What is the natural consequence of work well and quickly done? Is it not the enjoyment of ampler leisure? The boy is expected to do two right sums in twenty minutes: he does them in ten minutes; the remaining ten minutes are his own, fairly earned, in which he should be free for a scamper in the garden, or any delight he chooses. His writing task is to produce six perfect m’s: he writes six lines with only one good m in each line, the time for the writing lesson is over and he has none for himself; or, he is able to point out six good m’s in his first line, and he has the rest of the time to draw steamboats and railway trains. This possibility of letting the children occupy themselves variously in the few minutes they may gain at the end of each lesson, is compensation which the home schoolroom offers for the zest which the sympathy of numbers, and emulation, are supposed to give to schoolwork.
— Charlotte Mason, Vol. 1, p. 143
One of the most tiresome tasks in teaching is motivating children to actually do the work that must be done. Everyone must learn that we have responsibilities that must be done in their proper times, and training children in this regard, while important, can be vexing. Rather than rely on artificial rewards and punishments, Charlotte Mason urged us to use natural consequences to our benefit: when work is done before the time allotted, the remaining time may be used freely. So a diligent child will earn time to spend on play or other pursuits. She recommended preparing a timetable, allotting definite times for each task. For young children, those times would be no more than 20 minutes per task, although older children would have longer times.
Some families find that this method works well in their homeschool. You may, however, find that following this recommendation exactly does not result in quite the peace and harmony you envisioned. For instance, if you have several children, monitoring time spent on each short task may not be practical unless every child is on exactly the same schedule. Or you may have a child who finishes a 10 minute task in 6 minutes, but then doesn’t want to return when the 4 minute break has expired. And if you must deal with a household crisis, who keeps everyone timed until you are free?
It is possible to use the principle of natural rewards for work well done, without following the specific system described.
I have five children, and every one of them is opinionated and stubborn. I have NO IDEA from where they inherited these traits. None. But the fact of the traits remains. When I had just one student, and three little ones, I schooled during naptime, and we just sat down and did the entire day’s school in about an hour and a half, all in one sitting. My student enjoyed school usually, so I only once had to end school early and replace school time with “helping Mommy with chores time.”
Then I had two students, and none of my children were reliably napping or willing to stay in their rooms for two hours at a stretch, so I had to refigure. We sort of spread school out throughout the day at that point. By the time I had three students and a high needs preschooler, I needed a new plan. School had become like herding cats! What had worked with one or two students just wasn’t feasible with three, especially with the interruptions from the little one.
I needed to make this principle of natural rewards work for me.
I took one student’s weekly list of work and sorted it roughly by difficulty or type of work. We have four days of school each week, so I tried to make groups of four weekly assignments. When a book or task didn’t happen every week, I tried to find another irregular book or task that could join it, and sometimes I shifted an assignment from one week to the next to make these pairings work out evenly.
I gave each weekly grouping a name, rather arbitrarily, and then listed all the grouping names along with all our daily work. Basically, this became a list of everything that student would need to do each day: every daily item and one item out of each weekly grouping.
Then I thought about which items that student could do fairly independently, and which ones were likely to need lots of help from me. I made a list, with the independent items on top and the assisted items on the bottom, with a line in between.
The independent items needed to be done before lunchtime. The assisted items, since I might not be free to help all the time, needed to be done in the afternoon. If “before lunch” work wasn’t done before lunch, lunch had to wait (or might be missed altogether, but only if we had a determined pattern of recalcitrance). Until the full list was complete, there would be no free time (whatever that entailed for a particular child).
I repeated this process for each child’s schedule.
For awhile, school took all. day. But then my oldest three started to realize that their free time was in their own hands, and they started to work much more diligently and efficiently. Eventually they were getting their tasks completed in record time, squeezing work in around other activities or doing it in advance if they wanted extra free time.
Eventually most days went pretty smoothly. Then I added child #4. This wasn’t enough structure for him. So his schedule needed more checkpoints. I gave him four tasks that had to be completed before snack time. (Then I made sure to have really good snacks that he likes.) I gave him a set of tasks that had to be completed before lunchtime. And a few that could spill over into the afternoon.
This helps because he hits the consequence sooner. It makes him pace his day. And it helps him learn to self-regulate. I don’t have to time his work, but if he doesn’t watch his time himself, he won’t finish before the checkpoint and so he’ll miss his natural reward.
Framing is important here. It has to be explained as helping the student complete his work in the appropriate time rather than as a way of rewarding or manipulating him. Mom needs to be a helpful bystander, not a nag. And the checkpoints should be no more and no fewer than needed: eventually we should need none, but for awhile they might even need to be hourly.
What I have ended up with is not exactly the same as the schoolroom Charlotte Mason described. For my child who needs more scaffolding, I do not have a specific time for each activity separately but rather a broader time for several activities. For that child, I do not offer free time as a reward at the completion of each activity but at the completion of each set of activities. And for my children who have learned to work mostly independently, I have no specific times at all but rather general guidelines, and they can take breaks during the day as they need them, within reason. How much I constrain them and monitor them has to do with how responsible they have been.
But I still have a timetable of sorts when we start out, just one that will work in the hustle and bustle of our home. And I am still using the natural reward of free time earned through diligent work at the appropriate time.
The goal is what Charlotte Mason described: children who understand the need to do work in its given time. How we reach that goal may need some variation for individual children and families, but the principle of natural rewards can help us find the right path.
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