You want your child to do their very best in school and in life. You want them to pay attention to their teacher, make an effort, and develop the skills and knowledge necessary for success in life. Unfortunately, he or she doesn't seem to share these values or doesn't seem to be able to fulfill the expectations set forth by a teacher. While this situation can be enormously frustrating for you and your child, there are many strategies to help your family cope and to improve your child's performance. The demands of today's school system can seem insurmountable, but motivating your child for greater success is within your reach.
- Nurture a positive attitude towards school and learning. Be sure that conversations of school don't center around what your child isn't doing or isn't doing well. Your child may say that their favorite part of the school day is gym or recess. Rather than say, "I meant the academic school day!" ask them about these activities that they enjoy so they know you care. They may start opening up more about other issues that are frustrating or challenging for them. Speak positively about school activities and use a positive tone. Avoid nagging and prolonged lecturing which is unproductive and will encourage your child to tune out. There are no consequences to a lecture. In the following steps, you will hear about much more constructive strategies.
- Set high but attainable goals with your child. Find out where your child is in academics and skills in order to set specific and 'doable' goals with them. Talk with their teacher and ask to see their assignments, homework, and exams. Ask the teacher about what kind of improvement they expect to see as well as what is considered grade-level work. For example, if your child is struggling in Math, find out what's holding them up. Have they not memorized their multiplication table? If the teacher sends home practice drills and you see that they completed only 15 facts in a 3 minute quiz, then set a goal of completing 20 facts in a 3 minute quiz. Work towards this goal by practicing 10 minutes a day with flash cards.
If they are reading below grade level, ask their teacher for sample titles or series that are at your child's grade level and encourage them to read at their reading level for 20 minutes a day. Forcing them to read a grade-level book because that's where they should be, is not beneficial to building their reading skills.
It may be more difficult to set such specific goals with some subjects and areas of learning, but set goals such as studying or reviewing material for 10-20 minutes each day with the goal of improving 5-10 percentage points or one grade level on the next quiz, exam, or assignment. Going from a 'D' to an 'A' overnight is not realistic.
- Relish small successes and keep your eye on the near future. Children, especially the younger they are, have a difficult time grasping long-term consequences and rewards. This is developmentally normal. For this reason, questions such as, "Don't you want to go to college someday?" or "You don't want to work in a fast-food restaurant when you grow up, do you?" fall on deaf ears. Instead, celebrate the short-term successes. They memorized their 9's facts! They moved up a reading level! They got a 'C' on their Algebra quiz instead of a 'D'! They showed improvement on a written essay! Fight the thought that they still haven't done enough. Tell them that this is a step in the right direction. Ask them if they don't feel proud. Slow, steady work can be built into long-term successful habits. Crashing for exams and learning months of material in a few days are not sustainable or effective habits. Try to build intrinsic rewards, that is, your child feels good on the inside when they meet their goals. These lessons cross over into all areas of a well-balanced and productive life.
- Provide the structure and routine necessary for success. You talk the talk, now walk the walk with them. Write out a weeknight schedule with your child. Build in time for meals and snacks, exercise, fresh air, chores, and family activities. Build in rewards so your child is working each day towards their goals without procrastinating which is stressful to everyone. For example, 7:00-8:00 can be TV time, if homework is complete by this time. Otherwise, the TV stays off. Provide a quiet place for them to work and minimize technological distractions (i.e. cell phones, TV, music, video games, etc.). Your family will be surprised that there are enough hours in the day when you eliminate whining and procrastination sessions. In addition, this schedule is great to share with teachers. Let them know how much time your child is dedicating to each subject. This is especially important for them to see if your child is continuing to struggle in an area in which they are working hard.
- Reduce stress and keep your child healthy. Children experience stress, too. And they aren't always conscious of the positive outlets for stress. Your child can display stress in the form of physical complaints, change in eating or sleeping habits, and mood swings. Encourage them to talk through their daily frustrations, to think positively, and teach them how to let things go. Imagery such as picturing a bad day as a bubble floating in front of them that they can then pop, can be effective in even very young children.
Like us, children need to get enough sleep (9-10 hours a day); they need to eat breakfast and balanced meals; they need to avoid over-consumption of sugar and processed foods; and they need exercise each day. Help your child to practice good posture and deep breathing. Ask them how much better they feel when they take a moment to relax. Lastly, regular check-ups with the family pediatrician and dentist are essential.
- Celebrate your child's unique strengths while encouraging ongoing effort in areas that are more challenging. Some subjects are easier for your child. While you know they don't need as much concerted effort in these areas, don't take away the joy and success they feel from their natural talents. Enjoy their accomplishments and look for ways to nurture these areas with summer or after-school activities. If your child is a wonderful artist, but struggles with Math, they may choose to be an artist when they grow up but you don't want that to be their only option. They may be a scientist, doctor, or engineer if they are able to catch up and find success in the areas of Math and Science. Perhaps they will do both.
- Remember that your child's academic success is a team effort. In our modern school system, parents can no longer be passive participants. The members of the team include you, your child, your child's teacher, as well as many wonderful support systems available at school such as reading tutors, Special Education, and Gifted and Talented programs. Everyone has to do their part.
Avoid the blame game and try to work constructively with teachers and your child. Remember that teachers have enormous pressures on them, but open and willing parents are a gift to them and they will most likely work with you if you give them a chance. Encourage your child to be an active participant in their learning. Your child should be encouraged to have open communication with their teachers and to let them know when they don't understand what to do. They should be the front line of defense when it comes to breakdown in understanding. The more your child participates, the more their teacher will see that they care and that they are trying. He or she is more likely to reach out to them. This is how your child learns to advocate for themselves in school and in life. Also, effective, invaluable communication skills are building. The more your child asks questions, the more their learning is becoming a meaningful process to them, likely to be ingrained in them for a very long time.
- Nurture independence while still holding your child accountable. The long-term goal is not to stand over your child at every moment as they complete their homework or to obsessively check their backpacks for quiz scores every day. If your child is to have academic success for the long haul, they will have to integrate effective habits and practices into their everyday life. But you don't set them out completely on their own either. As much is they won't admit it to you, they like it when you check up on them. It's how they know you care. Once they are on a roll, have a once a week check-in session about what is going well and what they are still struggling with. Again, if you avoid long-winded lectures they are much more likely to keep an open ear.
- Rewards are okay, but they can take many forms. You want to avoid external rewards such as cash for every good grade or new toys for every week that your child completes their homework or make gains. This gets exhausting (not to mention expensive) over time and loses its effectiveness. Your child will become spoiled and will be working for the wrong reasons. This may even encourage them to go through the motions or cut corners with work if they only have their eye on the prize. But material rewards are okay once in a great while.
It might sound counter-intuitive, but be random about it. For example, your child has really shown an improved effort for weeks now and they've made gains in school work. Maybe they did well on a test last week. You see a toy that you know they would love (hopefully not a video game) and you pick it up for them. "What's this for?" They'll say. You say, "Because I'm proud of you, I was thinking of you, and I wanted to do something special for you." This will go a long way. Also, rewards can take the form of time spent together. For busy families, time can be a valuable asset. You may be surprised to learn how much of a reward your child might consider a day alone fishing with dad or a movie out with mom.
- Teach your child to cope with failure, but to learn from their successes. Not doing well with some areas of schoolwork sometimes is not the end of the world. Teach your child that it's okay to feel a little down or disappointed, after all, this can be a motivator to try even harder next time. But they also need to be able to let things go and move on. You may be surprised to see your child swing from not caring at all, to caring too much. We can learn more from our successes than our failures. You did well on an exam? Excellent! Now take a moment to reflect on what you did differently this time. Oh, you studied a little each day and went to bed early? Apply that next time.
You love your child and you anticipate that they will do well. It is possible to reduce the feelings of worry and disappointment you may be experiencing. These positive, nurturing, constructive practices will get your child on the road to success. Choose one of the above steps and start today. The rewards will begin tomorrow and last a lifetime.
Susan Niz, M.Ed.