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 Encouraging your child to become an independent learner

Girl doing homework on her own

Throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, there was considerable fear from parents that children will fall behind without the structure and routine that in-person school provides. However, virtual school showed us just how resilient and capable our children actually are! They overcame a whole new school setting, and learned to complete many tasks, chores and parts of their daily routine all on their own. During that time, many parents started to see how providing independence in learning might actually be a good thing
Independent learning is not a new concept — many psychologists and child specialists have long endorsed it! In fact, two of the most famous developmental psychologists of our time, Erik Erikson and Lev Vygotsky, both emphasized the importance of children’s independence for healthy development. 
Intrigued? Read on to learn more about the benefits of and approaches to independent learning! 

What is independent learning and why is it important to young learners? 

Independent learning is when children monitor, evaluate, set goals for and reflect on their own learning. Children are encouraged to explore, take risks, problem solve, and share their discoveries and achievements with others. By self-evaluating, they can identify their strengths and weaknesses, and learn in a way that works best for them. Reflection allows them to consolidate their learning, which leads to a deeper understanding. Finally, when children establish their own goals and motivations, they have higher engagement and overall enjoyment of learning.
In a 2008 report, the Department for Children, Schools and Families found that independent learning: 

  • Improves academic performance;
  • Increases motivation and confidence;
  • Increases awareness of their own limitations and ability to manage them;
  • Enables teachers and parents to provide personalized tasks for children; and 
  • Fosters social inclusion among children.

More recently, a 2017 study from the Journal of Applied Developmental Psychologists found that when parents encourage their child to complete homework independently, they have higher engagement and higher performance. This is because children who are responsible for their learning are more motivated and more actively involved in the learning process. 
If you’re still hesitant to give your child more independence, you’re not alone! Many parents are left confused about how to incorporate independent learning at home, and how much independence is appropriate. While every child is different and you should always do what works best for your family, below are three great tips on where to start! 

Three strategies for raising independent learners

Scaffolding is a learning tool created by Lev Vygotsky (remember him?) that helps children achieve independence by working with an adult or more advanced peer. This adult or peer has a wider range of knowledge and skills than the child does, and acts as the “scaffolding” that helps the child expand their own learning. Scaffolding can be summarized as “guide, but don’t manage”.
One easy way to try scaffolding at home is through group activities. This encourages collaboration, while still allowing your child to input their own ideas, skills and techniques. This could be done while making dinner or doing a puzzle. Offer help only when needed; otherwise, let them lead! Learn more about scaffolding here

Provide opportunities to self-monitor and self-reflect.
To be independent, children should establish goals and receive feedback from themselves and others. Encourage your child to assess whether their strategies are effective for the task at hand — if not, prompt them to think of new methods! A “learning diary” can help your child keep track of their goals and progress. This will show them that they play an important role in their own learning. Seeing their progress will also help build their confidence and motivation! 
This may sound complex, but teaching these skills can be very quick and easy. After completing a difficult task, try asking “what can you do better now that you couldn’t do before?” Or, “what do you want to work on this week? How are you going to work on it?”
Encourage resourcefulness. 
Resourcefulness, the ability to overcome challenges in a variety of ways, stems from creativity. As the parent, you can teach your child how and where to look for a solution. Ask questions that lead them to the answer, or simply leave them to work it out before stepping in. For older children, you can introduce them to books, the Internet and other tools to help them find answers and solutions. By doing this, they learn how to get the information they want without depending on others.
Key take-aways:

  • Independent learning is when children monitor, evaluate, set goals for and reflect on their own learning.
  • Many parents are hesitant to let children independently learn because they don’t think it will be productive. But there are actually many benefits to allowing some freedom in children’s learning!
  • When children have an independent role in their learning, they are more engaged, confident and motivated in their learning. This improves learning comprehension and academic performance. 
  • There are many ways parents can encourage independent learning at home. Three simple ways to get started are using scaffolding, encouraging resourcefulness, and promoting self-monitoring and self-reflection.

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