Helping Your Child to Study Independently

Helping your child to study independently scaled
Helping Your Child to Study Independently

Helping your child to study independently is giving them the ability to be able to complete a task on their own. This is a far greater achievement than helping them get a top mark on a test when 8. It is essential as your child goes through school and beyond into a workplace and adult life. The benefits of your child being able to work independently include:

  • improved academic performance;
  • increased motivation and confidence;
  • greater awareness of their limitations and their ability to manage them;
  • enables teachers to provide differentiated tasks for your child;
  • development of pride, resilience, and independence.

When our children are young, we focus on the spelling test mark rather than developing their learning skills. We sit them at the kitchen table and remind them to practice. This is appropriate for children as they start school. However, once they have been shown basic work and learning skills, we must let them risk lower marks as they learn how to work independently. Studying is a skill that is learned by practice. Therefore the opportunity to do it independently, and fail when the stakes are low, is essential. There is plenty of evidence of children who struggled in their early years surpassing their peers at High School as they have learned how to struggle and solve problems themselves. In contrast, the pupil who has not been challenged by taxing work or has had plenty of support has not developed the necessary skills when this happens later. This is why universities lower the entrance criteria for pupils from disadvantaged backgrounds and why employers look for those who have evidence of drive due to extracurricular achievements.

Age-appropriate expectations for independent study

Of all the things that are involved in growing up, my experience is that this is the one that children show the most variety with. With it linked to delayed gratification and the variation in their drive, I have seen 6-year-olds who can manage it very well and 18-year-olds who are still nowhere near there. I think that a good marker for children to be able to do this is the first year of High School, or 11 years old. For the homework the next day you should be able to organize doing their homework in the evening, it should take a reasonable amount of time, and be to a good (not perfect standard). For some it will try to get them not to do too much, for others it will take too long as they have many other distractions in their room. These things are covered in other articles within this section. Here we have a fascinating article on can a 5-year-old get across a city?

Why Might a Child Struggle to Study Independently?

There are several reasons why your child might struggle to learn independently:

  • Lack of motivation. If anyone does not see the point in something, they are less inclined to do it. This is as true for adults as children. The reason for doing a piece of work can vary. Fear of telling off, want of praise, love of the subject. If they continuously get poor marks, again the motivation may not be there.
  • Lack of focus, likely to be caused by anxiety. The inability to concentrate could be due to anxiety not related to the work, but rather something else in their life. A pupil of mine came to me as they struggled to concentrate when revising as they felt they should be caring for their mother, and when caring for their mother, they were anxious that they should be working. There could also be issues with a partner/friend which means they just can not concentrate. The other issue could be that they are a perfectionist so are unrealistic in their expectations. We have an article here to help address this.
  • Fear of judgment of failure. If everything they do is questioned or checked, they will feel that they are not able to do it.
  • Tiredness. This could be caused by a range of things, ranging from a busy extra-curricular or social life, late nights or exhaustion from moving between two parental homes. It could also be that there is an unrealistic workload set by their school.
  • Lack of the skills necessary. If they have never worked independently before, or aren’t aware of the required skills, it is unrealistic to expect them to do it without advice. You would not expect them to drive a car with no instruction. Schools do not always look at skills as much as they should as they focus on content.

Before arguing with your child see if one of the above is the reason why they are struggling. If it is the last one read on for advice.

What Can Be Done to Help Your Child to Be Able to Study Independently?

As with any learning, it is vital to develop this in small steps. Helping your child to study independently starts at a young age is better while the homework tasks are still small. It does not just have to be schoolwork but anything that helps develop independence, including chores, music, and sports. Confidence and independence that comes from any of these activities can be transferred over.

Specific things that you can do for your child are:

  • Model the behaviors you want to see from your child. As with most things, we need to show that we are not asking them to do anything that we are not willing to do ourselves. My children see me use a paper diary and lists. I also talk them through how I prioritize things and pack my bag the evening before. They are still not there, but it is the norm in our house and the expectation of us all.
  • Tell your child you are only interested in their effort, not their marks. Of course, we are interested in their marks, but looking at developing skills and independence many studies have shown that praising effort rather than attainment in all fields, academic and not, gives far stronger results. A clear expectation and reward of, ‘well done you have done two sides there’ is a clear link to their effort. It is more effective to praise the effort immediately after the task for the child’s gratification rather than have them on tenterhooks and nervous about a mark. 
  • Keep it in perspective. Sometimes in life, something is ‘good enough’. If we get our children worried about everything being perfect, we set unrealistic expectations that we would not set for ourselves. If they have several pieces of work to do, let them prioritize and spend the longest on the most important. Ten simple math questions might be ‘rushed through’ to make sure that there is enough time for the essay that they have been given a week to do. 
  • Describe the benefits of doing the work independently. Talk your child about the positive feelings they have had in the past of doing something well and the praise they got. 
  • Stimulate intrinsic motivation. Wanting to do something for yourself without thought to external awards is often the strongest motivation. You can ask your child to think about what this work will give them – the ability to read, write, count, remember. Depending on their age, the answers will be different and range from short-lived to long-lived. An older child will hopefully start to have developed a sense of delayed gratification and mention career aspirations.
  • Let them fail and face the consequences. If we always helicopter in, we are showing two things. Firstly, we don’t trust them to be able to do it themselves, secondly that they do not have to worry about the consequences if they fail. I personally find this one of the most difficult things as I will do anything to avoid my children being upset. However long term this can have disastrous consequences as I see the effects of teenagers who have not been exposed to this. When it inevitably happens, they are overwhelmed and the mountain they have to climb in terms of independence is too high.
  • Show them how to study independently. Studying independently is a skill. It is made of two things. Learning the behaviors of concentration and time management. But also how to study. For example how to use Google constructively, and also now AI. There has never been more access to information as there is now, but trying to filter it and use it constructively is a big issue.

Final Thoughts on Helping Your Child to Study Independently

Helping your child to study independently is emotionally difficult. One of my children has always been able to do it, and the other struggled. I have struggled to let them face the consequences of their actions and used to take their marks for homework as a personal reflection of my parenting. Now I let them work in their own space and they have had a difficult couple of months as they have failed to have the work done. This has meant that he has learned to do this as I realize with hindsight, they were leaning on me too much. I had modeled and discussed how to do it many times but until they realized there were consequences, they never made the jump themselves.

If your child does struggle to study independently, it should factor in your mind when you are deciding what is best for them after school. You might be determined for them to go to university, it may be that, away from home and your support they will fail.