How to Empower Kids to Take Charge of Their Learning

a tween boy with spiky hair wears dark sunglasses and headphones

If empowering kids to take charge of their learning were an easy to follow formula, then we all would be able to effortlessly raise successful and happy kids. But it’s not. The first time my oldest son marched out of the school room, refusing to complete my meticulously planned art lesson, I overreacted. An all-out battle of wills ensued.

As homeschooling parents, it’s hard for us to give up control. But not only do we want our kids motivated to learn, we also want them to be able to get along without us. We have to slowly relinquish control to raise self-sufficient adults.

How to Kill a Student’s Motivation

Now that two of my sons have graduated, I can look back on my homeschool experience and offer this list of DON'Ts:

Don’t plan the whole day without getting your child’s input.

Don’t fail to give him a routine; don’t make the mistake of creating a demanding one. A routine is valuable in teaching a child how to follow a rhythm in managing his day, but an exacting routine causes stress.

Don’t hover. Your teaching voice can be annoying when a child gets to the stage where he knows everything. 

Don't be afraid of failure.

Failure is a good teacher, and the stakes are low when a child is still under your roof.

Don’t allow freedom when it’s not deserved. Making the shift from complete dependence on you to self-reliance needs to be gradual. For example, I allowed my oldest son to do school subjects in the order he wanted on a trial basis. His condition for this new freedom was demonstrating responsibility. If he acted maturely, I would reward him with even more freedom. If he responded poorly with his new freedoms, I would rein them back in.

How to Empower Kids to Take Charge of Their LearningDon’t wait for middle school and high school to allow freedom. That’s too late. More on this in a minute.

4 Essential Ingredients to Raising Independent and Motivated Learners

Well-meaning parents can unintentionally create boring and unengaged children when learning is all parent-led instead of child-led. After reading about guerrilla curriculum in John Taylor Gatto’s book Dumbing Us Down: The Hidden Curriculum of Compulsory Schooling, I had a change of heart.

Gatto’s guerrilla curriculum highlights flexible time, community activities, and hands-on projects like gardening, starting a business, and having solitude to challenge yourself. If I want kids who go beyond the norm of what is required in a formal curriculum, then I have to be willing to let go of doling out assignments.

Striking a balance between formal school and flexible time to explore a child’s unique talents was not easy, but here are some things that worked.

1. Do allow your child choices in which subjects he wants to study. Core subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic are the foundation of an excellent education. But beyond that, there is room to allow your child choices in what he wants to study, the order of subjects, and where he wants to study. By keeping it all on a trial basis, the child understands that freedom is earned. And you are not seen as an overbearing parent, but one who wants to hand over freedom.

2. Do allow your child to skip the science or history paperwork in favor of a project. Choose a curriculum that integrates hands-on experiments or lap books.

3. Do grant freedom at an early age, earlier than you think. Responsible freedom begins at a different time for each child. For example, I have one son who was ready by third grade to make some decisions. I have another son who didn’t show responsibility or ownership of his learning until closer to sixth grade. A few tell-tale readiness signs are beginning school without being reminded and a tenacity for finishing an assignment when you’ve asked your child to move on. Waiting until high school to grant freedom is not enough time to allow a child to learn from mistakes.

4. Do hand over the teacher’s manual. This has to be the ultimate feeling of control because when you assign lessons to your child, it can teach him to be passive. If he cheats and uses the Instructor's Guide to fill out his work, ask him kindly and with dignity to redo it. He learns a lesson in earned freedom if he can’t explain his lesson back to you without looking at his material or the manual. Mastery of his material comes when he can reteach his lesson back to you. Teach for mastery not to the teacher’s manual.

Moving away from the well-worn and humdrum path many follow made all the difference as my sons took complete control of their careers, educations and lives after high school.

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About the Author

Tina RobertsonTina Robertson celebrated the graduation of Mr. Senior in 2013 and Mr. Awesome in 2015. Because of her love for new homeschoolers, she mentors moms through her unique program called New Bee Homeschoolers. She loves all homeschoolers, though, as she shares her free 7 Step Curriculum Planner, unit studies, lapbooks and homeschooling how tos. She can't sing, dance, or craft, but she counts organizing as a hobby. She is still in the homeschool trenches blogging at Tina's Dynamic Homeschool Plus.