Along with new textbooks, fresh pencils, and a stack of lesson plans, the beginning of the school year brings a measure of trepidation—especially for parents who are homeschooling a high schooler. More than providing academics, you’re also training a future adult. And just as you wouldn’t start a new school year without careful planning and preparation, getting a teenager ready for life requires equal foresight.
BASED ON ALREADY
The advantage of homeschooling is
that the academics themselves can be a means of helping your teen develop the maturity that carries him into adulthood. By teaching academic independence to your high schooler, you are giving him well-rounded preparation for the future.
Why Encourage Academic Independence?
Making academic independence a goal in your homeschool means viewing high school as a transition from the intensely guided learning that is appropriate in the younger grades to the independent learning that takes place throughout adulthood. Several years ago Marcia Somerville described why she and her husband, Scott (HSLDA of Counsel), intentionally gave their children areas of academic responsibility during high school:
We can both remember arriving at college campuses unprepared [to run our own schedules]. So what we sought to do is to allow our children, within limits, to plan their own work. We give them a set of deadlines or classes that they have to prepare for, and a set of assignments. But within that framework, we allow them to work—whether they want to work a subject all at once in the morning,
or spread it out over the week. We ... train them to plan their work and then work their plan.
As a result, the Somerville kids were well prepared for college-level academics. “They know how to take a college syllabus that’s handed to them at the beginning of the year, and break it down into daily assignments that they set deadlines ... for themselves,” said Marcia.1
The impact of academic independence extends beyond college to other aspects of adulthood. Consider just one academic activity: studying for a test. A good student knows how to make a study plan, set aside a block of study time, find a conducive study location (and maybe a cup of study coffee), take appropriate breaks, and stay focused until the studying is done. These are skills that adults use for lots of other boring, unpleasant, or monumental tasks—whether it’s planning menus, balancing a checkbook, or writing a project proposal at work.
Giving a reasonable amount of academic independence to high schoolers can also ease parents’ teaching tasks. “[A] mother’s teaching load can actually lighten as her children become more responsible,” writes Vickie Farris, mom of 10 kids. “When my oldest daughters reached high school, I only had to meet with them once or twice a week to go over assignments and corrections. Christy and Jayme essentially taught themselves Algebra 2 during their junior year, working through their Saxon textbook, correcting their own homework, and consulting me whenever they couldn’t understand a concept.”2 This frees up mom and dad's time for schooling younger children—and for providing the extra emotional support that every teenager needs.
The Four Areas of Academic Independence
Not only is high school a crucial transition in your student’s life, but also you, the parent, play a crucial role in this transition. Your high schooler needs your example and guidance to learn how to learn on his own. As you begin to work toward academic independence with your child, you may find it helpful to organize the educational process into the following four categories.
Setting goals. Setting a goal is like pointing an arrow at a target before you let it fly. It may not hit the bull’s-eye, but it should come close. On the other hand, if all you do is shoot an arrow “into the air,” you will experience what the poet did: “It fell to earth, I knew not where.”3
A good goal is measurable and achievable. Suppose you assign a 10-page research paper, due in three weeks. Your teen’s goal might match the assignment word for word: “Write a 10-page research paper in three weeks.” Or it might be a little more personal: “Turn in my paper a week early so that I can take a week off from my English composition course.” Either way, it takes wisdom to set an appropriate goal and courage to reach for it. For further discussion on goal setting, see the Home School Heartbeat interview with homeschooling father Alan Hudson.
Planning. Some of us claim that planning slows us down. But taking the time at the beginning of a project to decide how to accomplish it is key to saving time and avoiding mistakes later. Whether it’s a detailed plan or a simple framework, written on paper or mapped in your head, a plan brings your goal within reach.
To help your high schooler develop the clear thinking and creativity necessary for effective planning, have him make plans for both big and small assignments. A plan for a smaller project doesn’t have to be written down, but plans to achieve important or difficult goals should be put on paper. Discuss your teen’s plan with him to offer practical feedback. Over time, you will be able to gradually step back from the planning process, and your student will have an improved sense of how to plan well.
Implementing plans. Where many a plan fails is in the execution. And helping your student learn to implement the plan he so enthusiastically put on paper can be complicated. Sometimes it’s sheer irresponsibility that causes a teen to go AWOL in the middle of an assignment. Other times, he can be derailed by distraction, fatigue, boredom, or discouragement.
A two-pronged approach can help your student get through the 99%-perspiration part of a project. Maintain accountability (on a daily or even hourly basis if needed) and do your part, as the parent, to enforce consequences. (See the next section of this article.)
In addition to the disciplinary prong, try to identify and overcome any physical, mental, or emotional roadblocks that might be preventing your student from accomplishing his plan. The problem could be as simple as needing a midmorning snack or better lighting. Or your teen could be distracted by anxiety unrelated to his academics. Whatever the case, he needs to learn how to identify these roadblocks for himself and come up with strategies to deal with them.
Evaluating. Evaluation is pausing at the end of a project to look back and to look forward. It includes cleanup tasks like grading and recordkeeping (both suitable responsibilities for homeschooled high schoolers, when appropriate). Even more importantly, and beyond that grade noted on their paper, students need to decide for themselves how they did. Did your teen achieve his goal? Was his study approach successful? What did he learn about his ability to see a project through to completion? As the parent, you have another important question to consider: Did your teen demonstrate independence and responsibility? Is he ready for more?
How Do You Teach Independence?
The principles that can guide you as you teach academic independence to your high schooler are the same as for any other area of parenting an older child.
Principle number one is to increase your high schooler’s independence based on already demonstrated responsibility. Avoid piling responsibilities onto your teen for which he is not prepared, as well as overly restricting him when he is clearly ready for more independence. Both extremes will only lead to failure and frustration—for you and your teen. Rather, seek to grant as much freedom to your teen as he can handle. New areas of independence can and should be the reward when he successfully manages current levels of independence.
Two, maintain accountability throughout any project. Giving responsibility does not mean cutting the tether and letting your student drift miles out into the ocean of independence. Although your goal is to avoid micromanagement, you need to be aware of how your teen is progressing, whether he is following through on assignments, and where he needs a helping hand. Depending on your teen’s current level of demonstrated responsibility, maintaining accountability could include having him check off tasks on a chart, send you regular email updates, or meet with you daily or weekly to evaluate progress.
The third principle is to set and enforce consequences for irresponsibility. Consequences should be clearly explained at the point when you give the assignment (in the form of a grading rubric, for example). They could range from natural consequences, such as a poor grade or the withdrawal of responsibility, to more severe ones that reflect the nature of the offense. It is better for your teen to experience the consequences of bad decision making now than when he is an adult and his college degree, job, or family is on the line.
Is the goal of helping your high schooler to achieve academic independence starting to take shape in your mind? Then set aside a few minutes to begin working out a plan for how you’ll get there. It will change along the way—after all, so do lesson plans. But keep steadily moving toward your goal. When it comes time to evaluate progress, you'll be surprised at the signs of growing maturity in your teen!
1 Marcia Somerville, interview by Mike Smith, Home School Heartbeat, Home School Legal Defense Association, September 9, 2005, www.hslda.org/docs/hshb/62/hshb6215.asp.
2 Vickie Farris and Jayme Farris, A Mom Just Like You (Sisters, OR: Loyal Publishing, 2000), 129.
3 Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “The Arrow and the Song.”