Move Your Middle Schooler To Independent Learning

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Your toddler is amusing herself by pulling the books off of your bookshelves, your dryer buzzed with your husband’s work shirts wrinkling by the second, you have GOT to get something out of the freezer for dinner and you’re still sitting with your middle schooler so he will FOCUS and finish his math lesson.  To prepare your middle school student for high school (and before you pull out your hair), you must move your middle school student to work independently.

Move Your Middle Schooler To Independent Learning

Obviously, your middle school student is in transition between elementary and high school. And these middle school years are 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 what’s a homeschool mom to do?

Your job is to:

  • harness this energy
  • challenge their developing minds, and
  • teach them to have and to own foundational skills and habits that will take them through high school and beyond.

Your primary goal during middle school is moving your middle schooler to independent learning.  No more hand-holding and sitting beside them while they are doing their work.






While your elementary kids may be perfectly happy to follow your lead, your middle schooler will do better (and be better prepared for future years) if he learns to take ownership of his school work and work independently. Here’s how to move your middle schooler to independent learning.

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

If you were to ask your middle-schooler 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 said 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 that lesson.  But if you think about it, your primary goal is for him to understand the math lesson, not just get it done.   Your middle schooler needs to understand the difference between working for completion and working for mastery.

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 just skim through lessons, putting in the minimum effort to finish rather than taking the time to fully understand and learn what you are teaching… 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 two 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).

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, writing, etc. 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. If he doesn’t plant his foot firmly on the step before him, he can’t advance higher.

Move your middle schooler to independent learning
Jake Hills

So how do you encourage more responsible thinking?

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 in the afternoon. 

  • “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 transition your middle schooler to independent learning

  1. Teach him to manage his own schedule. starting with getting up in the morning on time.

Buy an alarm clock or have him set an alarm on his cell phone, if he has one, so he can wake himself. 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. Show him how to keep track of youth group, soccer practice, and other activities on his own calendar or the family calendar.  Set some deadlines for schoolwork and give consequences when they aren’t met.

2. Teach him to minimize distractions by putting away the phone (this is a great time to charge it in another room with all notifications off), keep music low (note that some people study better with music playing), and set a timer.


3  Give him a vision for the future.

Let him know that God has plans for him, and you share in his excitement in seeing them unfold.  Talk with your student about school being his first ‘job’. Give him the purpose of middle school, which is to prepare him for high school (the years that really  count if he is planning on going to college.) Assure him that you will work together so that he will be ready by the time he gets there.

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, which has to be factored in as well.) Your sixth grader may still seem child-like, 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 being more responsible and mature with his chores and school,  it’s time to help him be proactive in his school work.

If his goal is to learn, not just finish, work toward the following:

  • Willingness to do extra problems in math until he fully masters a concept
  • Researching another source outside one’s assigned lesson in science for a more understandable explanation of a difficult topic, if necessary
  • In a foreign language, making vocabulary flashcards or doing extra work that is not part of  the assigned lesson, just to build a better  understanding of the language
  • Across all subjects, listing and defining unfamiliar vocabulary words, just to  increase one’s vocabulary and gain a better understanding of the subject matter
  • In history, taking reading notes instead of just reading


Learning more independently is a concept that will need to be taught and reminded through middle school and into high school, but with consistency, patience, and good modeling, you can teach your student to set his own goals to learn proactively, rather than just to finish his work.

Leave a comment below this post and tell me how it would help you if your middle schooler learned more independently.


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