Thirteen-year-old Jared Cobb describes himself as an “intuitive” student. He receives straight A’s in eighth grade and next year, as a freshman in high school, he’ll enter five honors classes. What’s the secret of his success?
“I always put studying ahead of everything,” says Cobb. “If I think I have a lot of homework, I won’t play with friends. If I have baseball and a big test, I’ll probably miss baseball.”
While not all students are like Cobb, whether a child excels or not in school depends on many factors, including good study habits, test taking skills and parental guidance.
Jerome J. Schultz, Ph.D., a professor of education and psychology, says it’s important for parents to take an active role early in a child’s education. “Parents are vital to kids excelling in school especially in late elementary and middle schools when children still let parents give them advice and structure,” he says.
While different kids have different needs, the following guidelines offer parents practical advice and suggestions for successful learning.
1. Make Homework a Habit
Set up regular homework time, early in the evening, in a work-friendly environment. Provide a comfortable, quiet and well-lit area to study. Children needing extra help with assignments might benefit from doing homework at the kitchen table, while a parent cooks dinner.
Stock up on the basics. A last minute rush to the store during study hours for school supplies can disrupt children’s work. Be sure you have the following:
- Pens, pencils, crayons, markers and highlighters
- Erasers, sharpeners, stapler, hole punch, correction fluid, tape and glue
- Construction paper, lined paper, index cards
- Dictionary, thesaurus and a world almanac
2. Set Limits
Parents should monitor children’s study hours, including distractions such as loud radios, TV or trips to the kitchen for snacks. Limit time spent with friends on weekdays. Restrict television viewing, since children may race through their homework to see a favorite show.
Don’t over-schedule children. Baseball practice and music lessons after school may be too many activities for some youngsters. Set and stick to a bedtime hour. Tired minds and tired bodies don’t learn very well.
3. Teach Organizational Skills
Fred Brown, former president of the National Association of Elementary School Principals, says that the ability to organize school work at a young age is essential.
“Organization helps kids stay on top of subject matter,” says Brown. “When they know exactly where something is, it takes the frustration out of the learning process.”
Good organization habits begin at home. Children should know how to keep a clean room before they start school. Draw a chart and give stars for perfect inspections. Reward efforts with a special treat or favorite activity. Other tips:
- Encourage children’s note taking techniques
- Encourage them to ask questions in class
- List and check off assignments on a calendar
- Keep papers in notebooks, using dividers for each subject
4. Communicate With Teachers
Meet your child’s teacher at the beginning of the school year. Inform teachers of family difficulties and crises such as divorce, separation or a death. This will help them better understand your child. Don’t hesitate to arrange a conference with a teacher if you have questions or concerns.
Volunteer at your child’s classroom or for projects such as at a fair or book sale. Join the school’s parent teacher organization and attend meetings.
Parent involvement may be the most important way to help children thrive. “When parents make it a point to effectively communicate with their children’s teachers about problems and challenges,” says Dan Hiller, who has taught fourth grade in the Metro Nashville Public School system for 16 years, “not only are they helping resolve problems, they are modeling appropriate ways for dealing with educators and authority figures.” Parents and teachers can then work together to provide a positive environment and improve student learning.
5. Be Alert to Problems
Don’t ignore signs of trouble. Is there a sudden drop in your child’s grades in one or more subjects? Is the student resistant to going to school in the morning? Are they taking more time than is necessary to complete homework?
Keep track of grades, homework and report cards. Teacher’s comments such as “not paying attention, sloppy work,” or “doesn’t follow instructions” tells you something about your child.
Listen to the student’s complaints, concerns and moods. Ask what’s bothering him and how you can help. There may be a simple solution to difficulties such as moving a child’s desk away from friends who are distracting. Rely on your parenting instincts to lead you in the right direction.
6. Know When to Seek Help
Schools may not respond to children’s individual needs for a variety of reasons. Don’t wait until your child is failing to seek help.
Ask for additional testing or an evaluation of your child from school authorities. If after testing you think he hasn’t been adequately assessed, insist on an independent evaluation. Your are your child’s strongest advocate.
Outside tutoring at a learning center or with a private or peer tutor may benefit children requiring enrichment or remedial assistance, says David Perkins of the Harvard Graduate School of education and author of Smart Schools: From Training Memories to Educating Minds (The Free Press).
7. Assist With Test-Taking Skills
Testing well is a skill every child can learn. To prepare for a test, students should fine tune study techniques.
Robert McClure, former director of the National Education Association’s Center for Innovation, says children should know the different test formats.
“Make sure a youngster understands how a true/false or multiple choice test works,” says McClure. “Youngsters shouldn’t fail a test because they don’t understand how to take it.”
8. Use Positive Reinforcement
Encourage children with praise rather than discouraging them with criticism or punishment. Don’t focus on whether the child receives a good or bad grade but on the “process” of learning.
Support children’s efforts in school by being available for questions and help them with homework. Check work and compliment on good effort. Before making a criticism, start with a positive comment like “Your introduction to the essay was good.”
9. Live and Learn
Read to children. Even older children will enjoy the time spent together. Obtain a library cards and help them pick out books.
Take children to work for a day, or if you don’t work, talk about careers and the education required to enter that field.
Pick up on your child’s interests. If he likes animals, take him on a field trip to the Nashville Zoo at Grassmere or a veterinarian’s office.
10. Make Learning a Priority
Expose children to music and art through trips to concerts, museums and galleries. “Youngsters should understand that obtaining a good education is a priority,” says Schultz.
“If parents demonstrate that they value education and share techniques for doing better in school with their children, then their children stand a better chance of being successful in school.”
Debra R. Berger is a freelance writer.