The Self-Instructing Homeschool Child

A few years ago, I worked in the Education Department at a state university. My job was to advise students who wanted to go into the teaching profession and to place them into internships. Ironic, I know, since I never taught in a public school, instead homeschooling my kids into college.

One day, a frantic professor walked into my office and asked that I finish an advising appointment with an undergraduate student. The young lady, a homeschool high school graduate, was in tears. Her distress came from her insecurity about not being able to face a classroom full of students.

I grabbed a box of tissues and sat down to listen.

The student, who I’ll call “Clara”, explained to me that she wanted to be a teacher because she loved books. She loved learning. And, she wanted to make children feel special and share that same warm feeling she had when she learned something new.

That all sounded fair enough, but I thought it would be important to know a little bit about her own actual homeschool experience. Clearly, a mismatch existed between her passion and her confidence to carry it out.

I’ll never forget Clara’s words:

Starting in 8th grade, my mom just gave me a stack of textbooks and a checklist of what I had to do every week. I sat in my room and read. I’d answer the end-of-chapter questions. If I had any questions, I’d try to look it up on the Internet.

Me: Did you attend any co-op classes?

Clara: No.

Me: Did you do any science labs at, say, the community college?

Clara: I did virtual labs, but never had an actual science lab before I came here.

Me: Did you go on any field trips during high school?

Clara: No. My mom thought I could just teach myself and I didn’t need any of that other stuff.

From the pained look in her eyes, I didn’t even dare to ask if Clara had friends during high school. No sense pouring salt in her lonely wounds.

Visit any homeschool forum board – Facebook group – or homeschool email listserv and you’ll see the same type of question over and over, again, in slightly different iterations.

“I’m looking for a math / science/ history curriculum I can give to my 8 / 10 / 12 / 14-year old, that they can do on their own.”

When I read these requests, I get a little sad.

When I read the responses, I get a little mad.

[And, yes, I know my opinion is going to generate strong emotions on both sides of the independent learning aisle.]

The need to have kids become independent learners is highly valued in most families. I was a 24/7 single parent homeschooler who worked part-time, so I have a deep appreciation for the need some parents have to carve out daytime hours where they can focus on paid employment.

But, in my opinion, a balance must also be struck with what the children need.

All students – whether they’re elementary or high school age – need an adult present to guide them through their learning – to talk with them about new ideas – to answer questions – to challenge them with new concepts. Heck, even online college students are required to talk with peers and advisors throughout each week to give and get feedback on what they’re learning

The Not-Entire-Truth You’ve Been Told About Independent Learning
  • Children can teach themselves to read
    Sorry, but NO, children do not just teach themselves to read or do math entirely on their own. Sure, I had a kiddo who magically started reading at the age of 4 and was reading Harry Potter by the age of 5. On the surface, it might have seemed like he had no direct instruction in the reading process, but the fact is the hundreds of hours we spent reading together as a family – and all the sound-word games we played while driving in the car were unconscious reading lessons my little one picked up without the added benefit of worksheet drills.

  • The material is self-teaching, so a teacher isn’t needed
    No matter how good the textbook, the video, or the online program may be, no single instructional method is going to reach every student 100% of the time. What may seem like a perfectly clear explanation to many people, may go over one child’s head – but they might not realize they missed key facts. When a real life person is involved, they can see the glazed look in the kid’s eyes and know that’s the cue to reteach a topic.

  • It allows the child to figure out their own learning style
    Humans are, by their very nature, creatures of habit. We find a way of doing something and it becomes the only way we do something because, hey, it works! But that doesn’t mean the process we’ve developed is the best or most effective. Think about the way your kids first started using utensils, especially scooping up peas and trying to get the whole bite into their mouths. Chances are they needed a wee bit of guidance to learn the finer details of eye-hand coordination. The same holds true for learning. Oftentimes, it takes the gentle suggestion of someone saying, “Have you tried this, yet?” before a person figures out how they learn best.

  • Parent involvement holds a child back from learning
    I’ll admit that some homeschool parents will stick to a very precise reading of their instructor manual’s pacing guide. If the book says you complete 10 pages a week, that’s all the child is allowed to do – even if they could finish those 10 pages in one day. On the other hand, in today’s age of electronic devices and digital distractions, it’s easy for kids, especially elementary aged kiddos, to lose focus and not actually complete adequate amounts of work without some kind of supervision. Without regular parental involvement, you just don’t know if you’re kid is meeting their potential or struggling to make the grade.

  • All children will learn when they’re ready
    Yes and no. It is always easier to teach a child who has claimed an interest in a certain topic. Kids who don’t see a reason to learn something will just D – R – A – G out the process until you either start yelling or give up. Other kids will flat-out resist learning, not because they don’t want to but because it is genuinely hard and it makes them feel bad about themselves. We see this so often with undiagnosed learning disabilities. In a case like this, waiting until your child is 10 to show an interest in reading is highly unlikely to have a positive outcome.

  • It teaches initiative
    This totally depends on the child. You can argue this point any number of ways, but the possibility exists that the type of initiative your child learns is not necessarily the one you want them to have. Case in point: Think back to the last time you said to yourself, “I’ll just check my social media one last time before I go to bed” . . . and the next thing you know, it’s 1 a.m. and you’re still not in your own pajamas.

  • It teaches self-sufficiency
    Remember Clara, the student I advised in college? Sure, she developed self-sufficiency to learn enough to take the SATs and get into college. But I ask, “At what cost?” The young lady suffered from such low self-esteem that the idea of talking to people about learning literally reduced her to tears. Clara is not an anamoly in the homeschool world. You can read the words of other actual homeschool “graduates” have shared their stories of why self-teaching does not amount to true learning.

I’m not saying that kids aren’t capable of teaching themselves. Plenty of stories exist of amazing feats of independent learning. But I firmly believe a balance should exist between direct instruction and giving a child time to develop independence, explore personal interests, and master self-discipline in their learning process.

What do you think? Where’s the balance between 100% independent learning and parent involvement in homeschooling? Is it different for different ages?



Alessa Giampaolo Keener, M.Ed. homeschooled her children from kindergarten into college. Over the last 15+ years, she has also worked with families in creating individualized learning plans. As a professional curriculum developer, Alessa has created afterschool youth development programs for a Baltimore-based nonprofit, as well as teaching materials for homeschool parents and brick and mortar school teachers.

One thought on “The Self-Instructing Homeschool Child

  • June 17, 2016 at 9:01 pm

    I agree, there needs to be a balance. As a homeschool graduate, I have to say that my independent learning skills were a great help in college. I didn’t attend that many co-op classes, but I was able to function ok socially.

    I would caution about confusing independent learning/homeschooling with character traits. I’m a solitary type person who learns best alone and in a quiet place – I could ask for help if needed, but I can’t focus with lots of noise and people around. I don’t make friends easily, and I’m not very social. That’s my personality – not the product of my homeschooling. In contrast, my brother was highly social and had a lot of friends. He was homeschooled as well.

    It’s a dance – a finely tuned dance of following your child’s lead, backing off when needed and stepping in as required.

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