Survival of the Skilldest: Our 12 Tips for “Skill-Schooling” with Success!

PATIENCE. Anyone else in their fourteenth semester of that class? Teaching kids —whether it’s to read and write, tie their shoes, or make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich— can be more than a little frustrating. All the teaching moments of parenthood are truly as much our lessons in formation as they are our children’s, wouldn’t you agree? And even though Skill School is so much fun (and it really, really is) it’s not always easy when teaching a child a new skill to remain cool as a cucumber . . . if you know what I mean. Anyone who claims that they do not (at least occasionally) become overwhelmed or lose their patience when cooking, cleaning, gardening, or crafting with kids is either lying or self-medicating 😆 . So let’s all start by acknowledging that we are all in this school of patience together!

Thankfully, there are plenty of preventative and proactive measures we can take in order to minimize as much frustration and overwhelm as humanly possible in our Skill School days. To that end, I have put together a list of all the ways our family has learned (mostly the hard way) to set ourselves up for Skill School success! Throughout this checklist I will include brief quotations from a book that has been enormously helpful (despite it’s slightly condescending tone) in my Skill School efforts with our kids: Montessori from the Start by Paula Polk Lillard & Lynn Lillard Jessen.

If you can, I highly recommend printing off these following twelve tips to have close at hand for upcoming Skill School days. I too have to remind myself of these “survival of the skilldest” tools each and every time we Skill School . . . and I wrote the list! 😁 There’s a little window into my brain for you.


Our 12 Tips for Skill-Schooling with Success!

1.) Slow and steady.

Let’s all do ourselves and our kids a big favor and not attempt to cram Skill School into an already busy day. Rather, I’ve found that it works best to make Skill School the main event, preferably the only event for the day. Likewise, it is important not to squeeze as many activities as possible into one day to “maximize” our Skill School efforts. I’m learning that a single skill introduced calmly is far better than several skills introduced frantically. Similarly, for the child, having plenty of time to fully relish and exhaust each activity before being pushed to try the next is a lovely and generous thing. We’re all in this together, friends! Let’s channel our inner tortoise!

2.) It’s our school, too.

Our kids aren’t the only ones enrolled in Skill School. We are, too! It is no secret in the education world that the best way to learn something and retain it is to teach it. So dive in with your kids! Fully embrace the Skill School experience alongside your kids. As a busy stay-at-home, homeschool mama and part-time blogger I know well the temptation to multitask when our kids are engaged in an activity. And yes, sometimes dinner will need to be started while your child is still hammering away on that bookmark. But as much as possible . . . let’s explore and experiment and experience right alongside our children. It will be as much for our benefit as for our children. If only for the memories we will make together. And let’s all commit to hold the phone, hold the email, hold the neighbors . . . hold it all.

3.) ORDER please!

Set everything up on trays, plates, in baskets, bowls, etc. . . arranging left to right, and top to bottom.

“Because the materials selected for a specific purpose such as food preparation are set on a tray in order and sequence for use, from left to right and top to bottom, the child mentally incorporates this precise order and it becomes part of his functional intelligence. We recognize this specific mental order as that required for efficient reading and writing, for example. Through these cycles of activity with practical-life materials, children indirectly prepare themselves for written language in the future.” – Montessori from the Start

4.) Do a practice run. Solo.

It may sound absurd to do a trial run of cutting a banana before taking your child through the activity. Ok, it IS somewhat absurd, I’ll admit 😆 ! I’m not suggesting you actually peel and slice a banana with a butter knife like you are a toddler. Just take a moment to work over the materials with your hands and do a quick brain scan . . . something like this: “Ok, Daisy will start on the left by picking up the banana, peel it, discard peel in this bowl, then pick up knife here, cut it here . . . . ah! I need a small bowl still for her to set the slices of banana in.”

From my own trial and error, a quick solo practice run with me, myself, and I saves me a whole lot of frantic back-tracking while in the trenches.

5.) Break each activity way, way down.

“To grow in confidence in this process of forming independence, the adult has to prepare just the right amount of challenge for the child to face. Even adults lose confidence when they find themselves overwhelmed by situations where they have no chance of success. Yet, we routinely put children in this position by not thinking through simple acts of everyday life and then finding the best means for a child of that age to do them independently.” – Montessori from the Start

In short: it is helpful when taking on Skill School to overthink and over-prep, isolating each element needed for an activity and leaving no step or necessary tool/supply unaccounted for. This is another reason why it’s a good idea for us all (especially me) to tackle less . . . that way we can focus on being precise! Anyone else out there have some major adult ADD going on??

6.) Make it fun and fanciful.

Look for ways whenever you can to customize each activity to your child’s unique personality and interests. This can be as simple as using your child’s favorite color of yarn, or as specific as helping him to imprint a leather bookmark with a design of his favorite animal. And never underestimate the power of a little imaginative play! Washing doll clothes is far more fun than washing full-size human ones! Pretending to be Remi from Ratatouille makes chopping vegetables even more fun. Or, for older kids, playing out your own version of The Great British Baking Show while you whip up some cupcakes together can really create a next-level Skill School experience.

7.) Demonstrate generously, but be stingy with verbal directions.

Lengthy descriptions are really a kill-joy to the Skill School day. We tend to overwhelm our kids with how much we talk. I’ll volunteer as the number one offender here a lot of the time! I’m learning, often the hard way, that a simple “watch!” followed by slow, deliberate movements is often much more effective than a descriptive monologue. For a young child, try implementing: “My turn first! Watch!” Then, “Ok, your turn to try!” Also, if you tend toward being overly helpful like me, have something to sip during school (skill school or not). Seriously. It’s a great way to practice slowing our reactive speech. I can’t tell you how much tea I drink just to help keep my big mouth shut 😆 !

8.) Smile often. Praise rarely.

“. . . even praise represents an interruption to the young child engaged in work . . . commenting or clapping for children’s accomplishments can break their absorption with the experience and draw their attention to you. Furthermore, parental cheerleading, if overdone, can interfere with the child’s independence and create the expectation of an audience for even normal accomplishment.” – Montessori from the Start

When a child WANTS/REQUESTS recognition or approval, we can try:

  • a simple smile
  • a pat on the back
  • “You did it!” or “you stuck with it!” instead of “good job!”
  • “That looked satisfying/fun!” rather than “I’m so proud of you!”
  • “Wow. You figured it out!” instead of “you’re so smart/talented!”

9.) Emphasize the work over the results.

Something I have learned to do when my son gets overwhelmed and frustrated (which is a common struggle for him) is bring to the spotlight the process, practice, and persistence of what we are doing.

A few examples:

  • “Yes! Needles and thread are tricky! Our fingers have to shake and fumble before they can get stronger!”
  • “You know, this is still hard for me to do, too! But you’re getting a jump start! I didn’t learn how to wood-burn until I was maybe twice your age. So, if you stick with this, one day you will probably be better at it than mama.”
  • “We’re all learning. We’re all growing.” (My fav standby!)

Since I started doing this, my son will very often come to me when he sees that I’m frustrated with something, put his hand lovingly on my back and say: “It’s ok, mama. You’re still growing!” 🙂

10.) Enlist help, if you can.

Get hands-on support from the grandparents, an auntie or uncle, a friend, a next-door neighbor . . . any adult who loves your child and would enjoy joining you for a Skill School day can be an incredible lift to your efforts!

11.) Know when to break. Know when to quit.

It’s crucial to take breaks when needed and to start wrapping up Skill School for the day while everyone is still having fun and just when focus and/ or patience begins to wane (even if it’s yours!). We can try not to wrench our kids out of joyful activity without any warning, of course. But it’s for the best interest of everyone involved if we don’t allow the activity at hand to be tarnished by bored, careless, or destructive unravelings at the hand of exhaustion or disinterest.

12.) But don’t throw in the towel!

Quitting while we are ahead is a great way to prevent overwhelm. But it’s also important that we do not allow a “bad” day of Skill School to derail us. Of course we want our Skill School efforts to result in a wondrously successful day! There are truly few things that bring me as much joy as watching children fully absorbed and invested in a set of hands-on activities that I have prepared for them. It feels as though I’ve given them a secret gift, and inadvertently given one to myself! For a child happily at work is a delightful and satisfying thing to behold. But . . . big ole’ but . . . it doesn’t happen every time! Not for any parent or teacher in the world. Because no two days are created equal.

Some days of Skill School you will do everything right, yet everything will go wrong. Other days you may not have much faith in what you’ve managed to put together, and yet your kids will spend hours working with the trays you prepared. In my own personal experience, I have done the exact same Skill School day at different times and with different combinations of kids and had nearly opposite results. Just the other day, we did a Skill School day with some friends and all our kids were less than into it. And we were coming off the success of a previous Skill School day that they just couldn’t get enough of . . . like they didn’t even want to break for lunch, which is saying something.

Suffice it to say, there are just SO many factors that go into making a Skill School day a “success” and most of them have nothing to do with us (the facilitators)! The quality of sleep our kids had the night before, the weather, the time of day, the specific mix of kids and ages, the colors of the tray materials, what our kids ate for breakfast, the lighting, distractions . . . there are a hundred variables or more that affect our efforts when we sit down to teach our children, regardless of what we are teaching. So please, do not throw in the towel if and when Skill School goes wrong. “Well, I guess cooking isn’t our thing!” No, it just wasn’t our “thing” today. “Uggg, the kids hated sewing!” No, it’s just that it was ninety degrees outside and they wanted to run through the sprinklers. It’s OK.

Store it all away and try again another day.

Thanks so much for following Our 🍳6 WEEK SUMMER SKILL SCHOOL🧵 ! Gardening Week starts Monday, July 12th!! Don’t miss it!

Thanks for reading!

Love, ~Our Holistic Homeschool~

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