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Following Your Child's Lead

Updated: Jun 29, 2022

If you’re engaged in virtual learning or new to homeschooling, in response to the question, “How should I go about teaching or helping my learner?” you have no doubt been encouraged to “follow your child’s lead.” What does this mean? What could it look like? For starters, what’s the opposite of following a child’s lead? Following the teacher’s lead? The curriculum’s lead? Yes and yes.

Following your child’s lead has to do with the extent to which the content focus AND decision making is driven by the child’s voice, strengths, needs and interests NOT the adult’s. Like most things it exists on a continuum, you can do it a little or you can do it a lot. It can vary by content matter or it can vary by time of day. Additionally, being student-centered or child-led takes into consideration the mindset of the adult. To what extent does the adult believe and demonstrate a belief in the child’s capacity to direct their learning? To what extent is the adult encouraging a child’s sense of agency?

A couple weeks ago my family, COVID-tested, masked up, and socially distant, visited Philadelphia and took some time to check out the Liberty Bell.

It was after hours so we didn’t go inside the museum, rather peeked at the Liberty Bell through the glass. As I was reading the museum label detailing some key facts about the Liberty Bell to my children, my oldest child started fidgeting, having looked at the Bell for all of five seconds, and then started to move out of the alcove to explore other parts of the grounds. I was still reading to myself when I heard, “Mom, you’ve got to see this!” “Ah, she’s found something else historical to grab her attention. That’s cool,” I thought to myself. Except, when I stepped around the corner, I saw her staring at a wall. Nothing historical about that. Stepping closer I see an insect climbing up the bricks and Naomi was fascinated. She asked what the insect was, and I didn’t know so we snapped a picture. Using Google Lens, we learned what we were looking at was a Spotted Lanternfly. As I read aloud what Wikipedia had to say about the insect, we discovered that this planthopper is indigenous to parts of Southern China, Taiwan, and Vietnam. Standing in the shadow of Independence Hall, my family was engaged in a rich conversation about China, invasive species, how we think an insect from China may have gotten all the way to Philly, and what we should do- seeing an insect that is harming the local ecosystem. It was a good talk, the kind of conversation we’re still thinking about a week later.

Reflecting on this experience, it is an example of “the best laid plans” going awry. I mean, exploring an invasive species in the shadow of Independence Hall isn’t what I had in mind when visiting the Liberty Bell. But it is also an example of “following my child’s lead.”

If you’re interested in following your child’s lead here are three things you can do.

1. Get clear on what is your most important thing. Start there.

It was late in the day and the first time my family had ever visited Philly. I wasn’t pressed for the kids to learn, see, and do a lot. In fact, the two things I wanted them to take away from our short visit were: 1. Philly is an important place when it comes to American history and 2. The Liberty Bell is an important symbol of American Independence/ America.

So, in the moment where everyone was losing interest in what I was reading and in the Liberty Bell altogether, what allowed me to stay calm, not freak out and call everybody back to look at the Bell or even to listen to me read, was that they’d already done what I wanted them to do. I wanted them to see the Liberty Bell and know that it was an important American symbol. Check. Everything after that point was a bonus!

Being student led does not mean that as the adult you do not have objectives or ideas of things you think are important for your child to learn. Quite the contrary. Your learner needs you to have objectives and opinions about what it’s important for them to learn. AND the more clear you are about “what” you want your child to learn and why, the more flexible you can be in helping them get there. Imagine driving home. You know that destination well. If traffic is heavy on the interstate, you probably know one or two street based ways to get home. And if there is construction on the side streets, you know a couple of work arounds.

It’s the same with teaching. Having a clear destination means you can follow your child’s lead in how to get there. They aren’t feeling the interstate, then the more scenic route it is! I have one child who would rather do hand clapping games to practice math facts and another who’d prefer card games. Either way we get to the worthy destination of increased number sense and fluency is fine by me!

2. Respond to their curiosity with curiosity.

Let me just say, it WAS an interesting bug. So that helped. More often than not, I try to be excited about what my children are excited about. Beyond my two big ideas for our Philly excursion, big ideas I have for them as people are for them to be learners, curious, and thoughtful. I make sure that my overall goals for them as thinkers are accomplished by being excited about their “discoveries” and open to learning new things with and from them. It’s important to show them that they can be the ones teaching me and that learning is a lifelong process.

Google Lens was a revelation to us. How awesome to be able to identify things on the fly when we are out and about! Have in your back pocket some go to ways to explore the new things you and your learner discover together. For example, for all things science and social studies, one of our go-to sites is National Geographic Kids. And for math tasks, I like Achieve the Core. The internet has so many resources with thousands more added everyday. I save myself time by getting familiar with a few key sites and then while my learners are engaged, take some time to poke around the internet and see if I find something new.

3. Follow up.

When we got home and had a little more time, we thought more about what we should do if we see an invasive species. From continued inquiry we learned that invasive species could be plants or animals. We did some research being unsure both practically and ethically, what we should do if we run into an invasive animal species. In so doing, we came across some awesome ways to communicate with scientists who are engaged in tracking invasive species. As an aside, I think this topic of ‘what to do when it comes to invasive species’, is an interesting and compelling topic for persuasive writing prompts for children.

Here are some of the articles we read:

On invasive species:

On what people can do:

Following the lead of children is not only about letting them influence how learning will happen, but it is also about encouraging them to embrace their own sense of agency. After learning about invasive species, when asked what we should do about what we saw, my four year old volunteered, “we should tell a scientist.” And that’s exactly what we did. We communicated where, and when we saw it. And we even had a picture for them. We are not sure about what will happen next, but I know for my children three valuable lessons were learned. 1. That they can identify and learn about new things. 2. That adults can learn new things with them and 3. That there are ways that everyone, including them, can help scientists deal with invasive species.

What a good experience and what awesome learning. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that what is also so interesting to me is that we could have missed it. I could have limited our learning (mine included), if I had limited what counted as a proper learning experience. Following my children’s lead is my way of not limiting our learning to just what I have planned and I know. To follow my children’s lead, I find myself mostly thinking in terms of “both/and” vs. “either/or.” On this day we learned about historical symbols AND invasive species. We’re all better for it.

If you’d like help and guidance in making your teaching more student-centered/child-led or want to know how to enhance learning at-home

our Co-Teachers would love to help.

We look forward to connecting you to an awesome teacher for at-home learning, coaching and support.

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1 Comment

Kia Tate
Kia Tate
Nov 01, 2020

I love this and fully agree! When we follow the lead of our children, we all learn something new, and it creates a sense of "what I think is valued" in your children. This allows them to be even more receptive to the learnings that you are hoping to teach. It is a two-way street. As you (the parent) show interest in your children's interests, they in turn (consciously or not) are more intrigued by your interests. As you said, "we're all better for it." Thanks for sharing such a rich example of what it means to follow your children's lead.


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