Thursday, February 27, 2014

how parents can help their children succeed in school

So it's happened.  Your wonderful, happy child earned a less-than-stellar grade in school. Whether this happens in 1st grade or late in high school, only once or many times, it can be a really stressful time.  Parents want their children to succeed and love school.  Students want school to be fun, social, and interesting.  Teachers need to prepare students for high stakes tests or to advance to the next level.  Can you see how the three parties involved in education sometimes have different and even competing interests? 

I think it's wonderful when parents want to get involved in the educational process and help their children succeed.  There's a clear set of steps to follow and by doing so, the three sides of the educational triangle have the best chance of success. 

Step 1:  Talk to your child.  You don't need to yell.  Just ask questions. 
  1. Why do you think you didn't do well?
  2. What did you do to prepare?
  3. Did you complete all the required and review assignments and readings? 
  4. Did you take and study your notes?
  5. Did you ask the teacher for help during class and/or after school?
  6. What did the teacher suggest you do?  Did you complete the suggestions?

The answers might be great, but may also include comments like, "Everyone did poorly," "The teacher hates me," "There was too much work," or "It took too long." 

As the parent, you have to ignore at least some of this.  It is unlikely that everyone did poorly.  More likely your child and perhaps a couple of friends did poorly, but if everyone did poorly, there would be remediation. 

"The teacher hates me" is most often projection.  Students both want to be liked and hate getting bad grades and often the negativity of poor performance gets mixed up in personal feelings.  As a 27 year teaching veteran, I can honestly say that it's hard to hate a child.  It's easy to hate their behaviors and so it's best for everyone to try to remove all the emotional baggage from the conversation and focus on these behaviors. 

The last two student comments are critical places for the parent to step in.  Most students want to spend the least amount of time possible on homework.  It's in their nature.  Work is not always fun and so it makes sense to do the minimum, especially if things have been going well for a while.  What students need to understand is that when a class becomes difficult, they need to spend more time on it.  Their inclination is to actually spend less because they don't like it or it's hard, and this creates a feedback loop that doesn't take long to spiral into failure.  Time is often a challenge for our over-scheduled students, but parents who help their children set aside additional time for homework and reprioritize activities have the best chance of helping their children turn things around. 

Parents often also want to help their children with the work and this is great if you can do it without yelling, but there are some important guidelines. 
  • Don't do the work for them.  (Only your child should be holding the pencil or typing the words.)
  • Stay within your levels of expertise.  (If you don't speak Spanish, don't try to help.)
  • Accept that at some point you can no longer help because your child has surpassed your knowledge. (This is a good thing) .
  • Limit your efforts to 30 minute sessions. (You'll both feel better if you do something different after 30 minutes.  You can come back later if needed.)

It is possible that even after you take all these steps, the progress you seek doesn't happen.  Even if your student is spending more time on the work, completing all assignments, and following teacher suggestions, the grades might not improve as quickly or as far as you'd like.  Time for Step 2.

Step 2:  Contact the teacher and express your concerns and expectations.  You don't need to yell.  Just ask questions.
  1. Is my child doing his/her part?
  2. Is there something he/she should do differently or in addition?
  3. Is there something we can do at home to help?
  4. Can the teacher or a tutor help after school?
  5. What are the actionable steps and checks we can complete to measure progress?

Write everything down.  Make sure you understand.  Ideally your child is in the conference, but if not, you need to be able to explain the plan.

Implement the plan.  Follow through with your child.  Accept no excuses.  Check work, monitor study time, review flashcards together, do whatever you decided was the plan.  Check in with the teacher about classroom progress and behavior. 

It is possible that even after you take all these steps, the progress you seek still doesn't happen.  This is frustrating, but not the end of the world.  Sometimes your expectations for progress are not realistic for your child or the discipline.  Sometimes intellectual processing and maturation takes longer than a week or two.  Don't panic.  Run through Step 1 again.  Ask those questions.  Run through Step 2 again.  Contact the teacher.  Make sure you and your child have done everything you said you would.  Develop another plan.  Keep working on it.  (If you think all this is too much effort, then maybe you should reconsider your expectations.)

When you reach the point where you feel you and your child have done everything possible, then and only then should you implement Step 3. 

Step 3:  Contact someone else in the school. 

I think it's easy to start at the top, to speak to a principal or department chair and express your grievances.  But the reality is, the administrator will have to turn around and discuss the situation with the teacher, so in a lot of cases you are simply putting someone in the middle of a situation that will resolve itself in exactly the same way. 

I would never suggest that there aren't poor teachers and problems that can only be resolved by administrators. But more often than not, these are the exceptions.  Most issues can be handled through communication between parents, students, and teachers.  It's also important to remember that we all face challenges and problems that are difficult.  Teaching your children how to work through these problems is an important part of growing up and the responsibility of both schools and parents. 

There are a lot of hard realities that we parents have to face in dealing with our children's setbacks.  We must accept that our children are not the smartest in the class or equally able in every subject.  Not every child will get an A in a particular class and most children do not get A's in every subject.  Many schools have various tracks so that the pace of the learning meets the developmental progress of the children.  This means that not every child will nor should be in the advanced track.  Just because a parent is an engineer or a poet doesn't say anything about a child's abilities or interests.  

Whether a student's challenges come in geometry, history, chemistry, English, or French is actually pretty unimportant.  We all have strengths and weaknesses.  Learning to leverage the strengths and improve the weak areas is the key to success.  That's what schools and parents must teach. 

In the end, we are all on the same team, the one in which students create their own successes and understanding in school.  The parent and the teacher are there to guide and assist, but it is the student that must do the work and learn from the consequences of actions.  In school and in life, everyone falls down.  What we do next says everything about us.  

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