Fostering independence



In my last post I discussed how its ok if elementary aged students are not yet working independently. Reading problems out loud, working side-by-side with your child, or providing other scaffolding to help them get through their work isn’t dooming them to use you as a crutch for the rest of their lives. It’s totally fine and developmentally normal for kids and young teens to still need some help getting work completed.

At the same time, moving towards independence in completing work and some degree of self-teaching is important. Incremental steps towards this goal can be taken gradually, without pressure, stress, or constant nagging. Here are some of my favorite techniques:

  1. Cut out the busy work!  While there’s a certain logic in assigning routine, easy, fill-in-the-blank style problems to complete independently, the boring and contrived nature of that work often lead to less focus and more goofing off than something that requires real thought. Cut out the busy work altogether, practice routine skills through games, and find bite-sized problems that are just the right level to engage independently for a short period of time.
  2. Do your own work. Just like all of us children can get lonely or feel isolated when completing school work on their own. Sitting right next to them at the kitchen table and completing your own work (even if its just catching up on emails to a friend), not only provides a role model for the student, but also company and connection.
  3. Make it the final thing. As a gradual transition towards more independence do the first problems together and then leave the last few to work on independently. This can give students the emotional support and confidence they need for the problems while gradually improving stamina to complete more on their own.
  4. Pomodoro technique. This is a really simple time management technique where work is broken down into focused 25 minute intervals with a 5 minute break. I’ve found that some students work much more effectively on their own when they know there is a limit to how long they will sit at the table.  For students just starting out or who have attention issues, starting with 10 or 15 minutes at first might be more appropriate. The time can gradually be adjusted upward. A visual timer helps some students stay motivated, but others will find a timer distracting or anxiety producing, so keeping it hidden and calling out 5 minute intervals might be more effective depending on the temperament of the child.
  5. One problem at a time. Some students find a whole page of problems intimidating, especially when asked to work through them alone. An incredibly successful technique for me has been to write problems on note cards and have the student work through them one at a time. It’s a little more work for the teacher, but working through a stack of problems one-by-one gives a sense of accomplishment after each card is completed. There’s also less chance for the students to get intimidated by a long page of work.

In the end, independence with school work is nothing to stress about. Small, gradual steps, with patience and a sense of humor can make this a natural process rather than something difficult or stressful.

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