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How to help your child become an independent learner

Why is independent learning important?

Independent learning is key to your child's academic growth because it:

  • Cements collaborative skills
  • Expands imagination
  • Develops resilience and persistence
  • Builds discipline by enhancing the skills they learn in the classroom
  • Children who are independent learners are comfortable exploring new concepts and styles of problem solving. This often translates into academic achievement, as well as a greater sense of self-confidence in their abilities.

What does an independent learner look like?

People who are independent learners are curious and have a drive to figure things out. Kids with well-honed independent learning skills will naturally tend to:

  • Make informed choices on their own
  • Discover and select their own learning resources
  • Formulate their own problems, decide their own course of action, and reflect on the process and outcome
  • Be motivated to tackle challenge and have the confidence to make decisions
  • If your child doesn't currently display these behaviours consistently, don't be disheartened. There are plenty of practical ways you can encourage independent learning.

The formula for becoming an independent learner

Independent learning isn't a complete lack of guidance, nor does it mean leaving your child to their own devices. It's all about equipping them with the tools and mindset to problem-solve. The formula for independent learning is a balance between freedom and structure.

1. How to create a safe learning structure

Building a growth mindset

  • Having a growth mindset, rather than a fixed mindset, is the foundation of a child's ability to learn independently.
  • A fixed mindset is the belief that abilities can't be changed – that natural intelligence is the only way to success. E.g. “I’m just no good at this subject and I never will be. There’s no point revising."
  • A growth mindset is the belief that abilities are developed over time through hard work, strategies, and input from others. E.g. “This exam looks difficult, I’ll study for it. I struggle with this subject at the moment, but the challenge will help me improve. Who can I ask for support?”

Powerful praise

Studies have found that children's mindset is influenced by the type of praise they get.

  • Personal praise that focuses on innate qualities or labels (such as "you're clever" or "you're good at this subject") is likely to promote a fixed mindset.
  • Process praise that focuses on their effort and approach (such as "you studied really well for this and your hard work paid off") is likely to encourage a growth mindset.

So, whether your child is doing homework or preparing for an exam, remember to celebrate the process. Try to avoid the temptation to over-focus on rewarding good results – instead, praise their resilience in making mistakes and learning from them, their attention to detail and improvements they've made. Ask them to reflect on what they're proud of too.

Time for reflection

Reflection encourages curiosity. By building it into your child's learning routine, you will lay the groundwork for independent learning skills. While you're working together on exam prep or homework, try asking these questions:

  • Is there a different way you could solve this problem?
  • Was this the quickest way to solve the problem?
  • How would you explain this to someone else?
  • How would you convince me this is the correct answer or the best method?

Once your child becomes accustomed to this way of exploring their knowledge and understanding, encourage them to ask themselves these questions when working alone. Self-guided reflection will become a natural part of their problem-solving.

2. How to inspire self-motivation

The second part of the formula for helping your child develop independent learning skills is to give space and autonomy. Sometimes, taking a step back can mean your child will eventually take two steps forward on their own.

If you help your child with their homework regularly, they may get into the habit of letting you do their work for them. Over time, start doing your own thing nearby while your child is working. You're still there to offer guidance if they get completely stuck, but avoid sitting with them and offering too much help.

Giving your child this freedom will encourage them to explore, learn, and tackle problems their own way. When you let your child take the lead, they will eventually develop the motivation to accomplish things on their own. Every child is different – have confidence in them that they will develop their own approach.

Mistakes matter

When a child is trying to avoid making mistakes, they can over-depend on help from adults and may be afraid to try things on their own. Children who become confident dealing with mistakes will build the confidence to learn independently.

Mistakes are also a vital part of the learning process. Becoming comfortable with making mistakes will support your child to become a person who thrives on challenges.

We've all felt the urge to hover over our child's shoulder while they're working and help them get the right answer, but try to resist this! If you spot they're about to make a mistake, let them make it. Afterwards, discuss their answer and how they arrived at it. Ask them:

  • Does it make sense?
  • Where might you have gone wrong?
  • What would you do differently next time?
  • What resources are available to help you find the answer?

To boost not just academic performance but also your child's enjoyment of learning, encourage them to see the value in making mistakes – and model this process in your own behaviour too.

A growth mindset is a gift for life. Your child will come to see mistakes and setbacks as an opportunity to learn and improve. They will be less likely to give up in the face of challenging circumstances compared to peers with fixed mindsets.

Autonomous activities

Outside of education, you can build small habits into family life to support your child's development to become an independent learner.

  • Give your child responsibilities around the house. This can be a small task they need to complete weekly as part of the household routine. Rather than giving them instructions, encourage them to approach it in their own way. Afterwards, have a debrief and ask them the reflection questions above.
  • Kids like to feel part of what the grown-ups are doing, so ask their opinions on weekend activities or dinner options. This will help build their confidence to make decisions and talk through the decision-making process.
  • At the weekend or during the holidays, set a fun challenge that requires them to work on their own within a time limit, such as completing a puzzle or a scavenger hunt. This is also a great way to reinforce general time management skills that will serve them well in school and during exams.

How Atom can help your child to learn independently

We've designed an online learning platform for children aged 7–11 to give the ideal balance of structure and freedom. Atom Nucleus lets children build knowledge and confidence in core subjects independently. 

On Atom, children learn by exploring fun worlds of over 90,000 teacher-written practice questions, friendly helpsheets and videos, which you can view here

Meanwhile, parents are kept up to date with their child’s progress as they improve in school subjects or prepare for exams which you can view here.

Families like Atom Learning because it empowers children to progress with their learning without supervision. Atom tailors each child's experience to keep them on their ideal learning pathway. Our smart technology keeps your child in their 'growth zone', keeping them challenged and motivated, because this is where most progress is made.

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