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Sunday, November 24, 2013

The Surprising Secret to Academic Achievement

Over the years parents have often asked me how they can support their child's academic performance at home. Until very recently, I gave all the standard answers. However, after pondering many years of observations, I have concluded that if I could pick ONE THING parents can do to support success, it would be to insist their children behave at home. I see scholastic problems developing at a very young age, even in the high chair. As just one example among innumerable similar examples, I know just such a family with a baby in a high chair. The parents say they want the child to sit down in the high chair while they feed him. The baby wants to stand up in the high chair and turn around. Although the parents tell the baby to sit down, they do not insist on compliance. In fact, they will follow the baby to the back of the chair and give him a spoonful of food. Naturally, the food reward reinforces the very behavior they would like to extinguish. It all starts from lack of consistency. When parents issue a directive, they must accept only complete compliance, not something less. Otherwise children take this same attitude into school where it becomes the number one source of academic difficulties, manifested by attempts to lower the teacher's bar and find shortcuts which substitute for real learning.

The hard truth no one wants to accept is that the most fundamental difference between high achievers and low-achievers (barring physical challenges) is classroom behavior. Every teacher knows the “good” kids tend to do well, and the disruptive kids do not. Our society does not countenance such a bald idea, so teachers couch it in terms like “does his best, “participates well," “cooperates with others,” etc. If researchers were brave enough to ask the right question, behavior would probably surpass every other variable in predicting academic achievement, even to the extent of overcoming the negative impacts of poverty. And do not worry. A loving insistence on compliance with parental directives is not “controlling”or“authoritarian,”nor will it stunt your child's creativity or critical thinking skills.

Nevertheless, beyond saying what you mean and meaning what you say, all the good advice still applies:

Adequate nutrition and sleep.

Provide a special place to do homework.

Set a regular time for homework and remove distractions.

Make sure homework is completed.

Make sure your child has a special place to record homework assignments.

Have plenty of reading material at home and encourage recreational reading.

Show that you value reading.

Turn off the TV.

Limit or eliminate video-game playing and cell phone use.

Help your child learn to use the internet properly.

Involve your child in day-to-day problem solving while shopping or completing household tasks.

Monitor after-school activities such as music lesson or sports teams. If the child is not doing the homework, reduce after-school activities. Perhaps ask the teacher to send a report home evey home every Friday.

Focus on the child's personal progress and improvement, not on test scores. Test scores that are too high are worthless. It means the test was too easy. Teacher, parent and student learn nothing useful from such a score. Better to level up the test than shoot for high scores which can make everyone feel good, but nothing more.

Double check with the teacher before hiring a tutor. Especially in math, tutors typically teach tricks for getting answers on homework, but do very little to help the child learn the concepts or acquire number sense. Teaching the child tricks can undermine the teacher's effort to provide a quality education.

Establish routines

Establish rules. Every home needs reasonable rules that children know and can depend on. Have your child help you to set rules, then make sure that you enforce the rules consistently.

Make it clear to your child that he has to take responsibility for what he does, both at home and at school. For example, don't automatically defend your child if his teacher tells you that he is often late to class or is disruptive when he is in class. Ask for his side of the story. If a charge is true, let him take the consequences.

Work with your child to develop a reasonable, consistent schedule of jobs to do around the house. List them on a calendar. Younger children can help set the table or put away their toys and clothes. Older children can help prepare meals and clean up afterwards.

Show your child how to break a job down into small steps, then to do the job one step at a time. This works for everything—getting dressed, cleaning a room or doing a big homework assignment.

Make your child responsible for getting ready to go to school each morning—getting up on time, making sure that he has everything he needs for the school day and so forth. If necessary, make a checklist to help him remember what he has to do.

Monitor what your child does after school, in the evenings and on weekends. If you can't be there when your child gets home, give her the responsibility of checking in with you by phone to discuss her plans.

PBS has some suggestions for parents.

No matter how hard you try, your child may struggle academically at some point in his school career. Here are some strategies to help you both cope when the going gets tough.

Let your kids get frustrated. When kids are having a hard time with homework or a school-related subject, they often explode with anger. And parents wonder “What did I do wrong?” “You didn’t necessarily do anything,” advises Michael Thompson, Ph.D. “Sometimes when kids feel misunderstood at school or frustrated by a subject, they get angry or provoke the parent — as a way of making you feel as helpless or angry as they feel. It’s almost like your child is saying, ‘would you hold my hopelessness for a while?’ Or ‘I need you to feel what I am going through, so I am going to make you angry.’”

Take a break. If your child says “I can’t do it!” and throws the pencil down, take a little break. Maybe she needs to rant and blow off a little steam. Come back in five minutes and start fresh. (Those five minutes could save you an hour of struggle.) This also gives a child a chance to “save face” and start over, without even discussing the previous difficulty or outburst.

Don’t always try to have a rational conversation. When kids get very upset about school, the upset may get in the way of their being rational. So wait it out instead of arguing or grilling children about the situation. Once they cool down, you might be able to talk it through.

Let your child make his own mistakes. It’s hard not to correct a child’s homework, but most teachers ask you not to take over unless your child asks for your help or the teacher requests it. Teachers generally want to know what the child understands, not what the parent understands about the material.

Put a time limit on the work. Most teachers will not expect younger kids to work longer than a half-hour on homework from any particular subject, but ask your teacher for a time limit. If your child struggles (while actively trying) and exceeds the limit, write the teacher a note explaining that was all that could get done.

Contact the school. If homework or a project is turning into a dreaded battle, talk with the school. Do not wait for your next conference. It is obviously time for some new insights and new strategies.

Help your child learn how to organize himself. This is a life-long skill that can be taught, but it can be challenging to do so. However you can help your child discover the organizational tricks that will work for him by sharing some of your own. “It’s very difficult to teach children to be organized if it is not in their nature (or yours),” says guidance counselor Linda Lendman, M.S.W. “Encourage your child to label everything. Develop strategies, like the ‘must-do list’ before you leave school (put math book in backpack). Schedule a weekly ‘clean out the backpack and clean off your desk’ time so papers don’t build up. Be patient, and try not to place blame.”

Recognize that school work will never be conflict-free. No one ever raised a child without a homework battle. “There is no conflict-free homework strategy for most kids,” says Michael Thompson, Ph.D. “At times, kids will find it fun and fascinating. Other times, it may be something they just have to do, and you have to help them find the structure for getting it done.”

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