5 tips for teaching kids to use checklists
We’ve been using checklists in our homeschool for about 3 years now, since my oldest was 9 and my second-born was 7.
Through much trial and error, I’ve learned some rules of thumb for teaching kids to use checklists. Because I’ve received several questions about my kids’ checklists, I thought I’d share what I have learned as well as the checklists we’ve used over the years.
1. A checklist doesn’t replace mom.
It’s so tempting to just pass off a checklist and pass off the responsibility with it. Yes, the kids do need to learn responsibility for their own work, but that is a gradual process, not something that happens automatically when there is a box to tick.
Theoretically, a checklist provides direction for the student so he can move on to the next productive thing without getting distracted or sitting around waiting for your direction. If you’ve ever tried handing off a checklist with that expectation – as I have – you’ve probably already learned it doesn’t work that way. That’s not a problem with your child or with your checklist; it’s a problem with our expectations.
A checklist can’t be an excuse for mom to write off her role as guide and primary director. We still have to pay attention and take responsibility. A checklist does not substitute for mom sitting, watching the handwriting lesson, saying, “Start at the top. Start at the top. Good. Start at the top. All the way to the line. Start at the top.”
A checklist is not a teacher, and a checklist also isn’t a magic tool that automatically makes a student mature and responsible simply because they are holding a checklist on a clipboard or in a spiral notebook. Teaching our kids how to use checklists is the first step, and it takes practice. Knowing how to be self-directed and responsible is a gradual process that must be taught, modeled, and learned; it doesn’t happen with the mere existence of a checklist.
2. A checklist doesn’t work if it’s never checked.
When you first give your children checklists, the first several months – maybe the first year – will primarily be about whether or not you mean what you say. And you can only prove that you do by standing behind your written list and checking in with them, preferably every single day.
Do not wait for your child to come to you with a problem. Watch. Notice. Pay attention.
Have posted consequences for checking off a box when the task isn’t completed.
At our house, I always correct all the math pages every day. I do this not only because I don’t want to tempt my children to cheat, but also because it’s the only way I can keep my pulse on how they’re actually doing.
Also at our house, a school day isn’t done until I’ve marked their checklist day off. So if they’re playing and I haven’t seen their checklist, then there’s a problem. They are free to play after reporting with their checklist and I’ve said that they are done.
You’ll see in the examples of checklists below, though, that crossing an item on the checklist out completely was not a rare occurrence. However, that was something I had to approve, not something they could decide on their own authority – that was something they had to learn, and that was something caught because I was checking their lists daily.
3. A checklist must be super-specific and explained.
“Practice piano,” it turns out, is actually a very vague task. It is what the checklist says, because I can’t write a full descriptive complete sentence for every box on their list, but for many months, I had to spell it out on the board and face-to-face that if “practice piano” was marked off but they hadn’t completed every single item on the list the teacher left, then it was equivalent to a lie.
Now we can just say, “practice piano” on the list and there is rarely a drawn out, “But did you do your scales?” conversation.
But that first year needs extra hand-holding and clarification. It’s obvious to you what you mean, but it’s not obvious to your child. Also, saying it once isn’t enough. You need to ask questions, clarify, and hold the line (after making sure it’s been clearly understood), day in and day out until the habit of looking at the list and following through is acquired.
If checklists have been a problem for you, it may be because you and your child function from different understandings of what the task means and what done looks like. Expect that, trying not to get too ruffled by it.
Try, each Monday for several weeks, to sit down with your child and his checklist and have him tell you what each task on there means and what done looks like. By listening rather than always being the one talking (and perhaps not being heard), we will more quickly come to the root of our miscommunication.
However, we should assume miscommunication and misunderstanding rather than rebellion and disobedience first. We need to try to keep the conversation cheerful and positive, rather than putting our kids on the defensive all the time. That is not a good posture for learning. Disobedience isn’t, either, but we’ll be ahead if we can short-circuit a confrontation by saying, “Oh, you must have forgotten! Piano practice includes scales. Go do them now.”
4. A checklist bestows ownership.
At first this might seem contradictory to the first and second points, but it’s not.
If we give our kids a checklist, we have to allow them some say in how they use it. If we do want them to grow toward being self-directed, then we need to let them have some say in the order they do their work, in how they mark things off, in whether or not they doodle on their list.
We want them to have ownership of their learning, and that begins with baby steps and with missteps. Let them learn first-hand that it really is better to do math first by putting it off to the end. Add exercise or something physical to their list so they can learn to recover from strenuous mental work with fresh air and physical work.
5. A checklist is only a tool, not the point.
What we all must remember as we print off and hand off the checklist is that checking off boxes is never the point.
With the checklists, they are learning to follow instructions, learning to do the next thing without prompting – and it takes time and practice to learn those things. And, of course, with the items on the checklist, the point isn’t simply to cross them off, but to learn and practice them as well, whether it be writing or typing or piano or reading or anything else.
So remember that the checklist is a small tool the children are learning. If it becomes a stumbling block, it’d be better to throw it out that trip them up. There’s plenty of time to learn how to check boxes. What matters most is learning the skills and gaining the knowledge that the checklists point to.
Let them use checklists as a tool for self-direction as much as possible, rather than a tool of mom’s micromanagement.