How do you get your kid into college?

gradsParents often ask one key questions of experts in child development: “How do I get my kid into Harvard?”

Now, I’m not talking parents of high school juniors or seniors who want the nitty gritty of college admissions (although I could write plenty about that, having gone through the process with my oldest three years ago, and with my middle child working on applications this month!) I’m talking about parents of toddlers or preschooler who want to know they’re starting their journey on the right path. Who want to know:  what is the most essential thing a parent needs to do to guarantee their child’s success in academics and hopefully in life.

All the child development experts have answers to the question, and some are based on good science. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, says “tell them to go play outside.” Erika Christakis, a preschool director, and her husband Nicholas, professor at Harvard, say to choose a play-based preschool, not academics-based. The president of Harvard said “Make your children interesting!” He  recommended encouraging children to follow their passions as a way to develop an interesting personality. (There’s a nice article in this month’s Parent Map about helping kids find their passion.) John Medina, author of Brain Rules for Baby, has said to audience members: “You want to get your kid into Harvard? You really want to know what the data say? Go home and love your wife.”

These all seem like valid advice to me.

But what’s my best advice for academic success, in whatever form that takes?

Nurture a love for learning, and the belief that school is a great environment in which to feed that passion.

If you observe any baby or toddler, you see that they are driven by curiosity, and a desperate desire to learn more about their world, and master the skills they need to accomplish the tasks that are important to them. Some lucky adults still have that love for learning, intact from childhood.

Unfortunately, many children have that love for learning stomped on at some point in their life. Often in the school setting. Some examples:

  • A child who learns best by moving is placed in a school that has limited physical education and recess in order to focus on academic work at desks. That child comes to view school as a cage that they can’t wait to escape.
  • A child with a passion for some topic may be told “that’s not what we’re talking about now. You need to stop thinking about that and focus on this other topic that I think is more important.” That child suffers through school hours till she can get home and do the things that she cares about.
  • A child who learns best by interacting with others who is given worksheets and flash cards and drilled over and over in rote learning will believe that school is boring, then extend that to believing that learning is boring.
  • A child with learning disabilities is made to feel stupid and incompetent and has a hard time ever again believing otherwise.

I feel pretty blessed that our children have had access to schools* that fostered their love of learning.

When I first looked at kindergartens for my oldest child, we looked at the one within walking distance of our house. It was called Montessori, which I had the vague impression was a good brand name for a school. But when we looked at it, I saw a room of 5 and 6 year old kids sitting at desks filling out worksheets. Sure, a few of them were working with Montessori style manipulables to help them… but the main goal was completing the worksheet. When I asked about their day, it sounded like the way they did individualized education was that each child could work at their own pace through the same workbooks. They had only 10 minutes of recess in the morning and 10 in the afternoon – which might have worked for my daughter, who was just as happy to sit and read as to run around, but I couldn’t imagine it for a more active child. In their library, they had only non-fiction books. When I asked about fiction, they basically sniffed and said kids could waste their time on story books at home. That’s when I knew this was NOT the school for us. (My daughter’s deepest passion from about age 1 to 21 (so far) is stories. And I believe fiction is a great tool for teaching academic literacy, cultural literacy, imagination, empathy, and more. This school would have stomped on her passion for learning through story.)

We kept looking for the right school. The one we found had an emergent curriculum – an example of emergent learning is: if you have a first grader, you want them to learn to read. But it really doesn’t matter what they read. So, instead of making all the kids read the same books, you let the dinosaur boys read about dinosaurs, and the girls who love puppies read about dogs. If a kid asks a question about the classroom pet, you show him how to look up the answer in a book, and he learns that books are the way to learn the new things he cares about learning. Again, nurture a love for learning, and the belief that school is a great place to feed that passion.

Our girls went on to have a great educational experience that kept that love for learning alive.Another key aspect of a good school is one that understands the difference between building a fixed mindset vs. a growth mindset, which “thrives on challenge and sees failure not as evidence of unintelligence but as a heartening springboard for growth and for stretching our existing abilities.” (Read more.)

My middle child is in her senior year of high school, and totally jazzed about her comparative government class – she can’t stop talking about economics, human rights, and governmental policies! When she had the opportunity to visit some college classes last week, she was looking through the list, and gushing with enthusiasm “oh wow, political sociology! Theory of cognitive linguistics! Biochemistry! How do I choose??” When she had a college admissions interview, she gushed at the interviewer about how much she loves her post-modern literature class.She takes free online college classes about nutrition and food science in her free time.

I love seeing in her what I hope to see in all kids. She TRULY loves to learn. She is really excited about new ideas. She sees school as a great venue for feeding that.

Now, my kid is an academic. Your child might not be an academic in quite the same way. College in general is not right for all kids, and getting into Harvard specifically is certainly not possible for many, and not the right match for some kids for whom it is possible.

But… whatever your child’s talents, whatever his or her passions, I have faith that the best way to help them reach their potential is to keep that toddler’s love for learning alive. Model for them your own excitement over learning new things. Support their passion for discovery. Seek out schools that support it. That’s how to get your kid into college…
photo credit: pcutler via photopin

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