When Project Work Doesn’t go According to Plan

This little teddybear sits on our mantle piece to remind us all that there is nothing we can not face together.
This little teddy bear sits on our mantle piece to remind us all that there is nothing we can not face together as a family.

A massive goal for our little home school is independence.  I really want the children to desire to learn and to be able to do it independently.  There is a whole different kind of joy which comes from work they are able to own for themselves.

Last academic year, each of my older children chose a mini project to do each week.  With a new topics on a Monday, interest remained high; motivation remained high; projects were always completed and the whole experiment was a huge success.

Last term we chatted about the possibility of each child taking on a topic which interested them and doing a longer term study on it.  This January we bit the bullet and went for it.  The goal was to work at the project for 10 weeks, at which point they would do a presentation on their chosen subject.

Over the past six or so weeks, I have watched with pride as all three children applied themselves.  They each had wildly different approaches, but all seemed to be going well.  That is, until this week.  I had noticed the girls were simply slowing down and losing interest.  T12, who has had a lot more experience at pacing himself and working independently, was going great guns but the girls?  Well, they really weren’t.

I knew that this wasn’t  only inexperience on their behalf, it was also inexperience on my behalf.  I wondered if I had expected too much too soon, and what if anything I could do to rectify the situation and recover their enthusiasm.  We had a preliminary chat about how exciting things can seem at the start but with time the excitement loses its edge somewhat.  I made it clear I expected them to finish.  I realise some might disagree, but I did not want to start a precedent that beginning things and not finishing them was okay.  I think there is a huge sense of achievement to be found when you finish a project, especially if you have had to find an inner strength to do so.  I also believe it is the stuff which builds character, confidence and a feeling of conquering something hard.  Obviously, if something is plainly not working then a change of direction might be in order (such as T12 changing his topic), but what I didn’t want to see was all the girls’ hard work going to waste.  They had been doing so well!

I shared with them just how typical such a scenario was in my life and gave the example of our junk room turned school room.  I HATE organising in every way.  I am far too chaotic to rearrange a cutlery drawer let alone a whole room.  Going through boxes and organising them into piles which makes sense is an excruciatingly slow and boring business for me.  So what do I do when faced with such tedium, especially when I had started with gusto and enthusiasm?  I set the alarm for 15 minutes.  Any longer and I just know I will pass out from boredom, any less and I may as well just give up and not do anything.  Fifteen minutes goes by quickly and yet I can get quite a lot done, especially if I pitch myself up against the clock.  I then reward myself with 15 minutes doing something I enjoy, then back to organising.  I encouraged the girls to come up with tactics over the next few years that they could use to help them to finish strong.

The next thing I did was to have a meeting with each of my girls separately, to find out if there was something I could do to help.  As I mentioned, this is all new to me, and as such I am unsure of how much help to give and I think they were unsure how much help they could ask for.  I reassured them I was here whenever they needed help.  L11 suddenly looked relieved.  She shared that she was feeling a little overwhelmed (quite understandably given she was organising a medieval feast for twelve people, doing the cooking, invitations, entertainment and decorations – I’d feel a little overwhelmed!!) and just wasn’t sure what to do next and so she kept flitting from one thing to another, not really achieving much in the process….and so she was losing interest.  I got a pad and pen and together we wrote down everything she had left to do and organised them in order of priority.  We added some time frames to them – for example she felt she needed to write her actual presentation out for the night and key word it by the end of this week.  She would then give 5 minutes each day to practice it so by the date of the presentation (4 weeks time) she would be word-perfect.  Bingo, she was off.  L11 just needed a little bit more direction and help at prioritising.  Her interest and enthusiasm have returned with force and she is well on her way to reaching that first goal.  She knows where she is at and knows where she is going.  And it took only 10 minutes of my time.

C11 was having slightly different issues.  She had chosen medieval fashions as her topic and was planning on designing and making clothes for three of her dolls, as well as style boards for each doll and a catalogue of medieval fashions.  On top of which she would also need to write her actual presentation, which would be a medieval fashion show using her dolls.  She had been certain it was doable.  Six weeks in and she had not yet completed even one of her dolls costumes in its entirety.  She was panicked and disappointed.  She had worked well up ’til now but wasn’t an experienced enough seamstress or designer to turn out fashions any quicker than she was.  She said to me that she kept thinking about all she had left to do, and knew she wouldn’t finish it all.  This was one of those times when something needed to change, but only so much as to help her not feel overwhelmed, yet still give her a sense of accomplishment at the end.  Between us we decided that she would reduce her sewing to just two dolls, a peasant girl (which she had almost finished) and a knight’s lady.  Tomorrow we will sit down together to write a plan of action to help her finish in time, but without any stress.

Tonight we had a quick family meeting about the projects.  My goal was for us all to share what we had learnt, and how we could move forward, not just with the current projects but also with future ones.  I was sure to reiterate that I was not experienced and needed all the help they could give me so that I could help them (if you see what I mean!).  All three of them were quick to reassure me that they really love doing the projects.  T12 felt everything was perfect, he just loves having the freedom to use his imagination in every which way (chip off the old block).  He didn’t require any help and didn’t really feel it could be going any better for him.  L11 asked whether it would be possible to have weekly project meetings.  What a great idea!!  How come I had not thought of that!  Well done L11!  She felt if she had someone to keep her on track until she learns how to do it herself, she may not lose interest and be able to keep the momentum going over a longer period.  C11 said that she would not be choosing such a complicated project next time (although she did go to great details sharing her (elaborate) plans for next terms projects!!).  She said she would try to listen to mine and Gary’s advice next time.  I smiled.  I’m like a bull at a gate with anything I put my hand to.  All or nothing.  Just like C11.  And not very, very good at being reined in either.  I’m almost 40, she’s only 11.  She’s got years on me already!

I rather like it when we experience difficulties, because it is these difficulties which form us as a family; help us to forge new paths, new methods; develop us into the people we will become.  I feel so blessed to be able to hold my own children’s hands whilst they are navigating their educational waters.  And I feel so grateful they are able to hold mine whilst I navigate those very same waters!


  1. You bring out an excellent distinction between – on the one hand – projects we love but stop doing because something is getting in the way, and – on the other – projects we begin, dabble in a little, and then decide we’ve learned all we wanted to learn, and are ready to move onto learning something new.

    It’s such a shame when children stop doing the first sort of project for want of support. Finding out what’s actually going on can be quite a detective process – at least, with my children it can be! Especially as they aren’t usually at all clear themselves of their motives for not progressing with something.

    I love the sound of the process you used with your girls to support them. (Oh – and my timer is my friend, too!)

  2. I like the bear and the message. Thanks for sharing your process of solving the problem and helping the girls overcome their individual obstacles. There’s a lot of wisdom and valuable advice in the post!

  3. I once made the mistake of handing my normally very responsible 11 year old an auto-grading math program in September, at their request, and telling the child in question that I expected 5 lessons completed per week.

    Each week, the child told me their grade, and it was January before I realized that nothing had been done past the first 11 lessons. Once I finished flipping out and dealing with the lying part of the problem, I have been much more careful about self monitored projects and working with my kids more closely on goal breakdowns.Sounds like you were able to help your girls at just the right time. Good for you!

    1. Yes, there’s a fine line, I think, in helping a child but knowing when to stand back too. Also each child is so different in their ability to work independently. What works for one child doesn’t always work for another.

  4. I love the whole process that you all went through. Talk about a teachable moment! You took what could have been a major disappointment for you all and turned it into a wonderful learning experience about time management, accountability, and completing a task even when you may not want to. Love. It!

    1. Kris, thank you, that is a really encouraging comment. So often I don’t have a clue what I’m doing and spend much of my time winging it! You put such a positive light on the whole episode – it was very helpful, thank you!

  5. We also encourage finishing a project, but what a great idea to have the meetings to discuss how mom also struggles. Going at it together, even the discouragement, was brilliant! I agree with Kris that you just grabbed this teaching moment and excelled. I need to remember to notice the moments and teach them instead of just dictating (which comes naturally to my firstborn personality).

  6. I too agree with Kris – it sounds like these difficulties became a wonderful teaching experience, the results of which no doubt will be of great help in reaching success in many future endeavors – especially when it comes to finding ways to motivate yourself to complete a task, managing time, and recognizing the value of asking for help. Frankly, I wish I had such an experience growing up, as I’m still working on all of the above!

  7. I love this post. One of the best benefits of home schooling is taking the time to stop and regroup. We have had to do that a few times this year. I love the encouragement you offer to your children. I think it is just amazing that they are putting so much effort into their projects. I know after their presentations are completed, they will be so proud of themselves. Rightfully so!
    You are a great mum:)

  8. This is so inspiring. It’s hard to imagine children in a school setting can get so much from their learning experiences as your children do here. What a wonderful home educator and parent you are.

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