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Back to School — How to Help Your Child Succeed

Student studyingIt’s the first day of school in our district, and I’d like to share some thoughts about how to help your children be successful in school.  As a therapist, I’ve had the opportunity to learn from my clients about what works and sometimes what doesn’t.  As a parent of two adult sons, I got to experiment and hopefully learn some more.  So here are some thoughts.

Even before school starts, it is so important to give your child a love of reading books.  And by books I mean physical books, not only electronic versions.  As we learn more about brain development, we find that different parts of the brain are engaged by different actions and senses. (Side note: did you know that writing in cursive engages a completely unique part of the brain, not activated by anything else?)  So reading from a physical book engages more of the senses than an electronic book.  Start by reading to them, later encourage reading together, and also by themselves.  If you have a child who has trouble settling down to sleep, or likes to stay up later than their bedtime.  I often suggest letting them have a much quiet time as they like with a physical book.  It’s a habit I’ve loved for, well, a very long time!

Reading books, and later writing, are also important for developing the ability to concentrate and think through issues and situations in a focused way.  So much of our lives these days are constantly interrupted, with short bursts of input, “multi-tasking” all the time.  Many people start to lose the ability to spend some time doing just one thing, and it’s an important skill that we all need.

Once school starts, it’s time to help children learn that there is a specific time and place devoted to homework and study.  It may be your kitchen table at first, later their room.  What’s most important is that they develop a habit of concentrating, doing their work, and knowing when they are finished.  (We all like that feeling of completing work, don’t we?)  I strongly suggest that you start early making this a time that isn’t interrupted by cell phones.  This gets harder when they are working on their own, but it’s still important.  Tweens and teens will insist that they work just fine while in communication with their friends, but they deserve the time to let their brains concentrate on a task.   So it’s worth the argument to say that homework time should be focused time, for as long as you can fight that fight.

Another really important skill is learning how to track assignments, so as to know what work is expected.  I know that much of this is online, especially at the middle school and high school level, and some students do just fine with that.  If your student does not, though, it is likely that they learn by doing, and writing down assignments in an agenda book is a great way to stay on target and know what is expected.  I often tell clients that although I keep an electronic calendar now and love it, I notice a difference in how I remember and think about my schedule when I write it down.

If your student needs to do it this way so as not to have missing assignments, as their parent it would make sense to work with their teacher.  Ask the teacher to check the agenda book for completeness, and sign it.  Be willing as the parent to check the assignments in the agenda book, and perhaps sign that they are completed.  This goes a long way towards helping students learn to be organized.

Another piece of this is to help your child learn to do longer term planning, and for this I think a simple monthly paper calendar is invaluable.  If a project or paper is due in several weeks, have your child note the due date, and then help them learn to break it down into “chunks”, and set due dates for that as well.  Often this will be happening in the classroom, but eventually more of the responsibility will be turned over to your child, and it will really help them, especially if they tend to procrastinate and/or get overwhelmed by larger assignments.

A corollary of this is to learn to track performance, especially in high school as a preparation for college.  Many high school teachers will provide a syllabus, or list of course expectations, at the beginning of the semester or year.  On this will be a list of what factors will influence their grades.  For instance, it might say that there are points for homework, quizzes, and tests, plus an essay or research paper, and it will give the percentage weight of each of these towards their grades.  Help your students learn to not rely only on Aries or other online trackers for their performance tracking.  Nothing compares to them keeping track themselves, on a copy of the syllabus or something like it.  Once again, sometimes writing it creates a different type of awareness and knowledge.  Plus, it’s unlikely that college professors will be providing a “blow by blow” online tracking of assignments.  So, better to learn now than later.

These a just a few ideas of how you can help your child experience success at school, and in life.  I hope they are helpful, and welcome any comments with other ideas.


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