How to help your kids ace school

The extra traffic gridlock’s probably reminded you – even if you don’t have your own children – that school’s underway for the year again. And whilst some parents celebrate and many kids weep, relatively few of us are thinking about how to help our kids ace school as we sit in the car, crawling through the drop off zone.

That’s a problem, unless you’re happy for your child to exit the education system as average at the other end. For while the best intentions of a school are for your child to prosper, it’s too easy for any individual to get lost in a system overloaded with expectations, paperwork and an increasing number of special need students.

You could blame the school for the ordinary result. It’d be easier. Or you could partner with them and help your kids ace school, setting them up for success both this year and over the longer term. Here’s some ideas to help you do that:

Run an attitude check

Before you do anything else, start with a conscious audit of your own and any other caregiver’s attitudes towards school and learning. Because whether you mean it or not, the young scholars in your care have picked them up.

This hit home when one of my own kids was in Year 1. Whilst helping with reading, I was struck by a little girl who would not learn to read. She simply refused to try. Her “no use” and “waste of time” mutterings were backed by regular lateness and non-attendances, as well as a lack of interest and effort. It broke my heart to hear her family’s expectations so deeply ingrained already.

What have you unwittingly told your kids about learning? Clean up your own history and find what good you can from any negative school experiences you had, lest you pass unhelpful attitudes on. School’s are much better places than they were in our day – trust me – so that should help!

Manage their expectations, too

Some children go off on day one all excited and announce to their parents that evening they’ve done school now. Here’s a reminder that one of the most valuable contributions you can make is to be aware of their developing attitudes to education. Because attitudes matter.

Attitudes are built out of what we know, what happens to us, and the meaning we make of those experiences. You can intervene on the attitudes being laid down by helping to shape the meaning your kids attach to their days at school. Communicating that certain things are normal and simply part of life can help an unsure child to manage what feels overwhelming. So can a clear statement of your confidence in their ability to get through something. You get the concept.

Finding it hard to sit still in class? Some kid causing an issue? Don’t get on your high horse – teach your child how to cope. Some lessons will be boring to them. They will have to share the attention around. There will always (unfortunately) be less desirably behaved people in the world. These are realities all through life, so cut off unhelpful attitudes and show them how to work around their problems instead. Not only will your kids ace school, they’ll also ace life!

It’s not about intelligence

Perhaps the biggest stress for parents is concern over their child’s academic ability. Here’s the good news: intelligence is neither fixed nor predetermined. With only rare exceptions, all our brains are made for learning and the more we use them, the cleverer we become. This means success will be limited more by lack of effort than ability.

All new learning feels uncomfortable, and some children really dislike the perceived threat to their identity. Ban words such as “I can’t” and “I’m dumb” and tell your child instead they just haven’t got it yet. Further repetition and effort will get them where they need to go. It’s not about fixed intelligence! (You could check out this TED talk by Carol Dweck for more ideas on this.)

It is about time and effort

With my kids towards the end of the schooling game now, I’ve the benefit of some hindsight. The flip to it not being about ‘cleverness’ is that those who succeed put more in than those who don’t. Often a lot more. And the earlier they start on that, the easier it is to get rolling.

My kids began ‘homework’ via a nightly reader in their first year. Next came little presentations and spelling words. By mid primary school we knew to expect weekly assignments of some kind.

Now, some argue against such burdens. And I know the resentment of being put upon as a parent to make things happen, as well as all the arguments about busy work! But I say looking backwards, that’s helped my kids ace school. Nobody succeeds at anything without a lot of effort, and my children were trained into academic achievement through that process.

On top of that, starting young normalized hard work. And too, the external rewards (stickers, praise from teachers and parents etc) are so much easier at that age than any other – few Year 9 students are motivated in the same way by simple warm fuzzies!

This concept of time and effort bringing success was emphasised on a group assignment my daughter shared with a friend in Middle School. It started well enough – the other girl came over one afternoon to work on it. But that was the end of her input. My daughter did all the rest of the work, and the marks attested to that reality. She was prepared to go the extra mile, and she was the one rewarded. That one final run through the test material or edit of an essay can make a noticeable difference. Encourage it in your children.

What to do with slower learning kids

“That’s all right for you, but my child’s got _____!”

It’s true my kids have done well and proved academically capable, but I think the same principles apply regardless. I have friends with kids who’ve had all sorts of ‘problems,’ from speech issues to autism to number processing challenges. They divide into two groups: those who’ve chosen to let the ‘disability’ be a problem, and those who’ve encouraged their offspring to become all they can in spite of it. The happiest parents – and children – are those who’ve taken the harder road.

I suggest to you gently, it still all comes down to attitude. Are you going to make good of the situation or be limited by it? No child’s perfect, and everyone has some challenges. My son was identified as a ‘probably depressed teenager’ in Year 1(!) and my daughter had terrible friendship issues in late primary school. We learnt, adjusted and kept on going. So can you. There’s always a way round every problem. Keep plodding til you all get there.

And the capable but uninspired kids?

Ah, this was me, so I get this challenge. I find myself ambivalent.

On the one hand, these kids are missing out on the character formation inherent in working hard. Everyone needs to have good social communication skills – even boys! – regardless of their inherent aptitude or desire for it. Everyone needs to know how to work. Kids can be trained to have this or any other trait if you care enough to do so. And there’s value in that, so long as you support them through that growth. One of the best predictors of success is grit – your ability to keep going til you get something, so calling them to growth has much potential benefit.

On the other hand, school still does reward certain types of ability more than others, and some kids are late bloomers. Einstein disliked the restrictions he saw within the education system, performing brilliantly in some areas and terribly in others – and it didn’t stop him succeeding long term! So under performance isn’t necessarily a death knoll. However, all the research out there indicates that hard work precedes doing well, so effort will have to be made at some stage anyway.

Probably the key thing for me is to make every effort to ensure your kids separate their attitudes to learning from the ones they hold about school. For whatever reason they don’t enjoy the classroom, it’s vital they work out how they best take on new skills and ideas in life. Today more than ever, people need to know how to learn and change. Good attitudes are vital, so they can adjust and grow themselves a better future.

Here’s to your kid’s success at school this year.