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    Educational Philosophy, Home Education

    A Natural Reward

    March 16, 2017 by Kathy Livingston

    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.

    Tired of nagging your children to get them to finish their school work? Today, Kathy Livingston shares how she encourages her children to self-pace.

    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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  • Reply Donna Koch June 21, 2018 at 7:32 am

    I can’t wait to try this! Our school seems to drag on too long most days and I get a lot of whining from my younger one, 9 years old. He loves to go play with his legos when he finishes something and gets annoyed when he’s called back to complete another task. His tasks are laid our in our homeschool planner, but not in this format. He’s very visual and task oriented but would benefit greatly from this because I’ve seen him finish things in a good timeframe before (putting out a sufficient amount of effort). He loathes doing school in the afternoon and has this idea that if its done in the afternoon we’ve somehow failed. He would greatly be motivated by his favorite snack. I need to do my part to set this up and NOT nag. Thank you so much!! Very helpful information because in reality living completely by the clock on our schedule has not work, but this format seems like it will work.

  • Reply Angela April 21, 2018 at 10:05 am

    Call me stupid.

    I loved what you wrote but my brain still cannot figure out how to implement. Yes, it is possible I’m overthinking.

    I have an 11 year old that, thankfully, I don’t have to stress over. I also have a 9, 7, and 5 year old (2nd, 1st, soon to be kindergarten) and we’re all struggling as we transition from curriculum to AO/CM.

    • Reply Kathy Livingston April 23, 2018 at 9:02 pm

      What years are you using? Have you considered using AO4Groups with the two middle kids? That might help you ease in better.

      • Reply Angela Y April 24, 2018 at 7:57 pm

        I’ve always used landmark Baptist. It had always been fine until I put the kids in school one year during a major life transition. (Then grades K, 1st, 4th). In kindergarten he learned sight words (last year) and now we struggle. When I resumed homeschooling I realized it was sight words and not phonics then my 2nd grader got sick and had brain swelling which effected learning. His reading is back on par but his math is that of a first grader. I’ve switched to math u see and having success with him. Still clueless as to helping my now first grader with reading without him feeling like he’s back in Kindergarten. I was introduced to AO and CM but how to get there with where I am seems overwhelming. My lack of understanding scares me as it’s my children’s education.

        • Reply Kathy April 25, 2018 at 8:50 pm

          Using the CM reading instruction method would be perfect, as you can use it with any text and the work you do isn’t at all babyish. Come over to the AO forum and let us help you!

  • Reply Valerie October 6, 2017 at 5:47 pm


  • Reply Misty April 24, 2017 at 2:28 pm

    Kathy, thanks so much for sharing this. I’m definitely struggling with motivating my children toward independence. Can you explain to me, using your example pictured above, does the child pick which lesson from the right they do when that grouping is scheduled on the left? Also, in history there are 6 examples, so how does that happen in four days?

    • Reply Kathy April 24, 2017 at 9:27 pm

      Yes, the child picks which lesson to do. Lessons can be done in any order, as long as readings aren’t done back-to-back and work due first is done first.

      Not every book or assignment happens every week. I adjust the schedule to balance assignments so that each week has four or fewer in each category. That usually just means shifting one or two over a week.

      • Reply Misty May 3, 2017 at 11:02 pm

        Thank you. That helps me understand better.

  • Reply Katie March 24, 2017 at 7:51 am

    Thank you for this post! This year schooling my oldest 2 (age 8 and 6) has been a challenge because of the 4 year old, the 2 year old and the baby. I feel like I am dragging the little ones along through the day (and telling them to shh, and “not now”) to give the older 2 what they need. There seems to be no reward for the little ones: be good during school and then its nap time! I love the idea of independent work in the morning when I need to give more attention to the littles and then giving my oldest their time while the littles are having quiet time. I also love the idea of ending each chunk of school with free time so that doing school timely and well is a reward for everyone!

  • Reply Michelle March 20, 2017 at 3:48 pm

    Thank you for this post! It was just what I needed to hear. I really thought about each child after reading this and rearranged our schedules today building in more free time if they finished their independent work in a timely fashion. You wouldn’t believe the difference! We finished school a full hour earlier than normal and everyone was thrilled. I tend to want to control the schedule tightly to make sure we get it all done. Giving them more control over their schedules was a breath of fresh air for all of us!

    • Reply Kathy Livingston March 20, 2017 at 7:44 pm

      Yes, it does come as a surprise to some of us (Me!!) how much faster their work is done if they control their time and are motivated to finish. The more I try to control everything, the less we accomplish with more stress.

  • Reply Hillary March 20, 2017 at 8:38 am

    Kathy – How do you ensure that not only is the work done, it’s done well and not in a rushed/sloppy manner? Have you found a good way to maintain “quality control” amid independence?

    • Reply Kathy Livingston March 20, 2017 at 7:52 pm

      I can’t possibly control quality even if I try to monitor work as it is done. I can’t sit right next to each child while they work and keep the little one entertained/deal with crises/accommodate the needs of boys (especially) to move often/make meals happen/etc.

      To pass a checkpoint, work must be inspected. Work done sloppily does not pass and must be redone. If work continues to be subpar, that subject may need to happen *with Mom* next time.

      It’s not perfect. But nothing will be perfect. I try to reevaluate regularly to see what might be slipping through the cracks and make adjustments to account for that.

  • Reply Nebby March 17, 2017 at 4:20 am

    I think more frequent check-ins is big. I have had to do this with my 11th grader. With college and managing his own studies in view, I was hoping I could say things like “read this book over the next month” and that he could divide it up and get it done but too much wasn’t getting done so we’ve gone back to checking in every other day or so.

  • Reply Flannery March 16, 2017 at 7:07 pm

    I love this, thanks! My two boys, 8 and 10, have a checklist to complete. Because I also have four younger kids, I have been seeing how independent they can be this year ;)… and I have been thinking we might sometimes need checkpoints. This post really follows the flow of my thoughts right now and gives me ideas and examples of what could work. Thanks!

  • Reply JoyH March 16, 2017 at 10:19 am

    Great advice, Kathy! You gave some very helpful thoughts for moms as they transition from one or two students to the whole clan.

    We’ve also found that self-motivation is the best way to keep the school day moving. Everyone loves their free time!

    Following these principles is a very easy way to build personal responsibility into our children.

  • Reply Rochelle March 16, 2017 at 7:56 am

    Thank you!! Thank you!! Thank you!! I just had a baby with 3 kiddos in years 0-4, and a two-yr old and I have been panicking inside. Sometimes I just need to hear that I’m not a terrible Mom for such a schedule

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