Help Your Child Succeed in School

“According to research, the most accurate predictor of a student’s achievement in school is not income or social status, but the extent to which that student’s family is able to:

  1. create a home environment that encourages learning,
  2. communicate high, yet reasonable, expectations for their children’s achievement and future careers,
  3. become involved in their children’s education at school and in the community.” (source)

Create a Home Environment that Encourages Learning

Teach a love for reading. Reading is key to all academic learning. Read to your child often; choose fun books that give you joy when you read them. Take frequent trips to the library – make getting new books a special event in your week. Go to story times at the library or the bookstore. Read a lot yourself so your child sees the lifelong benefits. Tell them about your favorite stories. When they ask questions, don’t always just answer off the top of your head – be sure to sometimes model how to look it up!

Play games and do puzzles together. These things teach that challenging yourself to think hard is fun. Kids also learn strategy, how to follow rules, problem-solving, how to develop mnemonics to remember things, how to be a good winner and a good loser and many games teach math skills. Many logic games, word and math puzzles are also good preparation for future test-taking skills.

Make things together. Making things from kits or following recipes will teach your child how to follow directions precisely and the importance of doing things in the right order. But also have times for free play with legos and such, experimentation in the kitchen, and making “inventions” from cardboard, straw, and tape. This teaches flexible thinking and innovation. It also teaches that things may not go right the first time, and we have to start again, tweak, refine, and keep trying till it works right.

Discipline – teach rules & manners. To succeed in school, kids need to understand that there are rules, and that when they follow the rules, we get to enjoy being together, and when they break the rules, they get negative consequences. They need to know how to pay attention, how to listen, how to take turns. Give your child chores so they learn how to be responsible. Show them how to break a big job into manageable steps.

Manage screen time. Limit total screen time (videos + video games + apps). The AAP recommends limiting to 1 hour per day for age 2 – 5, and less than 2 hours for school age kids. Monitor what content they’re being exposed to. (Common Sense Media provides good guidance on appropriate content.) Make sure media use doesn’t block kids from getting physical exercise, interactive play time, and adequate sleep. Designate media free times for the whole family and media-free locations in the home.

Promote social-emotional skills. Getting along with peers and teachers helps the child feel a part of the school community, and thus more engaged. Thus, friendship skills are essential, as is emotional literacy. Kids need to be able to resolve conflicts, ignore disruptive behavior from classmates, handle their frustrations effectively and reach out for help when needed.

Create an organized family life. Following family routines at home – like hanging your coat up when   you get home, tidying up your toys, and taking your dishes to the kitchen – help a child learn and follow similar rules at school. If children get plenty of sleep, they will be alert and ready to learn all day. School age children generally need 10 – 11 hours at night. Healthy breakfast foods that are rich in whole grains, fiber and protein and low in sugar get the day off to a good start. Having all the school supplies (backpack, homework, lunchbox) gathered in the evening helps mornings go more smoothly.

Also, be sure your child has the self care skills to be independent at school. For example, a kindergartener should be able to put on their own boots and coat, zip their coat, toilet independently, keep their things organized in a cubby, and open their own food packages at lunch.

Create a space for homework. From toddlerhood onward, you can have a special place in the house where you do quiet work such as art. If your child views this as a happy place they can settle in and focus, that will easily transition to a homework space. When your child is doing homework, you can support them by helping them get organized, making sure they have the necessary materials, asking about daily assignments, helping interpret instructions, and praising your child’s efforts.

Communicate high, yet reasonable, expectations

Talk about the value of education. The more you value education and learning, the more they will. Talk about how your education has helped you succeed. If your lack of education has blocked you from your goals, share that, and tell them what you’re doing now to overcome that. Talk about the important work you see being done around you and about how good it is that people are educated to do that work.

Model a work ethic. If your child sees that you work hard, do your best, challenge yourself to continue to learn more and do better, and are responsible and reliable, it motivates them to be/do the same.

Take school attendance seriously. Making sure they get to school on time, and attend every day, shows them how important school is. If you take them out of school for vacations, that de-values education.

Challenge them, but don’t overwhelm them. Whether you’re choosing puzzles for them to try, or choosing board games, or books, or giving them extra academic challenges, be aware that there is a “sweet spot” for learning. You want things to be easy enough that they are capable of doing them with work, but not so easy that they don’t even have to think to complete them. They want to be challenging enough that your child has to stretch, but not so challenging that they always fail. You’re trying to teach the self-confidence that comes with knowing that if you work hard, you will be successful.

Praise and give constructive feedback. Don’t give a lot of empty praise for the stuff that’s easy for them to do, but DO give lots of praise for the places where they had to work hard. Praise that effort, don’t imply that it’s just god-given talent that helped them do well. The more specific your praise the better, and it’s fine to give suggestions for how to improve (without criticizing their current work). “You’ve been working really hard at coloring inside the lines and look how nicely you’ve done it here! I have a tip for a way to make it easier – would you like me to show you?”

Play games – don’t “let them win”. Many parents find that if they beat their child at a board game, their child has a meltdown. So, they either don’t play games, or they let their child win all the time. (Which may be fun for the child for a while, but teaches them nothing, and gets boring over time.) Instead, choose developmentally appropriate games where your child has a chance at beating you if they pay attention and think hard. They’ll still be disappointed when they lose, but triumphant when they win!

School/Family partnership

Research shows that when parents are involved, students have higher grades, higher test scores, better attendance, better homework completion, higher graduation rates, and fewer behavioral issues.

Meet the teacher and stay visible to them: Drop off or pick up your child at the classroom when you can, come to school events, respond to teacher emails when asked to. If you’re asked to send in something specific for a class project, be sure to do so. This lets the teacher know that you care.

Attend parent-teacher conferences / back to school nights: Come prepared with questions like: What are my child’s strengths? Where are they struggling and how can I help? Does my child have any special needs and what programs are available to support them? What can we do at home to support learning? Ask for additional meetings if needed, but don’t over-burden the busy teacher with too many requests.

Support the teacher and the school: If possible, there’s nothing more powerful than volunteering in your child’s classroom! It builds your connection with the teacher, their feeling supported by you makes them more supportive of your child, you get the chance to see your child’s classroom in action, which helps you better communicate to your child about school, and your child sees how much you value their school experience. If you can’t volunteer on a regular basis, at least try to get in there a few times during the year. Lots of parents will volunteer for the special events, like the Halloween and Valentines Day parties. Consider helping out with some of the less glamourous or more everyday tasks. If you can’t make it in on a schedule, but could so some things at home, then ask the teacher what tasks you can take off of their plate: could you make play-dough, prep materials for a special project, label books, re-do the bulletin boards, or other things to free her time up to focus on the kids and prepping for class?

You can also support the school through participating in the PTA, donating to special requests, being friendly to and supportive of all the staff members, helping out in the library, and so on.

Speak positively about the school: Don’t bad-mouth the teacher or criticize the school in front of your child. If you have concerns, do address them, but in the meantime, display a positive attitude to your child.

Attend school events: Going to concerts, school plays, science fairs and more reinforces the home to school connection.

Learn the names of your child’s classmates: Use class pictures, class lists, or take notes in the classroom to learn the names of all the kids – you can help your child learn the names (which helps them build friendships) and it also helps you communicate with your child about the social life of the school. Make connections to other parents, and set up playdates outside of school.

Know about your child’s day: If you have a sense of their schedule, the routines, who their friends are, favorite subjects and so on, it helps you ask them specific questions about their day. Instead of the generic “how was school”, if you say “you had a math test today, how did that go?” or “you have music tomorrow – I know you love that” helps show your child that they, and their life, are important to you.

Learn what they’re learning: Read the materials that the school sends home that talk about curriculum. Also review Common Core Learning Standards: www.k12.wa.us/resources/YourChildsProgress.aspx

Reviewing Report Cards: Read and reflect on the grades when your child is not there. Then show to your child, focus first on an area of strength: “You did great in ____! You must be proud of all your hard work.” Then talk about where a grade is lower: “tell me how things are going with _____.” Start a safe open dialog about what the challenges are and work together to develop a strategy for improvement. Last, let your child know that they’re special, and there’s more to who they are than just a report card.

Strike a Balance – Avoid All Work and No Play

Some parents are, perhaps, overly focused on school success. They fill their child’s outside-of-school time with more academics: tutoring, math club, and workbooks at home. Remember that childhood is about more than just learning academic skills: children are still learning big motor skills (how to run, jump, throw), and small motor skills (not just writing and drawing, but using tools and manipulating materials) and the social skills and emotional regulation that come from free, unstructured play with other kids. Make sure they don’t miss out on those!

We know from neuroscience that kids need down time to relax, process, and let their brain cement all the connections they’ve been developing. Another thing we know from brain science is that children learn best when they feel safe and happy. Reducing stress and increasing calm and confidence increases their neuroplasticity which allows their brain to absorb all this new information. So, give them time to relax, to play, and to enjoy childhood!

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