Supporting Children to become Independent Learners

Support Children to become Independent Learners, Written by Anna Frendo, a former Senco, and Dyslexia Consultant at Dyslexia Inspire.

When children find aspects of learning difficult, they need additional support.

The level of support they need should change over time as they are taught new skills and strategies that they can use independently. Providing the right support at the right time and ensuring that children do not become over reliant on an adult, is a skill.

In my previous role as a SENCo I set up a project to develop independent learning in the classroom. This was achieved through adjusting the way in which teaching assistants and teachers worked together with students.

For now, I want to draw on the experience to help demonstrate how parents and carers can support their children to become more independent in their learning, using the same principles. 

Help from an Adult

When children start producing their first pictures, it can be tempting to support them so efficiently that the finished piece of art is your work more than theirs!

The same issue can easily arise when you help a child with their schoolwork. Considering the process of learning rather than completion of the task as the primary goal, is an important starting point. 

Help from an adult must be responsive to the level of difficulty the child is experiencing.  The internationally recognised research and guidance that came out of the Deployment and Impact of Support Staff Project and subsequent guidance from Maximising the Impact of Teaching Assistants (MITA), provides an evidence-based framework on the most effective forms of adult support for children and young people with Special Educational Needs (SEN).

They developed a model that has self-scaffolding at the top, followed by prompting, clueing, modelling and finally correcting. Self-scaffolding represents the highest level of pupil independence and the lowest level of TA support while clueing is the least independent and involves the most adult help.

Self-scaffolding: The highest level of pupil independence

Self-scaffolding refers to a child using resources and skills to support their own learning.

In independent learners, we may see them flipping back through previous pages in their exercise book or text book to check their understanding, rereading the question or referring to resources on the board before they proceed.

They may check a point with the teacher or a peer before attempting a task.

Self-scaffolding and it is the point we are aiming to get all children to. Having worked with children who really struggle, both with their learning and their confidence, it can be hard to imagine some children will get to this point. But it is possible, it requires the right support and the right levels of challenge in the work set. When it happens, it is transformative, and it should always be the end goal.

To get to this point, adults support children using the other strategies in the model, remembering to always start with prompting rather than correcting or modelling. In the classroom, tasks will have been demonstrated or explained by the teacher prior to independent work, so this support system is to be used at home following explanation of a task.

Sufficient thinking time is essential

Prompting is the first method of support and central to this is giving thinking time.

It sounds obvious, but it can be one of the hardest things to do. It can feel as though you are leaving a child to flounder when you give them time to think. In a classroom, thinking time can be given by a teacher asking a child a question and then moving to another child, before returning to them for the answer.

This takes the pressure off while they think. Sufficient thinking time is essential, particularly when a child’s processing is slower than their peers.

It is easy to replicate this with home learning. Setting up a task and using a timer so you come back after 2 minutes when the child has had a chance to think quietly or to write down 3 ideas on a whiteboard or on post it notes for example.

Similarly, when you ask a question – leave that question hanging for longer than is comfortable. It is amazing how often a child comes up with an answer long after you think they have stopped thinking!

After asking a question, silently counting to ten can help adults give adequate thinking time, otherwise three seconds can feel like a long time.

Giving verbal prompts and clues

If a child is still needing more support, the next step is giving a verbal prompt. It is important a prompt does not give the answer.

It should lead the child to a place where they can find the answer, it might be in their book, through looking at a picture or through making a link with previous learning. Prompts such as, “remember when …… What did that teach us?” or “What do we need to do first? … How can we plan this?” are all effective forms of prompting.

If a child still needs further support, they can be given clues.

These should be utilitised in conjunction with thinking time. So, one small clue and time to think. Again, a clue doesn’t give the answer, but sometimes children are struggling to recall important information and helping them with that is necessary, so that they can move forward.

Visuals can be a brilliant way of supporting recall – finding an image on a screen that links to keywords or events that they need to recall to start the task. Clues can also involve questions such as, “What needs to go here?”.

Showing a child what to do before they have a go

Lower down the model of support strategies is modelling. This involves showing a child what to do before they have a go.

This has often been provided earlier in the lesson as part of the teacher instruction when setting up a task. It is particularly important if a child is being asked to do something completely new. Watching an adult confidently approach a task whilst listening and having the opportunity to ask questions is a powerful tool. If as a parent you are unsure what to do for the task, it does not necessarily mean you can’t do this.

It is helpful for children to see how to cope when you are unsure, so thinking out loud about how to try different approaches is a useful part of the modelling process. In addition, some children need to see an example of the finished piece of work before they can envisage what they need to do. Visually planning the steps needed to get there is fundamental for many children.

Correcting is giving the child the answer

The final strategy on the model for scaffolding is the step that should be avoided!

Correcting is giving the child the answer. If we return to the initial point about the process of learning being of paramount importance, then this is the opposite of supporting that process. It is important that the child recognises the significance of the learning process and not just the completed result.

That way they can recognise their achievements regardless of how far through a task they have got. In a busy classroom environment, it is easy for children and staff to focus on the finished piece of work being the achievement.

In doing so though, children can be over supported to reach the same point as their peers. They would often benefit from completing less and being secure in what have they learnt to reach that point.

The joy of home learning is that the pace can be set according to the needs of the individual child and so they can often both move through each phase of the learning at the speed that works for them and complete the task set.