An insider look at what will really help your child succeed in school and in life. Hint to Mom and Dad: Hands off that next project!
Jacob Wackerhausen/ iStockphoto
I became a teacher five years after becoming a mom; just as my son was entering first grade. I thought that being a mom would make me a better teacher, but, in fact, I think I've become a more effective parent because of what I've learned as a teacher. I realize now that children do best when their parents try to help them succeed in school not in terms of grades, but in terms of life skills. Here is some of what I know now:
1. Don't sweat the school supplies. Stock them up with basics, but nothing expensive. Schools teach children to share, so you need to know that whatever you buy will end up in another child's hand and vice versa (everyone needs to borrow a pencil or a glue stick at some point). All children need to go to school with a pencil case that has pencils, a small stapler, a couple of highlighters (yes, they use them), a couple of pens (unless they are preschool or early elementary children) and whatever they might need for math (such as a compass or a calculator). Try not to begrudge the pens and pencils your child loses, as a teacher is, one hopes, giving out far more supplies than she is getting back.
2. Learn how your child learns. Think meta-cognitive. It means thinking about thinking. Ask your child questions that encourage him to reflect on his learning. For example, if he does poorly on a quiz, ask, "Did you need more time?" or "Would it have helped to have the information read to you while you studied?" Knowing your child as a learner can really help him. Children are systems that need to be figured out and the more they know about themselves, the better they will do.
3. Don't ignore the "I don't feel well." Stomachaches may mean that something is going on at school: rumors, exclusion, eye rolling and a lot of physicality (kids are constantly banging into each other). Plus, kids take everything in a deeply personal way (because, didn't you know, each one of them is the center of the universe). Help them deal with the rough stuff. It isn't fun, but it is meaningful.
4. Treat me, but not with treats. I appreciate all good wishes at holidays (but I really don't want anything fattening). And I don't need something that costs a lot of money (trust me: I will not hold it against your child or you if she doesn't give me a gift). I do keep all the cards students have written to me on their own, because they are so lovely and sincere—especially the ones with the misspellings.
5. Hands off the projects. Projects and school trips are what children remember about school, and they teach the most important skill of all: organization. The end result doesn't matter nearly as much as the planning, the process, the work and the follow through. So, don't just talk to them about their daily homework (like worksheets), but ask if they have any long-term work, then go through the process with them step-by-step. This way, you won't be stuck making their ocean animal mobile for them (as I once did) the night before it is due and the final work will reflect your child's effort over time, not your own last-minute papier-mache skills. Believe me: Teachers know when parents have done most of the child's work.
6. All grades are not created equal. First through fourth grades teach kids how to behave in school. Fifth through eighth teaches them how to be organized and how to support their individual learning styles. Grades 9 through 12 are about learning specific knowledge and information.
7. All of life is middle school. That's what newscaster Tom Brokaw once said, and he's right. Life is always in transition—and you're forever between one stage and another.
8. Ignore the eye rolling. I get the bad attitude all day and I soldier on, focusing on the good and responding to the positive. It works with dogs, it works with 2-year-olds and it works with 12-year-olds.
9. Manners do matter. Teach your children good manners because they really stand out in a classroom. The children who say thank you after class, who help other children, who clean up after themselves—they are the ones who do best in school and in life.
10. Help your kids relax. You know all those articles you read about finding balance in your life? Kids need that advice, too. If you're doing yoga, invite them to do it with you. If you're taking a walk, ask them to come along. Kids of all ages really do adore being with their families (even if they deny it to your face). In fact, when I ask kids in my classroom what they are thinking about instead of their schoolwork, they almost always say, "my mom."
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