12 Most Parenting Ways to Help Your Kids Have a Great School Year
I met with some moms a few weeks ago to lead a discussion about how to help our children through the coming school year without losing our minds. Turns out there are a few strategies that are reasonable, inexpensive or even free, and destined to leave you with time and sanity on your hands.
1. Set individual goals for each child and involve the child in the goal
Have a private conversation with each child about what she wants to accomplish in the coming year. Ask your child to tell you about what went well last year, and what could go better. Ask where she wants to be at the end of the year — summer vacation seems so far away right now, but it comes quickly. Goals can apply to sports, music, and social areas as well as academics. Both of you should be happy with the goal. When you’ve decided, put it in writing and post it somewhere you can both see it.
2. Build in a “recovery” plan so the goal isn’t invalidated by one mistake
When my daughter was in elementary school, the school came up with a “for everyone” goal: do homework every single night. That was pretty much what I had in mind anyway. But one night my daughter did the wrong page of homework and the next day got a zero and had her name removed from the “did-my-homework-every-night-so-I-get-a-big-prize” list. That’s when I realized what was wrong with that goal: there was no room for recovery. Kids got sick. Kids misunderstood the assignment. Kids had parents who had a car accident. Kids had families who went out of town.
By halfway through the year, almost no one was left on the list. The majority of kids had no incentive to keep doing homework, as far as the school’s big goal was concerned. Goals need to be a stretch, but they need to allow a mistake now and then without becoming unavailable.
Besides, kids should learn mistakes aren’t the end of the world — or the end of the goal. “Keep trying” is an important message.
3. Define “success” together
When you define what “success” looks like, do it with your child. Your child lives in the world of school and knows what success means to him. Perhaps it’s being nice to the shy kid at lunch. Maybe it’s trying every strange sport in P.E. Get insight from your child about what would make a difference to him, what would make him feel successful. Your ideas matter as well, but don’t discount your child’s perspective.
“Success” can change during the year. Regularly discuss the goals and what success looks and feels like.
4. Provide lots of support, in whatever form is most helpful
High expectations are great, but they should come with high levels of support. Parents are usually the first line of defense when it comes to last-minute trips to the craft store to build a model of a volcano or to the library to get a reference book when the teacher requires at least one source not to be from the internet. Another way of supporting your kids is to help them establish a routine so they know where homework fits in, where playtime fits in, where television fits in, and where family time fits in. Predictable routines might feel boring, but they also feel safe, especially when things get really busy. Enforcing bedtime and providing healthy meals also offers support to kids.
But parents don’t need to be the only source of support. There is homework help available online, at the library, and through tutoring or study groups. Help your child find the support systems that work best for her.
5. Offer rewards that matter to the student
Rewards are a tricky issue with some parents. I have to admit, though, that I don’t understand why adults who expect a salary and sick days and vacation days and other perks in exchange for their work call it a “bribe” when there’s any kind of reward attached to a child’s work. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with setting up a reward system for genuine hard work on your child’s part.
The school offers some rewards: grades, honor societies, special clubs, and year-end parties. But not all kids are able to perform to the school’s expectations. Work with your child to decide what rewards would be appealing and meaningful to her. They don’t need to be expensive or a “thing.” One of my tutoring students loves cats, so when she has finished her work, she plays with my cats for the last five minutes of her session (I worked this out with her mom, of course). Another student loves it when I read to him. So while he’s doing work like coloring in areas of a map, I read a book we’ve picked out together. And if he finishes all his work, he gets another chapter at the end of the session. Two different kids — two different rewards. No bribes. All good.
6. Be involved at school
Actor Tony Danza spent a year teaching high school in Philadelphia. In a recent article in USA Weekend, he said one of the most important things parents can do is show up. Kids need to see their parents at the school for the open house, back to school night, the school play, the big game, the concert, the parent-teacher conference. The more often you are in the school, the more you will know what’s going on.
Everyone is busy. Being involved in your children’s school is a sacrifice. It shows them how you feel about school, how you feel about education in general, and how you feel about them. Be known as someone who shows up. And if there is ever a problem, the teachers and administrators will probably be more likely to listen because they’ve seen you there supporting your kids and the school.
7. Collaborate with teachers and administrators
Parents are great advocates for their kids when they strive for collaboration with the school. Sometimes, teachers are grouchy. Some have favorites. Some give really boring homework. But blaming the teacher or the school for every problem your child has doesn’t really help her learn to develop the skills she’ll need for success. Always listen to your child’s side of the story, but encourage problem solving instead of blaming.
A great way to create an atmosphere of collaboration is to communicate with the teacher right from the start. After attending back-to-school night, email the teacher to introduce yourself and create a dialogue. Don’t wait until there’s a problem. Also, alert the teacher and the school if family situations (illness, relocation, grandparent coming to live) are likely to have an affect on your child’s school performance.
8. Study! Read, balance the checkbook, bring work home
One way to demonstrate value of learning is to do it yourself. If possible, enroll in a course through continuing education programs, the local community college, or an online university. If that doesn’t work for you, just create an individual study program. Then walk your talk — study in front of your kids. Bring work home and let your kids know you won’t be watching television until your work is complete. If your child is studying math at the kitchen table, sit alongside and balance the checkbook. Math in action! Set aside time for your personal study just as your child does.
One of my professors talked about how much she and her husband read. Their kids saw them reading all the time. They didn’t need to tell their kids how important reading was — they showed them. Demonstrate your commitment to education and learning by letting your kids catch you studying.
9. Create an environment that supports studying
I’ve read many recommendations that children MUST study in their rooms or MUST study in a common room or MUST study at a certain time of day. I think you need to take your own child and family into consideration and create an environment that supports studying — whatever that environment might be. Some kids do better in a more common area, able to block out some distraction and benefitting from the feeling of being involved. Others prefer to be alone, in a bedroom surrounded by quiet. Children who have decided to study will make the most of wherever they are; likewise, children determined not to study will manage to be distracted in the most pristine of environments. The idea is to arrange things to make good studying as easy as possible.
The basics include good light, access to computer (as appropriate), supplies (pencils, papers, books), and a comfortable chair. Some students like background music, and others will try to persuade you that the television fits that “background noise” idea perfectly. The truth is that students cannot watch television and do homework well at the same time. They can watch television and rush through homework during commercials, but that’s probably not ideal. Multi-tasking is a myth — don’t buy it.
Sometimes a visit to an offsite study spot such as the library is a great break in the routine.
10. Put school first as a family
Family attitude about the importance of school comes through loud and clear. Families that make a point of attending performances, athletic events, and other activities to support each other demonstrate support of the child involved and school overall. It’s important to be willing to make sacrifices to support each child’s success in school. Mark school events on the family calendar. Plan family activities to include school events. Encourage children to support each other by being there.
11. Keep the future in the picture
It’s easy to forget the big picture (graduation, college, career) in the middle of a really boring project or a really tough exam. Keep the future part of the picture when talking about school. Educational success plays a huge role in financial success. Greater success leads to more options. Learning is a lifelong process. As children think about their futures, include school options as part of the discussion. Talk about how your education has helped you. Help kids see past this rotten assignment or even this tough year to the bigger issues involved.
Take the role of learning on the road. Head to museums, laboratories, corporate offices, theatre productions, athletic events, college campuses — all the great things that can be part of the future. Let your children see what can happen when you work hard in school.
12. Never stop listening
Most important: listen. When the kids aren’t talking, listen more. Pay attention to their schedules; know when tests and big projects are happening. Understand that some questions, like “How was your day?” actually beg to be answered with a non-answer “fine.” Ask something else.
Some families ask for one good thing and one bad thing. Some families ask for one thing learned that day. There’s no secret formula for getting kids to talk. The best way to encourage talking is to really listen. Sometimes the moment he walks in the door after a tough day might not be a good time. Typically, kids want to talk at night, when things settle down and they’re feeling relaxed. You might be exhausted, but if you can stay up and listen, that will tell your kids all they need to know.
It’s often easier to see how to be involved in the elementary school years, with a steady stream of school open houses, parent conferences, class parties, home room parents, field trips, and activity days. It gets a little harder in middle and high school, where both students and schools seem to make it harder for parents to be involved. But, as a Harvard Family Research Project (Spring, 2007) indicates, parent and family support remains a powerful predictor of student success. So hang in there, and you can all have a great school year… together.
So, to get us to Lucky 13, what else have you tried to help your kids have a great year?
Featured image courtesy of tanakawho licensed via Creative Commons.