How to Get Your Homeschooler to Work Independently

Inside: Learn six simple tricks to get your homeschoolers to work independently! Really!

I was a school teacher for almost ten years before I became a homeschool mom. I thought if I could run a classroom of 25 kids, homeschooling would be a breeze! Wrong!

How to Get Your Homeschooler to Work Independently

Our early years of homeschooling were chaotic. My children are spread apart, so at one point, I had a middle schooler, kindergartener, and toddler. Can you feel the storm brewing?

The middle schooler should have been able to do a lot on his own; however, he has dyslexia and still needed some instruction from me and wasn’t doing other things on his own. The kindergartener was learning to read and write and had to have me teaching all subjects. And the toddler– well, need I say more???

If we could make it through the day, and I was still alive, we were doing good. It was survival of the fittest, and I was out of shape.

The days were long, and my patience was short! There was no such thing as finishing by lunchtime (like I kept hearing) and having our afternoons for free play and exploring. I was worn out!

Before you run as fast as you can from homeschooling, let’s fast forward to today. Our days are much smoother, calmer, and we finish with plenty of time to enjoy our afternoons. Really! 

How did we get here? 

It took research, planning, and a few slap of the forehead moments. But don’t worry- you don’t have to figure this out on your own because I was your guinea pig. You’re welcome! I’m going to preserve your sanity and share my tips and tricks to make your days run smoother now. 

Why to Have Your Homeschoolers Work Independently

First, let’s talk about why you would want your children to work by themselves. I mean, I know it should seem obvious, but sometimes it doesn’t occur to us right away.

Here is a list of the glorious reasons for teaching your kids this skill. You can:

  • Teach one child without bouncing back and forth between all of them
  • They can start the day on their own
  • They don’t have to sit around waiting for you to finish up with another child
  • It shortens everyone’s day (Hallelujah!)
  • Enables you can get a few chores done
  • You’ll feel way more relaxed at the end of each day
  • Allows you to sneak off and go to the bathroom ALONE (I had to add this because you know my pain.)

Benefits of Students Working Independently

One of the negative side effects of the school system is producing children who can’t do something without being told. All-day long, they wait for the teacher to tell them their next move. This isn’t bad when you’re in a classroom because you have 25 kids, and everyone needs to stay together.

However, it becomes an issue when they’re in the workplace. Instead of starting another task when they finish one, these kids tend to stand around waiting to be told what to do. It’s a habit that went on for many years, and it’s hard to break.

The results I’ve seen with children who learn to work independently:

  • Builds confidence
  • Teaches time management
  • Strengthens problem-solving
  • Motivates them 
  • Empowers them
  • They stand out among employees when they’re older
  • Creates leadership qualities

Not bad, huh?

Six Ways to Whip Your Students into Shape

I’m going to show you six ways to whip your students into shape. No, I’m not talking about boot camp. Although sometimes you wish you could send them away to one for a while (Just kidding).

I’m referring to putting systems into place that will make things run like a well-oiled machine. A little effort on your part will pay off in the long run. Trust me! 

Failing to plan is planning to fail.

Alan Lakein

A few times over the years when I was sick, and because of the systems we used, I could get up later in the day, and my kids had all done their schoolwork on their own without me! And they were so proud of themselves.

Now that you understand the importance of your kids working by themselves, let’s talk about the tricks and tools I used to teach them to do that.

Assignment Chart

One of the first tools I started using was a homeschool assignment chart. It’s what it sounds like. It’s a chart that lists all the assignments for the week. When my kids were younger, I filled it out for them, but as they got older, I had them fill it out on their own at the beginning of the week.

Have you heard the quote below?

An hour of planning can save you 10 hours of doing.

Dale Carnegie

I believe this is true.

Having everything spelled out for your children shortens your day and also cuts down on wasted time. Your students know what’s expected of them, and they can keep working. It’s also motivating because they can check off the work as it’s finished each day. 

Does using this chart mean you’re glued to a strict schedule? No! In fact, your kids can do the work in a different order than what you list, and there are no times assigned. 

If they like to get math out of the way first, but it’s listed at the end, that’s fine. By checking off each subject as they complete it, they can keep track of what needs to be done yet. 

As long as the work gets done and they stay on task, that’s what’s important.

Homeschool Binder

This tip is optional but highly recommended! Having all the lessons for the year written or typed out makes it easy to fill out the assignment chart. 

I spend time each summer going through every subject and jotting down what my students need to do each day. I keep it simple and write something like: Do pages 3-5, Do experiment, Answer questions, etc. 

When it comes time to fill out the assignment charts, I open my binder and look at this list to fill in the next day’s lessons. Older students can do this themselves. I put a check mark beside the ones I wrote, so I know where I left off when I come back.

Being able to fill out the chart quickly and having it ready on time each week keeps everyone on task. By having your older students fill it out on their own, you’re teaching them how to schedule. As they move into adulthood, that’s when this skill will really shine! 

My son just turned 21, and I’ve watched him use this skill in his career for the past few years. Teaching him to work independently has paid off and helped him advance to a supervisor position at 19 years old.

You can learn more about how I use homeschool binders and why I love them in this article I wrote.

Workboxes for the Win

The second planning tool I learned to use, which is my favorite homeschool idea, is workboxes. They were a lifesaver for us!! 

I used these in place of the assignment chart, but I still relied on the homeschool binder to fill the workboxes each night. It transformed our homeschool day in ways I never imagined.

Workboxes help organize your children’s lessons and activities while teaching them how to work independently. And they’re straightforward to use! You can have everything put together in a weekend.

The two fundamental things you’ll need are a shelf and some plastic shoe boxes. The other important part is labeling the boxes and setting up a visual schedule to follow. You can find the labels I created (affiliate link) for this system in my store.

Once you have everything set up, your children will look at their schedule strip and know which box to bring to the table. They’ll finish the work in that box and move on to the next until they’ve finished them all. 

You can add things like breaks, learning centers, chores, fun review activities, music practice, and more into their schedule, and they will know exactly what to do each day.

You can use workboxes from preschool (I even used them with my toddler) through high school, and it also works well for students with special needs because it provides the structure they require.

Being Organized

Here is one of my big aha moments! If my kids had all their materials right there with them, they wouldn’t have to run around searching for them and get sidetracked or, better yet, disappear!

I found an old wooden tool caddy and put it in the middle of our table with all the supplies they might need during school. I included pencils, erasers, scissors, glue, markers, colored pencils, crayons, and anything else they would jump up to find.

Having supplies within their reach has cut down drastically on them getting up from the table while working. They can grab what they need and keep going. 

You can use anything to keep supplies nearby. It can be a supply cart on wheels next to the table. Get creative!

My second big revelation was if I was organized, I wouldn’t have to run around making copies, searching for a book, get sidetracked, or disappear (see a theme here?)!

Seriously! This is HUGE! 

You know that cursive sheet you need to print out? Or the math practice sheet you needed to copy? If you spend 10 minutes the night before looking at what’s necessary for the next day and get them all together, it will make things run much smoother. This is where the homeschool binder is helpful!

To organize and store all these papers, you’ll want to use a homeschool crate, which is the next topic.

Homeschool Crate

Using a homeschool crate goes right along with the being organized tip. This will save you so much time and trouble you won’t believe it! 

Take a little time over the summer or a weekend if you’re in the middle of your school year, and copy or tear out all the papers you’ll need from each subject for the year. Sort them by weeks in a crate with file folders so you can find them quickly when needed. 

Here’s how to set one up:

  • You’ll have one crate with hanging file folders for each week of the school year. I usually have 36 of them in there (depending on how long your school year is). 
  • Label those Week 1, Week 2, etc. 
  • Inside each hanging file folder, I put a different colored folder for each child. I have three kids, so I had a blue, red, and yellow folder in each of the weeks. 
  • Sort and drop the papers into the correct week for each child. For example, we did copywork each week, so I made copies of the pages for the entire year and put them inside the folder for each week. If you have a workbook, you can tear the pages out and put them inside. (This is optional.)

Each week you can go to the correct folder, grab the papers you need and throw them in the workboxes. Voila! No scrambling!

Checking Station

Checking over work takes up a lot of our time. And to be honest, unless it’s a quiz or test, why do you have to be the one doing it?

I discovered the checking station idea a few years ago, and it has been super helpful. My kids, who are old enough to handle it, check their daily assignments themselves.

I have a separate place (like a desk) where I keep the manuals and a pen. They bring their work to the area (no pencils allowed) and check their answers. Anything wrong gets circled in a green or red pen (or any color that stands out).

They go back to their seats, correct the answers, and then return to the checking area to see if they got them right. If they did, they put a check mark over the circle. They’ll repeat this until all their answers are correct.

Tip: Before your child goes to the checking station, have them show you the page they are checking to make sure they filled everything in.

Can they memorize answers? Yes, but they’re memorizing the correct answers, so who cares. It’s still learning! 

I have found that my children understand the solutions to math problems much better this way rather than me telling them what the right answer is.

Can they cheat? Yes! But that’s an opportunity for character development. Another benefit to the checking station!

You’ll need to look over their work throughout the week to see if they are grasping concepts, but that takes a lot less time than correcting every single piece of paper yourself. And your children will grow from this experience.

Practice, Practice, Practice

Back when I taught in the classroom, I spent a lot of time during the first nine weeks of school teaching my students the procedures to follow for the year. 

No other teacher did this, and some probably thought I was strange or was wasting time. However, by the end of that first nine weeks, my students knew exactly what to do, and we were no longer wasting time during the day. 

If I was out for a day, it thrilled the substitute teachers to take my class because it ran itself.

What was my trick to training them? Making practice fun!

We did games and timed drills, and they loved it! Because I made it enjoyable, they were happy to do it and had no idea I was whipping them into shape so our year would go smoothly and they would get the most out of learning.

You can do the same at home. Maybe you want your kids to start school on their own each morning while you cook breakfast. The night before, tell them when you get them out of bed the following day, you’ll be timing them to see how long they take to get dressed and show up at the table. Give a special surprise to the winner. 

Or tell them you’ll be doing it all week and if they can cut their time by a certain amount at the end of the week, they can do a half-day of school or go on a small field trip.

You can do similar activities by training them to use their workboxes. Have them go through the motions of taking a number off their schedule strip, placing it on the correct box, and bringing it to the table. Then put it on the floor next to the shelf and repeat until the shelf is empty.

Little practice sessions like this will form habits, and they’ll learn to do these things without thinking about them. And that’s when the magic happens!

Be sure to reward your kids! This will make the training go much faster and motivate them.

Don’t worry about using up school time to do this. Your kids will get right back on track after they’re working independently without interruptions and waiting.

Work Independently for the Win

It doesn’t matter which tool you use. Just pick one or two and get started. 

Homeschooling is a journey, and we grow and change over the years. What you start with now may morph into something different a few years from now. You’ll modify and adapt it to your family’s needs. It’s the outcome that matters.

Training your children to work independently is one of the most important skills you can teach! It enhances their ability to learn by themselves, which is preparing them for life. 

It will change your homeschool atmosphere and reduce the amount of stress you and your children feel each day. And it will keep you from losing your mind! It’s a win-win for everyone!

Heidi Miller-Ford

About the author

Heidi is a former schoolteacher turned homeschool mom of three children. She believes your home doesn’t have to be chaotic just because you homeschool. At The Unexpected Homeschooler, you can learn how to develop systems for managing your time and tasks, creating a homeschool that’s more efficient, organized, and productive.

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  1. This all sounds wonderful and we are looking for a way to make everyone more independent, but it is difficult in theory. Maybe you can share what curriculum you use? I do three different spelling lessons individually with each of my elementary kids and it takes an hour each day which is a lot. We use All About Spelling. Is there a curriculum that is just as strong that allows them to work independently? Doing reading lessons independently with my 3 younger kids (including a preschooler) also takes an hour and I'm not sure how to streamline that. Also, I group history and science together and we do one family style lesson because it seemed easier than getting them to each do a separate history and me helping each of them. Finally, for subjects like foreign language how can they work more independently without our help? We are currently doing Latin and I actually have to teach the lesson before they're ready for the workbook pages. They do grammar, phonics, vocabulary, religion on their own but still need my help with all of the above as well as writing. I would love to be more hands off but just don't know how. Any tips on the best curriculum for that? TIA!

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