them in, and letting them go, however. It takes time to scale back your involvement to make room for them to develop and grow. From reading together to helping them with math and checking their work, parents need to be fairly involved from preschool through about second or third grade, gradually stepping back more and more each year to allow children to flourish.

If you think about it, even a kindergarten teacher doesn’t sit with her students individually all day, and neither should you. Independent learning has always been at the core of learning. Here’s how to encourage it in a way that motivates your child to learn to do for themselves.

Write down a schedule, hang it up, and talk about it. 

If your kids are little and not quite reading yet, draw pictures to explain what they’re supposed to do during a certain time period. Keep it simple when they’re younger, but once they’re kindergarten age, they should be able to work on their own for bursts of 15 to 20 minutes, sometimes more. Schedules are important, both for your own sanity and to help them learn time management.

Try asking them to hold their Qs until a certain time. 

Rather than peppering you with questions throughout the day, encourage your kiddo to do everything they can do on their own first, then come to you with whatever questions they have at the end. This is standard practice in most classrooms, even in kindergarten. 

Come up with a number of acceptable interruptions per day, just in case (because…kids), but try to keep them to a minimum. You may also want to come up with a hand signal that signals whether it’s a good or bad time in case they come to you when you’re in the middle of something. 

Make a list of goals they should be able to achieve on their own. 

Doing this together provides an opportunity to help them realize how much they’re capable of without you. Make sure you offer plenty of encouragement and point out all the previous times your child learned to do things on their own, like when they learned to tie their shoes, feed themselves, or write their name. Older kids can be reminded of past school projects they completed successfully, athletic goals they worked toward on their own, or even spats with friends or siblings that they worked out without you needing to intervene. Even if a task seems daunting, they can handle it! It can help to break bigger goals down into smaller steps; if a task like “write your English paper” seems overwhelming, you can come up with a list of more manageable steps to get there, like “read Chapter 3,” “write an outline,” etc.

Give them a jumpstart. 

Before they sit down to do homework or to log into classes, talk about everything that’s due that day so they start the day understanding what’s expected of them. This is the chance for them to ask questions if they’re unsure how to get started, and for you to encourage them and assure them they can do it on their own.

Consider Zoom study dates.

Younger children are generally more welcoming of their peers’ help than older children, but it really depends on your child’s personality. Classmates can help foster independent learning in each other in the same way they do in the classroom. What other kids say or do can provide cues and clues for kids who need a little more direction than others.

Give them lots of feedback.

Focus less on grades and more on commending them for their level of effort. The more they’re patted on the back for doing things on their own, the more likely they’ll take initiative. Knowing you’ll be proud of them is enough to motivate some children, so be sure to praise them when they do something on their own, even if it’s a small task. 

Parents are under pressures and stressors right now that most of us have never faced before. Keeping kids motivated and on-track during remote learning—on top of working from home, food shortages, financial strains, and worries over our kids’ mental health—feels like more than many of us can handle. But with these tips, you can turn this into an opportunity for your child to gain important life skills—and if that means you don’t have to rush in to answer quite so many virtual school or homework questions all day long, that’s a pretty big bonus.

The former Content Director at Parenting, and several other brands, Ana Connery is a writer and content strategist whose work appears in USA Today, Reader's Digest, Real Simple, Cafe Mom/The Stir, Momtastic, and others.