George Lucas Educational Foundation
Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)

What Have I Been Doing for My Students That They Could Do for Themselves?

Letting young students make mistakes teaches them valuable lessons about taking ownership of the process of learning.

August 13, 2021
Cultura Creative RF / Alamy Stock Photo

As educators, we’ve all been there—pressed for time, trying our hardest to stick to a tight schedule. As we push the day forward and keep our students on track, it can be easy to fall into the trap of doing things for them. In the past, I found myself tossing a leftover snack wrapper into the trash can. If a student was having difficulty cutting out a circle, I would absentmindedly complete it for them.

However, if we’re going to set our early elementary students up for success, we need to encourage independence whenever possible. I knew that if I really wanted to set my students up for independence and maximize their learning, I needed to stop focusing on the final product and start prioritizing the process.

As soon as I became more mindful of stepping back, I saw nearly immediate results in my students’ independence, academic progress, and pride in themselves. At the start of each year, I set and maintain consistent expectations for my students’ independence, and a classroom culture of independence unfolds in front of me. This revelation has been transformational to my practice, and I’ve picked up several practical strategies over the years that keep me accountable to prioritizing this process.

Using Practical Strategies to Encourage Independence

One tool I have found very helpful in mitigating spelling and/or writing words for my primary students is side-by-side modeling. I sit next to a student with a whiteboard and write a word that follows similar phonics rules but is not exactly the word they are looking for. For example, if my student is trying to spell bat, I will write a word like cat and prompt them to derive the spelling from there.

One of the most essential yet difficult strategies for promoting independence is to let failure happen. We all want to see our students succeed, but the learning is in the struggle. Allowing them opportunities to fail catalyzes reflection and critical thinking.

Once, a student cut her craft project in half accidentally. It would have been easy for me to get some tape and help her, but instead I waited, and when she didn’t respond, I said, “What is your plan for fixing this?” She thought for a moment and then grabbed some tape. It wasn’t a perfect product, but she learned several valuable lessons while taking ownership of her own process.

Occasionally, I do want to save students from regrettable actions, such as ruining a project they’ve been working on for weeks. In order to help while still allowing for choice and independence, I narrate what will happen if they make a certain choice and let them take it from there. Sometimes, they decide to avoid the harmful action; other times, they ruin the project. Either option prompts meaningful learning while still allowing the student to think critically and make their own decisions.

Something else I know we all do from time to time is anticipate what our students will need or ask for and get it for them in advance to save time. Instead, I’ve learned that it’s better to wait for the students to ask the question themselves. This strategy teaches them to advocate for themselves and presents an opportunity for them to seek what they need on their own.

How many times have you seen a student sit down without a pencil and placed one in front of them? Try waiting—typically the student will realize their needs on their own and go get a pencil.

The final strategy I have to offer is to step back during age-appropriate ADL (activities of daily living) skills. I know this is another area where time becomes a major constraint, but zipping our students’ coats for them or tying their shoes when it’s no longer age appropriate only does them a disservice. Even if the skill takes a significant portion of time during the first few go-rounds, allowing an independent process will have the student performing the skill quickly in no time and takes a major task off of your plate.

Our Language Matters

When prioritizing the process over the product and encouraging student independence, language truly makes a difference. Here are a few example responses that effectively praise the process instead of the product.

In response to many requests for information, I say things like “Where can you look to find that information?” or “Have we seen this anywhere before?”

When students are struggling with a task or skill, I respond with phrases like “I see how hard you are working. What you’re doing is helping you learn so much!”

And when students are successful in reaching their goals independently, I ensure that I praise their hard work and independence with phrases such as “I am so proud of you! You put in the work, and you did this all on your own” and “You are such a creative problem solver. Look how much you were able to accomplish by yourself!”

While honoring the process takes more time and often means a bit more mess in our classrooms, in the long run it gives our students invaluable opportunities to think critically, reflect, and build independence. The meaningful learning that happens during the process is far more important than ensuring a perfect final product.

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Filed Under

  • Social & Emotional Learning (SEL)
  • Classroom Management
  • Critical Thinking
  • K-2 Primary

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