Many families are plunged into homeschooling with little choice right now, and many children have little concept of how to work and learn independently. Do you have your hands in your hair? Did you yell at your child and surrender to the TV screen so you can just finish one darned work assignment in peace? It’s understandable. This article will help you train your child to work independently.
With parents trying to work from home and constantly being interrupted, frustration can result in a lot of conflict. Read on for practical advice that can help (not overnight necessarily, but sooner than you think).
Quick tip: The younger your child, the more you will have to lower your expectations, and the more you will lean on routine.
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Why is it important for your child to be able to play and learn independently?
It’s important for mommy and daddy’s sanity to be able to work, but there are also other benefits.
Your child will gain self-confidence and a sense of competence because they become used to figuring things out on their own.
As your child progresses, time management is another skill they will gain along the way as they discover they can control their own pace of learning.
If your child already participates in household chores (always a good idea), independent learning will be added to their sense of responsibility in a positive way. This comes in handy when your child transitions into adulthood and the working world.
Your child’s communication skills will grow as they learn how to articulate a problem, ask for help, and navigate problem-solving on their own.
Clarify your expectations for your child’s independent learning
The younger your child, the simpler you’ll need to keep it. The older your child, the more you can expect, depending on your child’s temperament and what motivates them intrinsically.
You’ll have to work with your child’s attention span. If you push too hard too fast, you’ll only frustrate yourself and your child, defeating the whole point.
Here’s an infographic with the average attention span of typical children by age:
Obviously, if your child is hungry or tired, learning will be much harder. Creating a routine to stay on top of that will also be a huge help.
Other factors that may influence your child’s ability to learn and concentrate
Diet – There is plenty of research available that indicates your nutrition has a major impact on your mental, physical, emotional health, and development. Just consider your family’s diet for a moment: do you get regular vegetables in your meals? Is it fairly balanced? Do your children have food allergies or intolerances? Many children are particularly vulnerable to reactions when eating foods with too many colourants and preservatives.
If you want to attempt to eat healthier, it’s best to discuss and try to implement this as a family, so that everyone can support each other. Take small steps if you can. Make a lesson on nutrition and explain to your children how the foods they eat can affect their brain and bodies. Have fun with it and look for simple ways to include and involve your children in the kitchen as well, you’ll get more cooperation that way.
Sugar – This is part of diet but can also have rather dramatic effects if you’re a sugar addict, so it’s worth mentioning here. It affects your metabolism and the brain’s ability to process and brings many other health risks with it. No judgment here and I’m not about to tell you to go vegan or anything. I will encourage you to do your own research and explain it to your child.
Replace bad habits with good ones, rather than trying to stick to restrictions. It’s about a healthier lifestyle and mindset in terms of what you eat, more than anything else. Look up some healthy snack options and teach your kids how to make them so that they are ready when you need it.
Tip: The big secret to eating healthier is planning, planning, and meal prep! When healthier meals and snacks are readily available, you won’t be looking for junk food.
Trauma, loss, or drastic change – This is difficult for adults too, so give yourselves all a bit of grace and leeway if this is part of your current situation. For children, research has shown that trauma has a significant impact on the brain and can even change its structure.
Stick to essentials and go slower. No child will be able to concentrate for very long when it feels like their whole life has been turned upside down. Situations like these call for a gentler approach, helping your child to cope in constructive ways, plenty of nurturing, and frequent breaks.
TV and screen time – You’ve probably already seen the research that shows that too much screen time at a young age is no good for your child’s cognitive development. It’s true. While some families may research this further and opt for no screens at all (I’d love that myself), other families choose a different approach.
Your circumstances, living space, and access to other available resources will obviously also influence your decision (think of living on a farm versus living in a city flat).
Screens and technology for learning is a fantastic tool, making many resources available, but on the other hand, it quickly gets overwhelming. The trick is to decide what you are using screen time for, when, how much of it, and whether you use it as an incentive after other work and chores are completed.
Either way, as a parent it is crucial that you do regulate how your child uses digital technology and access to the internet. There are many apps to help you do this.
Health – If your child and/or someone in your family has chronic health issues or disabilities, this will impact the logistics of your whole household, and everyone’s emotions and thoughts as well to some degree. Depending on the severity of the problem, there are many ways to handle this, but again, just don’t push too hard.
Chronic health issues bring its own bundle of life lessons that are well worth learning (even if you’d have preferred the scenario that brought the lessons to be different). Children can learn compassion, empathy, selflessness, patience, endurance, courage, perseverance, resilience and creative problem-solving skills from these situations. Building emotional intelligence is so important to healthy adult life and relationships.
Relationships – Remember that your relationship with your child and your child’s well-being is always more important than the curriculum. A sense of security and stability contribute to easier learning. Make time to have fun, to laugh with, affirm, and encourage your child. Show them that you enjoy and appreciate who they are.
Tools for teaching your child to play and learn on their own
Gather your resources and do your planning based on what’s available to you. The following elements are essential, but you can add other tools as well along the way.
- Quiet boxes
You can adapt ideas from concepts like morning baskets or the Sue Patrick system. The main point is that you plan what must be done in a simple and easy-to-follow way. Remember to keep all your materials together for this, so that you’re not scrambling everywhere looking for things before you start.
How to teach your child to become self-motivated
1. First, have a conversation with your child to explain what you will be doing and the changes you will be making to your routine. For little ones, keep it simple and upbeat. You could describe it as them “working” just like you are working, and set up a little “workstation” for them.
Tip: It’s great if you can work in the same room and just set up a board that says you’re not to be interrupted.)
Explain that they will have activities and playtime to do on their own while you get a few things done, and they are not to interrupt you, or talk to you during this time unless there’s a legitimate crisis (someone’s hurt and bleeding).
2. Create a routine that establishes regular times for them to play on their own, interspersed with snack and meal times, exercise, nap, maybe some screen time, etc. To be more specific, set different categories of play and activity, like educational games, some math worksheets, language worksheets, art and craft, outdoor play, etc.
This routine is not set in stone, but it will get you started with something you can change and adapt as necessary.
Put your routine on a chart, preferably with images that your child can see (especially if your child isn’t reading yet). This enables your child to track what you expect of him/her and to SEE their own progress on the chart, board or poster. Include things like dressing, making their bed, finishing their breakfast, along with activities. There are many versions of this, but you could easily make your own as a fun craft project with your child.
3. Next, once you’ve got your child set up with an activity, you will want to use a timer. You can set it and explain to your child to not interrupt you until the timer dings. Use one that is easy for them to read and hear. Again, remember your child’s attention span and age. Don’t expect an hour if your child is only capable of giving 20 minutes before they need something else to do.
A fantastic tip suggested to me by one parent was to let the child estimate how long it would take for them to complete a task, activity, chore, or worksheet and set the timer themselves. Most kids would love to try and beat the clock and will easily cooperate with this concept. I’ve been trying this in my home with my daughter and combined with appropriate rewards, it’s incredibly effective.
Warning! Your timer will only be as effective as you are at sticking to using it yourself. Block your work tasks into the same time blocks that you’re setting for your child. The bonus is that you will be much more focused on getting your work done as well. But if you keep ignoring the timer and carry on with your own tasks after it dings, your child will soon learn it means nothing.
4. Reward your child and make a fuss when they cooperate with this new setup. Positive reinforcement works. As an adult, you surely get just as much satisfaction out of completing your own to-do lists and having a cup of tea or something small for a reward, so why not do the same for your children?
Don’t go too far and get your child something very extravagant. Think dollar store items, stickers, healthy snacks, Lego, etc. When they complete bigger milestones, say a week of independent play, offer something a little bigger. Eventually, once your child is older, they will see the inherent benefits of independent learning for themselves.
5. Set predetermined consequences for when your child doesn’t cooperate with this system, such as helping with more chores, less snack and screen time privileges, etc.
If the list of things you set for the day didn’t work out, don’t give up. Keep trying until you figure out what works.
Of course, learning independently is not always possible. If you notice that your child is having trouble in certain subjects like phonics, looking up how much phonics tuition would cost in your area could be a tremendous help.
Final thoughts on training your child to learn and play independently
It takes time to train your child, as it does with almost anything else. Be patient. It will be worth it.
Be a model of independent learning yourself. Explain to your child how you work and what skills you needed to learn to do your job and/or run your business. Tell them stories of how you went about it.
Do a fun online course or tutorial with your child, for the sake of learning something new and figuring out what you can do with what you’ve learned.
Remember to encourage, affirm, and praise your child for their effort – it is much more important than their performance or perfect results. Tell them how much you appreciate their efforts.
Plan some quality time together to keep a positive rhythm going and before long, your child will be working through learning materials better than you thought possible.
Your child can do it. And you can too.
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What is your favourite tip for getting your kids to learn and play independently? No judgment if your answer is online games or screen time. Whatever works for you! Share your tips and thoughts in the comments below.