For me independent work is a skill within itself that we work on daily. At the moment our chore system has taken inspiration from THIS blog post. Each day after breakfast and again at about 4:30 my kids and I get six laminated cards with a job written and illustrated on each one. The kids and I work through the chores and I expect my children to work relatively independently as I move around helping each one. Even Tool Man knows how to do his chores (things like dust the bookshelves etc.) and because they have been taught explicitly the how's of doing them and they KNOW I will check up on them (one of my chores is to check everyone's work!) they usually get on with it. That is not to say we don't have to re-do. Princess Doc had to vacuum the dining area four times today before I was happy to let it go and I have had to have serious conversations with my sons about what IS and IS NOT appropriate to suck up with the vacuum cleaner (water out of the bathroom sink being NOT - betcha didn't know vacuum cleaners can shoot flame!). What has this got to do with doing math independently? Everything. If the only time they have to work independently is when they are doing academic work they will resist it with every fibre of their being - and kids can get very creative about resisting academic work that they don't want to do! If they have learned and daily practise the skill of working independently this will be reflected in the way they work. I teach independent working habits by being close and available without being involved. Sometimes this means I have to re-focus children multiple times which can be frustrating, but if I focus on teaching WORK HABITS before teaching content it works better in the long run.
Things that have helped me streamline our day, foster independent work and cut out busy work for me include:
Link group work to meals and non-negotiable daily events. Our Bible work happens at the breakfast table and immediately before bed. We are working through Sword Fighting by Karyn Henley (brilliant by the way) in the mornings which gives us time to read from the Bible, discussion questions and scripture memorisation. Plus we sing 1 hymn - I choose a new hymn each week so the kids can learn it thoroughly. In the evenings we sing together as a family, have some discussion time with Daddy, pray and then when the kids are tucked into bed with the lights off I sit in the hall way and read aloud our Day-by-day Bible Story readings which is working us through the Bible chronologically. Our history and science reading happens over lunch. Our poetry reading happens over afternoon tea once a week. This really helps with the rhythm of our day.
I don't create paper clutter. If my kids can discuss the story with me, describe what they know, ask insightful questions etc. it is pointless to create a picture or work sheet just to show that they know something that they and I already know that they know! It wastes both our time. Children get bored with and resist busy work and frankly, I don't blame them. I have a couple of work books that my kids started but got ahead of. Rather than pushing through just to "finish the book" I added them to our colouring/activity book collection. They now pull them out to doodle in or the younger ones use them (sometimes surprising me with what they learn!). Paper work is there to serve our needs, not the other way around.
I have a daily meeting with each child. Each child gets my attention for 10-20 minutes a day. During this time I teach Tool Man his letters, sing songs, look at shapes etc. Farm Boy reads me his reader, we work on some memorisation and play a phonics/reading game. With Princess Doc we do some memorisation, work on her Latin or First Language Lessons book or work on her latest composition or go over what she is doing with math-u-see. I took inspiration for this from a portion of an e-book that I read
I don't require independent written work until the child is an independent reader. It just creates work for me and is of limited value. The more I read about the subject, and the more I observe my own children, the less inclined I am to believe that sitting a four year old down with a pencil and a work sheet they "must" finish is in any way educationally beneficial. They are doing pre-reading or early reading exercises with me during their daily meeting and when "reading" their chore cards, measurement and math when they help in the kitchen, listening in on all the read alouds - written work at this point is a waste of both our time. Princess Doc, a proficient reader, has a to-do list every day that she can work through and tick off.
Go deeper rather than wider. We are studying bones this "term". I could generate stacks of work sheets on this topic, but I am not. For our first composition of this term I asked Princess Doc the question "why do we have a rib cage?" I acted as scribe as she brain stormed. She found she wanted some information so got a book of the shelf to check it. When we had all the information I put it away until our next composition meeting. Then she re-read her information and dictated her first draft to me. We will edit at our next meeting and then she will type it up and publish it. Rather than labeling a rib cage on a work sheet, she has created a piece of writing (using many literacy skills) that discusses the function of a rib cage. She has researched the information herself. She put the words together herself. She will edit it with me and type it up and publish herself. It takes FAR longer than a work sheet, however it really only took us 15-20 minutes a week for four weeks and was a far richer learning experience and after our editing, the process will be entirely independent. Children will put far more effort into something they see will be valued and kept rather than "another work sheet".
Don't expect too much. The work turned in from independent work will rarely be as good as the work done with me hovering at the shoulder correcting and pushing and prodding kids along. However, will I be with them at university or at their apprenticeship pushing them along? The independent work is a truer indication of what they are honestly capable of.
I don't "prove" everything they know and don't over assess for an external assessor. If an assessor walked through the day and demanded to see proof that my children are memorising scripture and learning about the Bible I could not show him anything - EXCEPT, children who are able to speak the scriptures. If an assessor asked to see proof that Farm Boy can read I can't show him any phonics work sheets or work books, but I can sit him down with a child who will read him "Bug On A Rug" (Farm Boy is not registered yet, so I have no need to prove anything anyway!). Princess Doc's math-u-see work, copy work and dictation work is all put together in chronological order. Compositions are filed with brainstorms, rough draft and editing tucked in behind. Art journals and nature journals are also available and clearly filed in display folders. But this is for our OWN enjoyment as much as for display! The fact that it satisfies the needs of our assessors for registration is almost incidental. I don't have to decide which pieces of paper to keep because we don't generate heaps of it. Frankly, if it isn't worth keeping it probably wasn't worth doing in the first place. I do not write reports for my children. It would not add anything to our schooling so would be pointless for me to do so.
Allow time for kids to develop their own interests on their own. If I want my daughter to read independently, it makes more sense for me to allow her time to delve into her Enid Blyton collection than to assign her a reading list at this point. She is developing her reading entirely independently! Of course, I keep tabs on what she is reading and how often. I do this by hanging over the edge of her bunk at bed time and asking her interested questions or inviting her to join in "book talk" at the table. Usually she is more than happy to tell me what she's doing. She is a willing reader and if the only reading she had time to do was the reading I assigned to her, she would loose that willingness and joy. Their ability to work independently would wain significantly if they never had time to work independently on their own interests. It would be foolish of me to pull my boys in from riding bikes in the back yard to do "PE" at this age or to stop the children poking at the biscuit dough so that they can do their fine motor skill work with the play dough - but this is exactly the trap we can fall into as over eager homeschoolers of preschoolers out to "prove" we can do it.
Accept that some kids will have a harder time staying focused than others. Farm Boy will work for hours on something assigned to him, Princess Doc will drift off after about ten seconds if it doesn't interest her. This isn't because Farm Boy is a "better" or "smarter" child, it is simply because he has a work aptitude the same as Princess Doc has a reading aptitude. I have to work harder with Princess Doc on her work habits, I have to work harder with Farm Boy on his reading skills. It is just the way it is.
Don't expect everything and every day to be perfect. If it is all perfect because I made it that way, it doesn't teach my children anything. We can all learn from our mistakes. Being a control freak, it doesn't always come naturally to let my kids make mistakes and sometimes I have taken it as a personal failure when they stuff up. Allowing them to work independently and keeping my meddling hands out can be good character training for me! Of course, I do have standards and sub-standard work or sloppy attitude does warrant a do-over. But being a perfectionist will just kill any joy in the process and isn't worth it. Initially I try and make sure all the work is well within the capability of a child before requiring them to work independently. This way I can focus on work habits rather than getting hung up on content.