Learning to Work Independently

posted by Ian P. Kelly, M.Ed. and Heather L.B. Smith, M.Ed.



In our last post we broke down each of the work habits articulated on the Report on Student Progress (ROSP). In that post, we focused on the skills embedded in following directions and provided guidance as to how families can support the development of those skills. In this post we focus on working independently.

The ability to initiate and sustain goal oriented work is a skill that is developed slowly over time. This learning process requires a great deal of time and patience on the part of adults. With the right structures and supports any child can find success.

Works well independently

Embedded Skills

Clear criteria for success: The child understands what it is they need to do in order to be successful in his or her work.

Self-monitoring: The child is able to measure his or her progress towards clearly established criteria for success

Adaptability/perseverance/tenacity: The child can make adjustments when he or she realizes that the criteria for success has not yet been attained.

Focused, sustained attention: The child can maintain focus on a task until she meets the criteria for success and/or the desired goal.


Clear criteria for success: Setting criteria for success requires adults to strike a balance between developing independence and enabling dependence. As children learn to do new things, it is important that adults provide the criteria for success. For example, if the independent work is to clean up the bedroom, adults should let the child know what that looks like (i.e. Bed made, toys away, book shelf organized). Over time though, it is critical that adults begin to engage children in the process of identifying the criteria for success. If the onus is never the child’s they will not develop independence with the task. Fortunately, this is easily done by asking, “It’s time to clean your room. What does a clean room look like?” Over time, children will come to rely on themselves to identify the criteria for success.

Self-monitoring: With clear criteria for success in place, a child can begin to monitor progress towards attaining his or her goals.  Again, there is a balance to strike here. Children are not born pre-programmed with this skill. Like most other behaviors, it is learned over time. There are so many effective tools for teaching children to self monitor but, perhaps, one of the most powerful tools is modeling how you self-monitor.  You may not always be aware of it, but you are constantly engaged in the process of self-monitoring.  Part of the reason you may be unaware is because the skill has become internalized and nearly automatic. It takes time and practice for adults to slow down and articulate this. Adults can begin to teach self-monitoring by giving your child the opportunity to listen to your self-talk.  If you want to walk your child through picking up the bedroom, you might ask him or her to join you as you model.  While cleaning, you can model by saying what you’re thinking: “Let’s see. The first thing I need to do is make the bed.  In order to do that, I need to take the pillows off so that I can straighten up the sheets. Now that the sheets are straightened out I can put the pillows back in their place…” By thinking aloud, you give your child the opportunity to follow a train of thought and to hear how you tackle a task.

Adaptability/perseverance/tenacity: We all make mistakes.  What is most important, however, is our ability to learn from those mistakes and persevere even when things become difficult for us.  Children who demonstrate adaptability know how to change their behaviors or their chain of thinking when things aren’t going as planned.  They do this by persisting. Again, modeling is a great tool for helping children see how you adapt when you have to solve a problem.  But you can also teach children by coaching them. A great question to ask your child is: “What are some other strategies you can use to solve this problem?”  Likewise, take advantage of the opportunities when you can acknowledge your child when she does so and reinforce her ability to persevere when she makes an effort to overcome an obstacle.  For some of our children, taking their snow boots on and off is a challenge.  When your child develops automaticity with this task, take a moment to discuss how she became independent with it. Chances are that she had to do it many times before she became good at it and that she had trouble the first time she tried.  As children develop self-awareness, it’s important to celebrate their efforts and acknowledge how they achieved success (and keep in mind that there was a time when you had trouble putting on your boots, too)!

Focused, sustained attention: Sustaining attention to a task is no easy feat.  We all struggle with it from time to time and, depending on the age level(s) of our children, there is a wide variance in how long our children can attend.  Five-year-olds, for example, tend to have less stamina than ten-year-olds.  But age isn’t the only factor that affects our ability to maintain attention. Sometimes, the more challenging the task, the harder it becomes to stay focused. Similarly, the more interested we are in something, the easier it becomes to stick with it.  This is why it is critical that we talk with our children about how they sustain attention and what they can do when they’re struggling with it.  Asking your child: “I notice that you’re having trouble paying attention.  Why is that hard for you right now?”  You might be surprised by what he or she has to share (and you might also find that your assumptions may/not be true).  There are countless strategies for increasing attention but before you can implement a strategy, there needs to be a match between the strategy and the cause for inattention.  If your child is easily distracted, ask her what distracts her and coach her by asking: “How might you eliminate that distraction?”  If your child is struggling with motivation, help her find a way to connect the task to something that interests her.

Just how complicated is it for kids to follow directions?



In our last post we talked at length about reading and interpreting the Report on Student Progress (ROSP). In this week’s post we turn our attention to look at tools and strategies that families can use to develop strong work habits in their children. Our goal is to support families in their efforts to teach and support these skills proactively throughout their child’s life.

The ROSP relies on an observation based rating scale when it comes to rating a child’s development of articulated work habits. The rating system focuses on the frequency with which the teacher observes a given behavior. These observations are captured in  the ratings: Rarely (R), Sometimes (S), and Usually (U). No matter the rating, it is critical that parents reach out to teachers and educational professionals if they have concerns about the development of these skills.

One of the  complexities in supporting and learning effective work habits is that they each represent a series of embedded and related skills. Because of this, it can be hard to know how best to support children in practicing and developing those skills. To support families in this endeavor we are going to take the next few posts and explore the prerequisite skills  for each work habit and easy to use strategies that families can employ to support them. This week we are going to focus on following written and oral directions.

Follows directions accurately (written and oral)

Embedded Skills

  1. Focused, sustained attention: Child attends to the source of directions until directions have been communicated.
  2. Language: Child is able to read and/or hear the directions.
  3. Comprehension: Child fully understands the given directions.
  4. Self-Monitoring: Child monitors comprehension for understanding.
  5. Self-advocacy: Child has strategies to ensure that they understand the given direction.  This includes, but is not limited to, asking for help when needed.


  1. Focused, sustained attention: Always be sure that you have your child’s attention before giving directions. Their bodies should be facing you and you should require eye contact before giving directions. If the child breaks eye contact or turns away while the direction is being given, discontinue the direction until they provide you with full attention.
  2. Language/Comprehension: Have the child restate the direction in their own words. Family members can simply ask, “What did I just ask you to do?” or “What is the homework assignment asking you to do?” Asking this simple question is a sure fire way to tell if the child understands the given directive.
  3. Self-Monitoring: Presuming that the child misunderstood your direction or the homework assignment, it is most important not to do the clarifying for them. Instead, ask guiding questions. “That’s not what I asked you to do. Think about it for a minute and see if you can remember.” or “When you don’t remember a direction, what could you to make sure you know what to do?” Doing so puts the child in the position of having to do the “heavy lifting” and develop the self-monitoring and self-help skills that they truly need.
  4. Self-Advocacy: In the off chance that you give a direction and the child does not follow through in the way that you intended (sarcasm), use this as an opportunity for learning and growth. “Hmmm. I see that you put your plate on the counter which is really helpful. What I asked you to do was place it in the dishwasher. It seems like you may not have understood my directions, what could you do in the future to make sure you understand me?” If the child truly can’t come up with an idea you might suggest that they ask what they were supposed to do again or think about what the situation and what action is appropriate to that situation.

by Ian Kelly, Principal Ben-Hem and Heather Smith, Principal Lilja