How to foster independence in your homeschool student


The following post is written by contributing writer Kris Bales of Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers.

I‘ll go out on a limb here and say that the majority of parents who’ve homeschooled more than a year or two start thinking about creating independent learners.

Once our kids have mastered the basics of reading, writing, and arithmetic, we’re ready to start preparing them for learning on their own.

It’s not, I don’t think, that we are eager to get away from our kids. It’s just that, by that point, we’ve spent a lot of time pouring in to them and we’re ready for them to start working on their own a bit.

You know, long enough for us to do a load of laundry, put away the dirty dishes, or make a quick phone call.

Or go to the bathroom alone.

I don’t really expect a lot of independence from my kids until they’re about middle school age, but there are little things that we can start doing to prepare them before then.

Start small with things they can do with confidence

When my kids were younger, we used the Explode the Code series for reading practice. Each of the workbooks is set up in a consistent, predictable pattern. So, once my kids were familiar with the workbooks, that became something they could do with little or no supervision.

I encouraged them to work on their own while I helped a sibling one-on-one or did some quick housework nearby.

Photo by Eunice

Encourage independent reading

Once a child is reading fluently, I expect some silent reading time each day.

We still enjoy reading aloud all the way through high school. However, we also have silent reading time each day, during which each of us chooses a book to read silently until our timer goes off. (This is for-fun reading unless the kids just choose to get ahead on assigned reading.)

The kids also have ability-appropriate assigned reading each day, which offers another opportunity for independent learning. I let them go off to their own quiet places to read. Later in the day, I ask them to tell me about what they’re reading in order to make sure that they’re comprehending the storyline (and really reading!).

Allow kids to work with supervision

Allowing kids to work on their own with supervision is another step toward more independent learning. It encourages kids to stay on track without a parent standing over them.

In our home, this means that maybe I wash dishes or prepare a meal in the kitchen while my kids work at the table nearby. That way, I can direct their attention back to their work, as needed, or answer questions.

Sometimes, it means I work on my laptop (or play Words with Friends!) while they work through a lesson, so that I am visible and available, but not directing or hovering.

After some time at this, they don’t need me to redirect their attention quite as much.

Allow them to check their own work

I had a hard time with this concept for several years, but I’ve finally started letting my kids check some of their own daily work.

We typically do this with Easy Grammar and Daily Grams. The kids will complete the daily assignment on their own, then, we go over the answers together. This allows me to provide feedback for things they don’t understand, gives them another area of independence, and eliminates one of my least favorite parts of homeschooling — correcting daily work.

Model for your kids

No, no — not high-heels and runways.

Show your kids what their assignments should look like.

We use WriteShop for writing and before each writing assignment that the kids do independently, we do a practice assignment together. This gives the kids some practical, hands-on experience with the assignment before they’re expected to tackle it on their own.

They can see how to turn their brainstorming ideas into complete sentences. They can be reminded about using good describing words and strong, interesting verbs. They get to see how everything comes together, with guidance, so that they have to confidence to do the work independently.

This can be done in many subject areas. Doing something new alongside your kids the first time or two builds the foundation for them to take ownership of the task and work on their own.

Photo by Nicki Dugan Pogue

Know that some things may always require your guidance

As we’re working on fostering independence in our kids, it’s important to note that some things may always require our guidance.

Going back to writing as an example – even published authors have an editor to help them polish up their final copy. It’s okay to come alongside our kids and make suggestions for improvement or help them work through a difficult task.

In addition, some kids may always struggle with a certain subject. Your daughter may always need you to sit down and work through a couple of practice problems in her algebra assignment. Your son may need you to help him figure out how to set up those chemical equations.

One mistake I made as my oldest went through high school was not providing enough guidance in her areas of struggle. Rather than making her independent, this lack of guidance on my part turned into a lack of confidence on her part.

This is an area that we’re still working at overcoming — and a mistake that I don’t wish to repeat with my younger children.

Creating independent learners should be the goal of every homeschooling parent or school teacher. Keeping these tips in mind and not expecting too much too soon are great steps on the path to independence.

For those of you who have successfully fostered independence in your homeschooled students, what tips would you add to this list?

About Kris

Kris Bales is the quirky, Christ-following, painfully honest voice behind Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers. She and her husband of over 25 years are parents to two amazing teens and a homeschool grad. Kris has a pretty serious addiction to sweet tea and Words with Friends. She also seems intent on becoming the crazy cat lady long before she's old and alone.


  1. Expanding upon what you said about still providing guidance, my oldest daughter does most of her work herself, but she knows that every night I am there to help her with anything she needs. It’s really helped us to set up a specific time for me to be available for her. We do 8pm because the youngest kids have gone to sleep during this time, so there will be less interruptions. This is usually our algebra time, but we actually work on anything that she had trouble with when trying to complete on her own. Another thing I’ve been doing with my older kids is having them write a log every night of what they’ve doe that day. It helps me with record-keeping, and it keeps them accountable.
    Shelly’s latest post: Sorting Things Out: This Christian’s Thoughts on Birth Control

  2. Great article, Kris! I appreciate the wisdom here!
    Kari Patterson’s latest post: For the ache you may feel today…

  3. Very helpful – this very thing has been on my mind a lot!!

  4. What a timely article! I have been working towards this with my nine- and seven- year old since Christmas. Thank you for the new ideas in some areas, the confirmation that I’m heading in the right direction in others, and the reminder to always provide a model of what I expect from them!

  5. That sounds awesome but that is not reality for me. I have a 4th and 3rd grader. They easily get distracted and their reading is not great ( they are dyslexic) so if I walk away they could sit for 20 minutes and have 1 math problem done. For 2 week I left them by themselves and it was torture for myself and for them. They would sit for hrs and have very little done. I am so tried that I want to give up homeschooling. Any suggestions?

    • We also deal with dyslexia at my house. My non-dyslexic is much more capable of working on his own. I find I have to stay very close by for my dyslexic son (3rd grade). If it seems like he is distracted I quietly tap on his paper. If he has gotten distracted this is usually enough to bring back his focus, if it’s a different issue he takes the opportunity to let me know. (We have discussed that I’m not upset with him when I tap, just making sure he is on task.) The beauty of homeschool for a dyslexic child is that you can provide exactly the level of intervention the child needs and it will probably vary from day to day. Homeschooling children with dyslexia isn’t easy, but neither is making sure they get the support and accommodation they need at traditional school. You might consider working with a tutor or an on-line program like Lexercise to lessen some of your work load. Reading The Dyslexic Advantage by the Eides can really lift your spirits and help you see the positive aspects of dyslexia. Don’t be afraid to use audio books / documentaries for part of their assignments. It is a longer road to independent reading for them but the time you are spending is well worth it.

    • Libby,
      I have two dyslexics. That’s one reason that I mentioned not really expecting much independence until middle school. Your kids are still young, but you can begin laying the groundwork in simple things. For example, while they’re doing their math, you could work nearby, but not walk away. If that were me, I’d sit at the table and respond to email or something along those lines. Then, you’re right there to get them back on task when they lose focus. For years, I joked that it was my job to say, “Do your schoolwork. Do your schoolwork.”

      Finally seeing some degree of reliable, focused independence was something that has only started happening in the last couple of years – when they were 5th or 6th grade or so.

      I hope that helps!
      Kris @ Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers’s latest post: 25 Things That Make a Homeschool Mom Happy

      • Cathleen says:

        Hi there,
        I am a home school mom of 4. My 2 eldest graduate next year and one has learning disabilities the other none. I have a 7th grade daughter who is Autistic(Asperger Syndrome). She gets easily distracted, BUT I have learned that checking often on her work AND giving her something to hold in her non writing hand (like a string) actually helps her focus. I learned this from a special eds teacher. HANG IN THERE….don’t give up. It WILL get better!!!!

  6. We are just starting out, but my 4 & 5 year old practice independent “reading” a lot. They quietly look at picture books next to me while I read my own book. The older one is starting to actually read the words now, too. They’re think it’s amazing you can “read in your head” and don’t always have to do it out loud! And it provides me with some time to get my own reading in 🙂

  7. Funny how this is here just the day after my total meltdown over my kids not being very good at the whole being independent learners. I shared it with my husband because it was so good to know there is hope!!

  8. I am relieved to see that from your experience it is best to expect independence for lessons at the middle school age. We are close to middle school and are moving back and forth over the line. I have been very frustrated and trying to push it. I now plan to back off for now and try again in September. It is causing frustration for both of us.
    Thank you!

  9. It’s harder for some kids to stay focused and it can take awhile. I do understand the frustration. We’ve been there. I think one important thing to remember is to set them up for success. Starting working toward independence in areas that they can work with confidence.
    Kris @ Weird, Unsocialized Homeschoolers’s latest post: 25 Things That Make a Homeschool Mom Happy

  10. Stephanie says:

    Before homeschooling I was a special education teacher, where I placed a high emphasis on my students being independent. Naturally that transferred to my homeschool techniques. I have a schedule for my kids (3rd and 4th grade) so they know exactly what I expect from them for the day. They start at the top and check each assignment off as they complete: then bring it to me to go over with them. I think the best tip I have for fostering independence in homeschooling is to not actually start with schoolwork, but with daily routines. My kids do the same thing each morning besides Sundays. Get dressed, feed the fish and dog, make beds, brush hair, eat breakfast, then start schoolwork. I think having a routines sets them up for educational independence because they are already focused on completing tasks and are ready to get down to business! Yes, we do deviate from the “norm” to do fun things and take field trips, but every day at home starts with routines.

    • I, too, was a special ed teacher with a self-contained unit and my methods at home have the same emphasis as yours: routines. Kids thrive on routine, knowing what to expect and what we expect of them. I have four homeschoolers ranging from 4-14 years old and they ALL do independent work at some point in their day, the amounts varying, of course, by age and ability. Keeping the house clean and organized can be a challenge with so many people in our small home, but everyone pitches in. The 14-year old makes lunch every day, the 10- and 7-year old do specific tasks to serve the family and keep things fairly clean and organized, and the 4-year old helps set and clear the table, takes out and puts away materials for the group such as colored pencils, crayons, paper, etc., and puts away her learning materials and activities when she is finished with her “-portant work.”

      • We also use a printed weekly agenda tailored specifically to each learner so they can check their progress throughout the day and week. If they finish their work, they earn movie night over the weekend and the ability to relax for two days with no schoolwork on their agenda. Yay!

    • That’s a great tip, Stephanie. We are such creatures of habit at my house that I never thought of our daily routine as being part of developing independence, but it makes perfect sense.

  11. I generated a checklist/calendar for each week’s work with a suggested and manageable daily list of activities. It’s generic Meaning I don’t have page numbers in it but my 5th grader knows that once the week’s calendar is checked off she has permission to do extra science experiments or crafts. It motivates her to sometimes finish early in the week, gives me a quick visual check to see where she is needing encouragement, and keeps her accountable.

  12. I’ve worked toward independence since my kids were babies. My 2nd grader, probably ADHD, needs constant “reminders” when doing chores because she gets “lost” and forgets what she is doing. So she unloads the dishwasher, while I cook dinner. She puts laundry away, while I fold. That way I am right beside her to pull her attention back. Ironically, we’ve learned that when doing schoolwork, she needs a list of what to do, all supplies, and a space separated from the rest of the family. She does a great job working through her school work. Her 1st grade sister is the exact opposite. She only gets frustrated if you hover when she does chores, but will do great if left alone. A voracious reader, she will purposely not do school work and instead read, if I do not stay in the room. Knowing each of my girls “style” lets me alter my parenting and minimize my frustration.

  13. This is great. The tip I’d add is give them a special notebook and introduce them to the practice of keeping an observations journal.

    Tell them, ” when I say 1,2,3, Don’t Think, See, I want you to write what you see going on around you, and inside you.”

    You can motivate them by saying, “let’s see if you can write until the bottom of the page without stopping.”

    You can keep upping the ante. Ideally they’ll enjoy journaling like this, so all you’ll need to do is give them the prompt.

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