Teach Your Middle School Student To Work Independently

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Mom teaching her unhappy middle school student to learn independently

Your toddler is amusing herself by pulling the books off of your bookshelves. Your dryer buzzed a while back, and your husband’s work shirts are wrinkling more by the second. How could you forget to get something out of the freezer for dinner again? While you’re still sitting with your middle school student so he’ll FOCUS on and finish his math lesson.  To prepare your middle school student for high school and beyond, you must teach your him/her to work independently!

Teaching Your Middle School Student To Work Independently

Your middle school student is transitioning between elementary and high school. And these middle school years are so important.  Academic pressure is mounting as you draw closer to high school. And there is SO MUCH GOING ON WITH A MIDDLE SCHOOLER! Sometimes it’s hard to catch and keep their attention long enough to get much done. So to keep your sanity, one of your primary goals during middle school is teaching your middle school student to work independently.

So how’s a home-educating mom supposed to do that, you ask?

Also, it goes without saying that with a middle school student, you also have to:

  • Harness this energy (it’s like your child is three again, right?)
  • Challenge their developing minds, and
  • Teach them foundational skills and habits that will take them through high school and beyond.

So, Mama: No more hand-holding and sitting beside them while they are doing their work. Teach your middle school student he or she can work independently.


While your elementary kids may be perfectly happy to follow your lead, your middle school student will be better prepared for future years if he learns to take ownership of his school work and work independently.

And remember, Mom,  this is a process.  You’ll have to help him make the transition.

Start by first understanding your middle school student’s goals.

Understanding  Your Middle School Student’s Goals

Goals influence behavior. That seems obvious.  But sometimes, we don’t realize what our goal actually is. This is a subtle point but one that can lead to dramatic differences in behavior.

For example, I am on the last leg of my walk. I have a choice to make.  Do I want to cut through some woods directly to my house or walk the long way around the block?  It depends upon my goal.

  • If my goal is to finish my walk, I’m likely to cut through.
  • But if my goal is to get exercise, I’m going to walk the long way around.

If you were to ask your middle school student to tell you his goal as he worked on his math lesson, he would probably say, “Finish the math lesson.”  And most kids, if they took the time to think about it, would agree that the best way to finish that lesson is the quickest way possible.

Whether they actually understand what they are doing or not.

And this doesn’t just apply to math!

I quickly found out my kids could figure out what to do on a grammar worksheet in nothing flat, with no ability whatsoever to apply the concept to their writing. (That’s when we waved goodbye to worksheets.)

Unfortunately, doing their lessons as easily and quickly as possible is most kids’ approach to schoolwork – unless you teach them to see it differently.

Of course, your goal for your middle schooler is to finish the lesson.  But if you think about it, your primary goal is for him to understand the math lesson, not just finish it.   Your middle schooler needs to understand the difference between working for completion and working for mastery.

Bear with me here.

If your student looks at you quizzically as you attempt to explain the idea of working toward understanding the lesson rather than just getting it done, try this.

Explain that it is the same principle as completing a chore well, such as cleaning one’s bedroom. He can whip through it in record time, stuffing clothes under the bed and tossing them onto the closet floor. OR, he can do a thorough job putting his clean clothes, neatly folded, back in the drawer, and dirty ones in a hamper.

At a quick glance, the results might look similar.

But the next time he’s in a hurry to find his favorite shirt before he has to leave to meet friends, he will find that they are not.

Explain to your student if he or she continues to skim through lessons, putting in the minimum effort to finish rather than taking the time to understand and learn what you are teaching fully… there will come a time when he will have to spend MANY EXTRA HOURS trying to catch up to other students.

This may be in high school or college. Or it may be sooner if you put your student in a public/private high school or participate in a paid “hybrid homeschooling” program of some kind.  That will mean much less time to spend doing fun things with friends, participating in sports, etc.

No bueno!

So your task is to teach your middle schooler three things:

  1. That he is doing his schoolwork to benefit himself, not just you.
  2. The difference between “finishing the math lesson” (i.e., getting this lesson over with as quickly as possible) and “understanding the math lesson” (i.e., working until mastery occurs).
  3. Your middle school student will keep on working with something until it is mastered.

It is easier for him to choose to do a good job if he can reframe the job according to his goal, not yours.

For example:  if he can think of the benefits TO HIM of keeping his room clean (he is able to dress more quickly, find things, has more space, is allowed to have friends over, etc.), it takes less effort for him to own the goal and be more responsible.

In the same way — he can do his math, grammar, and writing better and spend a lot less time reviewing if he can learn to fully master one skill before he moves on to the next one.  It’s just like climbing the stairs.

He can’t advance higher if he doesn’t plant his foot firmly on the step before him.

Move your middle schooler to independent learning
Jake Hills

So how do you encourage more responsible thinking in your middle school student?

Teach and model positive choices and responsible life skills.  Why? Because they are right and yield positive benefits (as opposed to ‘because I said so’).  Let the consequences be natural ones. For example:

  • “Focus on your work and get it done at a reasonable pace, so you can do what you want with the afternoon. 
  • If you get your work done without me sitting here with you, there will be time for me to bake a cake for dinner tonight.”
  • “Get up and go to bed at a decent time so you are alert enough to get your work done and have the energy to go play frisbee afterward.”
  • “Treat others with respect because we are told to in God’s Word, and others will most likely treat you with respect in return.”
  • “Work to earn part of the money for your retreat because you are the one going.”


Practical Tips to teach your middle schooler to work independently

Teach her to manage her own schedule. Starting with getting up in the morning on time. Buy an alarm clock so she can wake herself up.

  1. Encourage him to make a chore list. Teach him to check whether something needs to be done rather than always reminding him to do it.
  2. Show him how to keep track of youth group, soccer practice, and other activities on the family calendar.
  3. Set deadlines for schoolwork and put them on a calendar. Make sure to have consequences if they aren’t met.
  4. Teach your student to minimize distractions by putting away the phone (this is a great time to charge it in another room with all notifications off), keeping the music low (note that some people study better with music playing), and setting a timer.

Give your child a vision for the future.

Let your middle school child know that God has plans for him or her, and you’re excited to see them unfold.  Talk with your student about the fact that doing his/her schoolwork is his/her first ‘job.’

Tell your child that the purpose of middle school is to prepare him for high school (the years that really  count if he is planning on going to college.)

Assure your student that you will work together so that he or she will be ready by the time high school hits.

If these suggestions sound way beyond your middle school student, take heart. This is a process, not an event.

And middle schoolers mature at different rates, too. Your sixth-grader may still seem childlike, but your eighth-grader will be vastly different.  Start slowly with this transition, but START.

Next Steps Once the Basics Are Down – Late Middle/Early High School

Once your student is humming along, taking more responsibility for his chores and homeschool work,  it’s time to help him be proactive.

If his goal is to learn, not just finish, work toward helping him:

  • Be willing to do extra problems in math until he fully masters a concept
  • Research another source outside of the assigned science lesson for a more understandable explanation of a difficult topic.
  • Decide to make vocabulary flashcards in Spanish or do extra work that’s not part of the assigned lesson to build a better understanding of the language.
  • List and define unfamiliar words in science, history, or literature study, to gain a better understanding of the subject matter.
  • Learn to take reading notes instead of just reading

Teaching your middle school student to work independently is a concept that will need to be taught,  reminded, and practiced through middle school and into high school.

So which of these ideas are you going to put into practice first? Make a list now of how you’re going to begin teaching your middle school student how to work more independently.


You can do this!

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