Parent-child learning conferences: helping children set their own learning goals

Published by Lori Pickert on August 13, 2012 at 09:47 AM

Project-based homeschooling fits with any other method, from full-on classical to radical unschooling and everything in-between. It simply means dedicating some of your time to actively supporting your child’s self-directed work. (And technically it doesn’t require homeschooling at all.)

Personally, we don’t label ourselves as any particular kind of home- or unschoolers. I’m not into labels (and neither are my kids), and I rarely fit into a defined group. Project-based homeschooling is something we do, not something we are.

I’ve mentioned here on the blog (mostly in the comments, probably) and elsewhere on-line that we have biannual conferences with our sons to discuss learning goals and plans. Keep in mind our sons are now 12 and 15. This is how our learning conferences work.

Our “summer” lasts about six months — we start early and end late. The summer months are dedicated to personal projects.

Our “school year” begins around October. As each half-year begins to wind down, we have a conference to talk about plans for the next six months.

We discuss long- and short-term goals.

As parents, one of our goals is to have our sons ready for adulthood, and we want them to have their options open. We want them to be prepared to go to college or to be self-employed. (We’re self-employed ourselves and we don’t feel that our children must attend college.) Right now, one son is planning to go to college and the other is planning to be self-employed. We make sure they realize their plans might change with time and they should keep their options open.

So, we talk about our long-term goals for them and their long-term goals for themselves. We also talk about short-term goals: what they want to achieve over the next six months.

(We meet with each son individually.)

We ask them to reflect on skills they think they need to acquire or strengthen.

We ask, “Is there anything you think you need to work on?” When young children do project work, they will often notice a deficit and call attention to it on the spot. They see that they need a skill or ability they lack. “I need to know how to do this.” Now that our sons are older, our biannual conference is when we take time to reflect on any lack they may have noticed or a particular skill they think they need.

Often, they focus on something they’ve had a nagging feeling about — something they don’t think they know enough about (e.g., geography, learning a foreign language, learning how to cook more meals) or a specific skill they think they’ll need to help them with their own work (e.g., learning to type or use a graphic-design software).

The conference becomes a sort of self-fulfilling prophecy. Because the boys know we’ll be having that meeting, they are already thinking about how they’re doing and what they need or want to learn. When you make it a regular habit to think about how you can improve your efforts and how you can accomplish your goals, you’re more likely to do both.

We have them articulate their goals for their own self-chosen work.

A big part of why we pursue project-based homeschooling is because we believe building a foundation of strong habits will help our sons succeed at whatever they want to do in life. One of these habits is reflection: How am I doing? Am I achieving what I set out to do? Am I pleased with my own progress? Are there any specific problems I need to address? Do I need to set new goals? Do I need to make a change or improve something?

Every so often we stop to check our progress and make necessary changes. Every six months, we use our learning conferences to take the long view: looking back over the previous year and forward to the next … and beyond.

We agree on a schedule and a plan for the next six months.

Ours is a negotiated curriculum. Any non-project work the boys take on is to meet our shared goals: for example, making sure they’re prepared for either college or self-employment. We come up with a plan for what will be done and a reasonable schedule to do it in. Around the holidays we’ll make sure it’s going well; if it’s not, we’ll make a new plan.

Note: We want the work to be rigorous, not the schedule. The majority of their time is spent on their own self-chosen, self-directed work.

We give the boys a lot of responsibility for managing their own work and schedule — but it doesn’t always go smoothly. Learning how to get your work done without being micromanaged is a real skill, and it’s built slowly over time. Mistakes help us learn.

They also talk about how they want to schedule their own project work. They apply the same habits to their self-chosen work as they do to their non-project commitments.

We talk about specific materials they will need.

A child can get much more out of researching by going to the library herself and selecting her own books rather than just looking through the basketful chosen by her parent. There is a whole other level of meta-learning when she makes a list of what she needs, talks to the library about where to find it, weighs her various options, makes her choices, then finds out whether those choices met her requirements.

A child can take be responsible for designing his own curriculum for his own self-set learning goal. He decides what he needs to learn and investigates his options for learning it: books, videos, on-line offerings, local classes and groups, mentors, field-work possibilities.

He can be given a budget for buying books and materials. (It can be a very small budget.) Now he needs to figure out what books he can get for free through interlibrary loan and which he needs to buy — and where he can buy them the most cheaply. Maybe he can post to a local message board and arrange to borrow some materials. He seeks out other people with similar interests and asks their advice.

In the end, he will learn about his topic, but he will also learn a tremendous amount by building his own curriculum and amassing his own learning materials.

We write it down and commit to it.

We commit to the plan, the work, and each other. We have a strong idea of what we’ll be focusing on for the next six months, what we want to accomplish, and how we plan to achieve it. We’re ready to go.

Note: Although this sounds serious when I write it all down, our learning conferences are quite relaxed and fun. No binders are involved. The bulk of our end-of-summer conference with the twelve-year-old occurred on the daily dog walk, thus the photo above!


Comment by patricia on August 13, 2012 at 06:36 PM

Love this. It's always eye-opening to ask the question, “Is there anything you think you need to work on?” Kids can come up with things you'd never expect, including things that seem far more sophisticated than you might ever choose for them. I'll never forget when my oldest decided that he wanted to write essays. Wanted to write essays! I never would have pushed that on him--but he chose it. (Kid after my own heart…)

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 13, 2012 at 08:47 PM


yes — they always mention things that we would never have thought of or suggested. sometimes they drill down to a depth that is absolutely fascinating, like deciding to study grammar formally.

the interesting thing is that they see these things as being separate from their “work” — they really get that they are building a storehouse of skills and abilities that will allow them to better do that work.

Comment by HSofia on August 13, 2012 at 08:13 PM

This is great. After reading it, I realized my husband and I do this with each other, but they are not scheduled, and they are more frequent than twice a year. I have your book on order, looking forward to reading more about project based homeschooling/unschooling. More for myself than anything! LOL

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 13, 2012 at 08:50 PM


my sons really hold me to my own goals as well. :) they know what i’m working on and they check in frequently asking me about my progress. i can’t get away with anything! :)

so glad you are going to read the book — can’t wait to hear what you think!

Comment by dawn suzette on August 13, 2012 at 09:19 PM

Thanks for breaking this down more Lori. I realize that this is where our projects/learning has fallen in the past. My kids need a more concrete way to see what they have achieved. The direction of specific goals is such a great motivator.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 14, 2012 at 09:06 AM


yes — i like framing learning by talking about goals. they start to think in terms of what they’re setting out to do, whether they achieved it, the skills that will help them do what they want to do. everything has a practical context.

and when projects go on and on and on without a definite end, it gives us a chance to stop and assess and, as you say, appreciate what’s been accomplished. and maybe set a new goal.

i think this focus makes their learning very personal and specific. everything they tackle has personal significance — it’s either helping them achieve a personal goal or it’s preparing them for a future they’re imagining for themselves.

and i like that they’re getting into the habit of assessing their own progress. they don’t need to take a test and be graded; they can identify their own weak areas, make a plan, and then decide if they did well enough. our focus as parents is really on big-picture preparation for life; their focus tends to be quite narrow and specific. their choices are usually fascinating and quite revealing about what’s important to them.

Comment by Kelly on August 13, 2012 at 10:25 PM

Great post, Lori. I've planted the seeds in my girls minds to be thinking of where they need to improve. It'll be so interesting to see what they say. I can see that by allowing them design their own curriculum, so much more growth can happen. I'm so excited to try it!
Can you give some insight on how you handle notification of the intent to homeschool? How exactly does one outline curriculum when you don't know exactly what materials, etc. your child will want to use? My thought is to pick basic materials in the main areas (math, grammar, etc.) and keep it simple. I'd love to hear your thoughts!

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 14, 2012 at 09:09 AM


“I can see that by allowing them design their own curriculum, so much more growth can happen.”

the goals they set for themselves are often much more ambitious that we would ever require of them! and more specific, too — see my response above to dawn. :)

“Can you give some insight on how you handle notification of the intent to homeschool? How exactly does one outline curriculum when you don't know exactly what materials, etc. your child will want to use? My thought is to pick basic materials in the main areas (math, grammar, etc.) and keep it simple.”

i’m lucky to live in a state that doesn’t require any paperwork. do you have to give a plan for the upcoming year? i would probably just take a look at your state’s learning standards/benchmarks and then phrase it in the most general way possible. if you show a portfolio or report at the end of the year, you could then match up the work that was done with the benchmarks.

if you want to give me more details about what your state requires, i can brainstorm with you. :)

Comment by David on August 14, 2012 at 01:36 AM

"A big part of why we pursue project-based homeschooling is because we believe building a foundation of strong habits will help our sons succeed at whatever they want to do in life."
This is great! This is what I argue when people try to say to me as a teacher that it's all about the content and the outcomes. It's not! It's about establishing relationships, building those foundations of strong habits and then having genuine belief in the child's individual competency...enough to say to him or her "Go for it!"
Your book just arrived at my house in Tasmania today...yay! :)

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 14, 2012 at 09:15 AM


ah, david, that is such a thrill for me — thank you! so hope that you enjoy the book. :)

“it’s all about the content and the outcomes” — if only we could measure relationships, habits of mind, and self-confidence. sigh. this is what i don’t miss about running the school: trying to convince other people to look beyond what can be tested to the individual child underneath. plus, of course, there is quality of life — something we apparently don’t care about anymore for young children, with academics pushing play relentlessly out of the classroom. children deserve lives rich with relationships, play, and meaning!

Comment by Angie on August 14, 2012 at 04:52 PM

Very inspirational and informative post! I just can't wait to order your book on payday! I think I'll learn so much from your experience! My sons are 11 & 12 and I think this is a great age to begin discussing long term aspirations! Thank you for the guidance!

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 14, 2012 at 08:04 PM

thank you so much, angie! :)

Comment by Kerry on August 15, 2012 at 08:15 AM

My girls, who were in ps school until 3rd and 4th grade have complained about skills they lack since our first day homeschooling. Part of their concern, I know, was left over insecurities from school. The way they were tested, graded and compared to other students in school left them feeling insecure. So, for a while I tried making them feel better and worry less. It's been difficult to know how to help them because, of course, you can always be better at a certain skill, there's always room for improvement, but this type of criticism was very self destructive. I tried helping them to not be so hard on themselves and to stop comparing themselves to others and when they'd criticize themselves I'd encourage them to look back on all they did accomplish. This is how I've viewed their self critiques, as something to help them get over, of course I'd try to find ways for them to work at improving too, but my focus was on making them feel good about themselves.

We've been homeschooling for two years now and after reading this, I realize that the areas they say they feel weak in now, they really are weak in and they really do want to improve. Thank you for helping change my perspective. I know I'll be better at helping them develop those skills now that I see their self evaluations for what they are. I'm looking forward to encouraging them to set some goals, write them down and work towards achieving them.

Comment by Lori Pickert on August 15, 2012 at 08:25 AM


kerry, thank you so much for sharing this.

i can easily see how you would want to steer them away from being too hard on themselves, especially if you think they’re taking on the criticisms of others. but i’m guessing that being allowed to attack those areas would raise their self-esteem faster — and they’ll feel good about their ability to learn what they think they need to learn.

going through that process of deciding what they need … then how to acquire that skill … then *judging their own progress* (no outside assessment) — i think that’s a recipe for building authentic self-esteem and self-confidence. once you’ve taken over assessing your own progress, you can always put the opinions of others into a larger framework of what *you* think.

thank you again! and let me know how it goes. 

Comment by Annice Barber on May 11, 2013 at 08:50 PM

Project-based learning, accomplished through open communication like this, shows deep respect for the child. In so-doing, it teaches the child self-respect as well. I believe this is among the most important lessons we can ever give a child, and probably to ourselves. Wonderful!

Comment by kellyjmc on January 30, 2014 at 08:24 PM

I am so happy that I found this particular post! I was feeling like I needed something like this to balance out the open field of project time... but I hadn't found where you had articulated it, and being very new to this, I was afraid of spoiling the whole concept if I brought something like this in! But now I can see that this is essential and in fact enhances the project aspect, without overshadowing it in planning and managing. Thanks!

Comment by Lori Pickert on January 31, 2014 at 08:42 AM


you are very welcome, kelly.

far from spoiling it, i think you are always on firm ground when you are being honest with your children. when you say, “i think this is something essential for you to know,” you are coming from a place of honesty and caring. when you say, “i want to support you to do the things YOU care about,” you are honoring their own feelings and interests. these things can work together! they have for us. :)

Comment by dovrar on February 1, 2014 at 08:27 AM

This might be a good post to link to the How to Start section. This really does help a lot with what to shoot for with an older child.

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 1, 2014 at 09:04 AM

good suggestion, thank you!

Comment by tina on February 11, 2014 at 01:07 PM

This is really cool. I have been looking for more ideas & support in doing more of this and am so excited to find this! Thank you for sharing & for clarifying in a lively twitter discussion. :) God bless your day!

Comment by Lori Pickert on February 11, 2014 at 01:40 PM

thank you, tina — you too! :)

Comment by Aminah on March 25, 2014 at 09:30 PM

I've just begun reading this blog after a friend suggested it to me and I am so intrigued! I have thought for a long time about incorporating projects but never really researched how and why to do it properly. I have loads of questions and maybe need a mentor here but may I begin by asking this: When discussing projects, goals and learning plans with my kids, am I asking them what do they want to LEARN or what do the want to DO, and does it matter? I know this seems petty but I wonder, will it a affect how they think about their learning goals and plans? Am I trying to spark an interest in something they want to do or create and let that naturally flow into learning content and skills or do I ask them what the want to learn about up front? Or both? And does it matter what age the child is? I have 5 kids (soon to be 6 so incorporating this into my homeschool will be a challenge for sure) ranging in age from 2-12yrs. How do I begin with a 4 or 7 yr old vs my 10 and 12 yr old? I hope my question makes sense! and I also wonder about the ever important environment when I am frankly living in a small over-crowded 2 bedroom apt in the city with my elderly mother-in-law and no dedicated "learning space". Suggestions anyone??

Comment by Lori Pickert on March 26, 2014 at 08:13 AM


When discussing projects, goals and learning plans with my kids, am I asking them what do they want to LEARN or what do the want to DO, and does it matter?

you may not be asking them anything at all — sometimes it works better to observe them and simply support what they’re already doing. if children have little experience directing their own learning, they either may not know what they want to learn or do or they may not be able to identify their own deepest interests with the best potential. or, they may know immediately what they want to do. it depends on the child.

re: learn vs. do, if you’re going to sit them down and talk about it, i would phrase it like this: we want to dedicate part of our learning to whatever it is you want to do most — you get to choose and we’ll support you. then talk it out. some may phrase it as something they want to learn: “i want to learn about knights!” some may phrase it as something they want to do: “i want to make my own video game.” it doesn’t matter — both paths lead to both learning and doing.

it’s totally doable with five kids. remember, this is independent learning. you are helping them direct and manage their own learning and their own projects. so you can float between them while they work on their own things and they can also learn to help and support one another.

start here:

read the book if possible. :) (check your library!)

and join the forum:

and we’ll help you get started!

lots of good threads in the forum about doing pbh in a small space, working with children of different ages, and so on.

Comment by Shelley Molitor on August 26, 2014 at 08:34 PM

Wow. This is a powerful way to teach the skill of planning. My son needs this too, but NOW!

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