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  • Writer's pictureVicky Keston

Developing Independence . . . Landing the Helicopter Softly

Updated: Sep 27, 2022

Last week, I attended our first high school back to school night. As part of the event, a panel of seniors discussed different topics. In particular, the seniors wanted to share with parents the need to let their students have more space and more responsibility. Nostalgically, I remembered the first time that I dropped one of my children at preschool. It was different coming home to an empty house, no babysitter waiting with him.

Executive Function Skills: What does that mean?

When we launch our children, whether to college or careers, they will need to take responsibility for self-care and self-management. An independent adult doesn’t appear overnight. Over many years, our schools can partner with us to build the skills incrementally.

It’s easy to focus on academic skills when we read consistently in the media about college admissions. In all our hopes and dreams, we think of successful offspring. But earning good grades requires more than reading, writing, and math skills; it requires organizational responsibility.

Here, a breakdown of some skills your children can learn by age:

  • Pre-Kindergarten teachers help teach self care skills. By the start of kindergarten, your child should be able to open their lunch containers, use the restroom independently, and play with other children.

  • Elementary teachers teach children to organize their personal belongings, find missing items, and advocate for themselves with both teachers and classmates. In addition to moving from learning-to-read to reading-to-learn, students learn to create their work products with more independence and asking for help when they need it rather than waiting for help to be offered.

  • Middle schools teach practical skills needed in high school, such as note-taking, studying for tests, creating outlines to review course materials, planning for longer term projects, working with other students on group projects, and remembering homework deadlines. Typically, the schools will suggest to parents that the students email teachers directly with questions or when they will be absent – all to prepare them for more independence in high school.

  • High Schools expect your student to reach out directly with questions, study independently, work in groups, and turn homework in on time. While parents can reach out on big picture items, they will usually not have the password to the student’s homework programs. Some schools allow parents to see grades real time on a portal, while other schools cut that off in high school and send home reports periodically (say each semester or every six weeks). Oftentimes, ninth grade includes executive function classes (and health class required in CA) to help students from a variety of middle schools get to the same place.

  • Summer Camps (Residential/Sleepaway) can help prepare children to shower independently, organize their belongings, brush their hair, and operate away from family in a supportive environment.

  • Before College. Home skills will be helpful for all students – from doing laundry to loading a dishwasher. If your child will live in a dorm, planning for meal breaks so that they wake in time to eat, and they schedule their classes with a lunch break. If your child will live off campus, how to grocery shop, load a dishwasher, and purchase cleaning supplies and clean with them.

How Can We Partner With Our Schools Partner to Teach Life Skills?

From a home perspective, giving our children progressive responsibility as they age can help them experience small failures in a safety zone before their decisions are more critical. Some ideas to get you thinking!

  • Set up a system for our younger students and then waiting until they miss a homework assignment to remind them;

  • Limit how often we check their grades or homework if parents have real time access via an online portal;

  • Coach our children to email their teachers themselves when they have a question about an assignment or when they will be absent;

  • Establish chores that grow with their age to learn self care skills in areas such as laundry, cooking, and shopping;

  • Allow privacy in an age-appropriate manner, for instance removing baby monitors or cameras from their rooms and allowing closed doors when they change, bathe, or toilet;

  • Encourage children to directly discuss play-dates/get-togethers with their friends, and drop them off at their friends’ homes rather than stay.


Your child’s school is a great resource for developing independence and executive function skills. I’ve just started reading How to Raise an Adult by Julie Lythcott-Haims to avoid pitfalls.

Need more help?

Vicky consults with families to help select public and private schools in San Francisco. Email to learn more about her services.

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