When parents imagine their ideal family the children are wonderful students, earning straight A’s easily and with no assistance from their parents. They independently complete their homework on time, study for tests and flawlessly remember all that they are taught. Unfortunately, the number of students who really fit into this dream is very small. Some children come to this world with an innate knowledge of how to achieve in school and have the drive to do so, but this is the exception, not the rule. Most public schools are run on the assumption that children all have the skills and desire to learn in a traditional classroom setting. The teacher teaches, students complete and turn in assignments, then pass tests to show their knowledge retained. The sad reality, however, is that only a small percentage of school aged children learn this way without a great deal of adult prompting and training. All children have skills and talents, but not all skills and talents are evident in a traditional classroom. Alternative schools of all different types have been experimented with, achieving varying degrees of success. However, by and large most children in this country are educated in a traditional public school. As imperfect as this system is, it does have a long history of giving the large majority of our population the basics they need in reading and math and the basic values of our society. Good or bad, public education in its present form is probably here to stay for a good long time, so it behooves parents to make the best of what is available.
I have been on all sides of the school performance issue as a parent, a teacher and an administrator in private and public schools. As a parent I have had children for whom achieving high grades came naturally, and I have had children who struggled greatly at all levels. As a teacher and administrator I have worked with children in private schools who have been given all the advantages, and I have worked with children in public schools for whom all the cards seemed stacked against them. There is no surefire way to make sure that children learn and are successful academically, however there are many strategies that can help. By and large the best way to help children be successful is to build a partnership between parent and educator. Let your school administrators and teachers get to know you. Volunteer in the classroom, and show up to open houses and parent conferences. You would be surprised at how differently teachers look at children just based on how well they know the parents. Teachers try to be impartial; however as human beings they constantly make judgments and decisions. A good relationship with parents will often tip the scales in favor of a teacher giving a child extra help or extra consideration on timelines and grading.
In addition to getting to know teachers, parents should also develop open communication between home and school. This can be difficult on both sides as teachers and parents both have busy lives, but there are some tricks to achieve this. In the following paragraphs you will find some strategies that I have used, or seen used, to establish and keep the lines of communication open. In addition, you will find strategies to help your child learn to be organized and be responsible for himself. Remember, your ultimate goal is to raise a responsible, independent adult. The ideas below will help guide your child toward this goal.
The Backpack- The First Line of Communication
Backpacks are almost universally used by children today to carry belongings to and from school. Plan to use your child’s backpack as a way to find out what is going on and to communicate with your child’s teacher. You should also use the backpack as a tool to help your child learn to get and keep organized.
The first day of school you will probably fill your child’s backpack with all of the items that your child needs to be successful from the start. This starts your child off with an expectation of organization, and some simple steps can help continue this expectation. The next step you should take it to look through the backpack every day after school. Some children are born organized and will dutifully bring you important papers and notices, but most are not. It is simply amazing what you can find in a child’s backpack. Children who are not required to organize and take care of their belongings develop their own unique way of coping with all of the items they amass in a school year. Children who do not have a natural talent for organization usually fall into one of two categories, “stuffers” (they just keep stuffing things in the backpack until no more will fit) or “tossers” (they throw everything away). Stuffers cannot find anything because it is in a mangled mess at the bottom of the backpack, and tossers don’t have anything to find. If you will take the few minutes to go through your child’s backpack and take out the items that need to stay at home and fill it with the items needed for the next day you will ensure better home-school communication and help your child learn to be organized. As your child matures you should gradually have her take over the job of backpack management. The goal is to teach your child to clean out the backpack each day, and get it ready for the next as part of their evening routine. This will require adult instruction and modeling, however if these are done at an early age your child will learn to be organized and give you important communications from school.
Today many schools provide a planner for their students. If yours does not, buy one and require that your child use it. If you purchase a planner get one that is specifically made for the age of your child. It should include a section to organize daily assignments and have a place for periods for middle and high school students. It should also include a monthly calendar and a place to keep a to-do list. Young children can use individual pages to use as a weekly planner, but children in the middle to upper grades should have a school year planner. Children need to learn what to write in a planner and how to use it properly. They need to understand that a planner is more than a list of homework due, it is a way to keep track of all that is going on in class and will be an ongoing record of past assignments. I require my own children and students to write in their planner every day for each class that they have. If they are assigned homework they write what the assignment is and when it is due. If no homework is assigned they are to write a brief note of what they did in class. Teach your child that the planner pages should not be ripped out or destroyed after the days have passed. Sometimes valuable information can be gained from past planner pages if assignments were missed or not turned in.
The planner can also be used as a great communication tool. Teachers and parents can use this tool to communicate about student assignments and behavior. One of the nice things about using the planner is that the communications are automatically dated and they are saved in a place that is accessible to all. This assures clear communication between home and school and it makes it clear to the child that communication will continue between home and school.
The planner can also be used to help your child with long-term planning. Many planners come with a school calendar printed at the front. Go through the dates and make sure that important dates, such as school holidays and semester, trimester or quarter beginning and ending dates are written on the planner pages. When your child receives an assignment that will need to be done over a long period of time help him break it into smaller parts and determine goals for completing each part. Have him write these “due dates” into the planner, and work toward completing each part of the project in a timely manner.
Of course a planner is of no use if it is “lost” or adults do not look at it or read it. Your child should be responsible for her own planner, however associate its use to privileges at home. My children were required to show me their planner fully filled out each day as part of their daily jobs. We would talk about what they did in each class that day, what assignments they needed to work on or study and then make a plan for using their time wisely. Require that your child get a teacher signature if you send a note in the planner. If your child’s teacher knows you use this tool it will encourage him to use it also.
Today’s fast paced society has made it difficult for parents and teachers to touch base and keep in touch, however many schools try to keep pace with the newest technology to help open the lines of communication. Voice mail, e-mail and on-line attendance and grading programs make it possible for parents and teachers to keep in touch without meeting face-to-face. Find out what resources are available at your child’s school and take advantage of them.
Notes and Weekly Progress Reports
Sometimes you will find it necessary to communicate with your child’s teacher the old fashioned way, with a handwritten note. If possible, use your child’s planner to communicate, however if a more formal note is needed feel free to write or type a message. Try to be clear, specific and through in your notes, and always assume the teacher has your child’s best interest at heart. Most do, and you are more likely to help your child if you and the teacher are a team and not adversaries. Have someone else read the note to make sure it makes sense, and make sure the words are spelled correctly. If you are unsure of your spelling or have messy handwriting use a word processor. If you send the note to school with your child ask that the teacher sign it and return it so you know it was received. With older children and teens be sure to explain clearly what the problem is and give the teacher plenty of time to look into and deal with the issue. Remember that middle and high school teachers may have a hundred plus students in their classes, so they may need time to deal with your child’s issue.
When children have difficulty keeping their grades at an acceptable level a weekly progress report can be a good tool (see Appendix E for example). Schools usually send failure notices to parents if children are not making adequate progress, however often by the time the notice arrives children are hopelessly behind on assignments. A weekly progress report can help with this problem. One day a week should be designated as the day to bring home the report. I liked to use Friday with my family so that I could tie privileges over the weekend to grades. I required the report to be taken to school by children that had any classes with a grade lower than C. It was their responsibility to take the progress report, give it to each teacher and make sure the teacher gave it back. It is helpful to let the teachers know beforehand that you will be doing this. If the teacher listed any missing assignments the child was required to bring home materials to complete any missing work. Sometimes teachers, especially in middle and high school, do not allow students to turn in missing assignments. In my family children are required to complete and turn in all assignments, even if no credit is given. This was their ticket to family privileges. An improved grade was simply a bonus. I made sure to communicate to teachers my goal to teach my children responsibility. I am yet to find a teacher who did not support me in this tactic.
Parents need to understand their responsibility in educating their child. It is easy for parents to assume that the school will fully educate their child, however parents are ultimately responsible for the education of their children. As a teacher I have 20 to 30 students in my class. I do my best to educate each one, however there is a limit to the amount of time my students spend in my room and the influence I have over them. Also, next year I will have a whole new classroom of students. I will be the parents of my own children forever, and have legal responsibility for them for 18 years. My influence as a parent far outweighs the influence that any one teacher will have on my child. Do not assume that the school will adequately teach your child all he needs to know; take an active role in being your child’s main educator. This not only includes seeing to it that your child attends school and completes his homework; it also includes educating your child in areas that the school does not adequately teach. This may include teaching your family’s moral values and religious education as well as teaching your child about sports, music or other hobbies.
You are also responsible to teach your child to be responsible. School work and assignments give you an excellent opportunity to help your child learn how to complete assignments outside of the home. Most children will need you to be an active participant in order to learn this important trait. One common misconception is that you teach children to be responsible by leaving themselves to their own devices. I have worked with teachers who believe that they are teaching children to be responsible by not allowing them to turn in missing work. The threat of failure is only a motivating factor if the child cares enough about success. Many children learn to not care about grades and school because they see no link between their actions and the grades. Students often think that grades are a gift from their teachers and that their grades reflect how well a teacher likes them more than how well they performed. A child who learns to not care about grades will show little effort in school. For this child the threat from a teacher that no late work will be accepted is a reward. If the child does not complete the assignment on-time then he will not need to do it. Why do it if no credit is given? Children are taught to be responsible by requiring them to complete any and all assignments. Make it a family rule that all assignments in school will be completed, and then give your child the help and tools that she needs to complete them.
Help, Don’t “do for”
It is important to help your children to complete and turn in homework and assignments, however some parents have a difficult time differentiating between helping the child and doing the work for him. The first thing that parents need to understand is that homework should be extra practice, not learning a new skill. Research has shown that children do benefit from homework, but only if the homework is extra practice on a skill that the child has already learned. Most teachers are aware of this and try to assign assignments based on this principle, however sometimes things go awry. Teachers may give assignments that are not closely aligned to classwork, may overly rely on preplanned lessons that do not match the skills of the students or they may overestimate their students’ proficiency in the subject matter. Sometimes teachers do an outstanding job of teaching a skill and aligning the homework to the lesson, however the students are still not able to complete the assignment. Students may have difficulty applying the practice that took place in class to the homework or they just may not have paid attention during the lesson or may have missed instruction due to illness.
If your child brings home an assignment that he cannot complete make an attempt at reviewing what was learned if you can, but do not do the work for your child. Usually textbooks or worksheets will have brief instructions that explain how an assignment is to be done. Use these tools to help your child go over the instructions to see if you can help him complete the assignment. Teachers use scaffolding to help their students learn a new skill. When parents learn this skill they can be excellent tutors as the child has one on one help. Start by modeling one or two problems for your child. If many similar problems were assigned you can do this with the first couple, otherwise use the examples in the book or make up your own similar problems. As you model how to complete the problems “talk through” each step and explain why you are doing each thing. After modeling a few have your child complete a few problems while you guide each step. Slowly back off your guidance, and have your child begin to explain the steps. When your child appears to understand the process have him complete some problems independently, and then check to be sure that they are done correctly.
If you or your child are still struggling with the assignment write a note to the teacher and explain the problem. Try to frame the problem from your point of view and refrain from blaming the teacher for not teaching your child. Ask the teacher to give your child extra instruction or time to complete the assignment. Be sure to follow up on the assignment and be sure your child received the help needed.
One of the biggest temptations for parents to do an assignment for their child is on large projects and reports. Many students do have difficulty organizing and completing large assignments on their own, but teachers do expect their students to do their own work. Parents are excellent resources to help their children plan all of the parts of a large project, gather information and materials and put everything together into a presentable form. Do remember, however, that the report or project should look and sound as if a child produced it. This does not mean that you should not teach your child how to put together a polished project. However, it should be clear that this is your child’s work and not yours.
Set the bar high, but not impossibly high
We all want our children to be successful, and school performance is no exception. Let your children know that you expect them to do well in school, however be realistic. Remember that you are raising children. Children learn through doing and trial and error. Children also need to have variety in their life. If it takes a child all of her time to be a straight ‘A’ student it may not be the best use of her time. She needs to have time to play and explore different activities. Well rounded children tend to grow into more successful and happier adults. Even the most focused and successful children rarely receive high grades on all assignments, and should not be expected to. If your child performs on an assignment or in a class at a level lower than is the norm for that child treat it as a learning experience. Ask him what the problem is and ask what he could do better next time.
Be careful about how you respond to report card grades. Children should be praised for the work they did do. In some families ‘A’s are the expectation, ‘B’s are okay and ‘C’s are totally unacceptable. Children who grow up in families such as these often believe that they could never be good enough. ‘C’ is an average, and there is nothing wrong with being average in some areas. In my family we regarded ‘C’s as acceptable, however improvement could be made. ‘B’s were very good, ’A’s were outstanding and ‘D’s and ‘F’s were unacceptable. It is also important to take into account personal differences. What may be a low grade for one child may be an excellent grade for another.
Be careful, also, about how you reward report card grades. Some families give monetary rewards, some quite large, for high marks. While rewards for good grades can be motivating, children who are constantly rewarded with large rewards lose the sense of value for the actual grade. In addition, in families with multiple children monetary often pit one child against another. Also, for young children a quarter or semester grade is often too long of a time period for the child to really feel that he has control over the outcome. Try giving smaller, more frequent rewards or just praise your child. When report cards do come, recognize your children who displayed good effort with a small reward or night out.
Beyond the Norm
We all want to think that our child is just a normal kid, but many children have learning difficulties. Learning difficulties can show up at any time and have many different causes. They can be caused by learning disabilities, developmental delays, emotional difficulties, social problems, problems at home or normal developmental stages. The treatments for learning difficulties are as varied as the causes. If you have taken all of the steps outlined above and your child still struggles you may suspect that your child needs more help than you can provide. The first place to look for extra help is through your child’s school. Some private and church schools offer resources for extra tutoring and all public schools are required to provide help for students who are not adequately progressing. Speak with your child’s teacher first. Explain the problem, and be specific about when it began, how long it has persisted and the severity of it. Also share your insights as to what you believe is causing the problem. Most parents are not well versed in learning difficulties, but they are familiar with their own child. Even if your diagnosis of the problem is not correct your insights will be valuable to help find the problem.
If you do not get the help you need from your child’s teacher contact the school administration. Express your concerns and ask what resources are available. Ask about extra help during school and outside of school hours, extra help that you can give at home and resource personnel that can assist you. Try to be patient with the school as some things take time, but do not just assume the problem will resolve itself. Stay on top of the steps your child’s school is taking and your child’s progress.
If adequate progress is still not seen go back to the school and report that more help is needed. Remember that the goal is to build a partnership with the school. Your child will benefit the most if all adults work together. There are times, however, when schools do not provide students with the necessary help. Public schools are required to provide help to all students and to find ways to help every child learn. If your school does not take the steps necessary to help your child do not be afraid to demand an evaluation of your child’s progress. Public schools usually have a team of teachers and administrators who look for specific ways to help students be more successful. If your child has not made adequate progress you can ask the neighborhood public school, whether or not your child is a student at the school, to look at your child’s progress and make recommendations. Make your request respectfully and in writing. Federal law specifies a timeline for the school to respond to your request so date your request and look for a reply within a few weeks.
While you are working on getting help from your child’s school look at outside resources. Remember that you are ultimately responsible for educating your child. The school has a much more limited number of resources available than parents do. For some children medical solutions are successful. For others behavioral avenues work better. Counseling, outside tutoring or training and medication have all been successful to help some children be more successful in school. Be open-minded but reasonable when looking for a solution. Work with your medical professional to get referrals to reputable professionals. If a recommended treatment seems unusual or untested ask for studies that show effectiveness and referrals to others who have tried the treatment.
Any time a treatment is tried with your child careful data should be taken to find out its effectiveness. If your doctor does not provide tracking sheets then use the sample from Appendix B. All treatments, whether medicinal or not, have some placebo effect. Some people will show improvement from any ailment, even if they are only given a sugar pill. In addition, parents and teachers often observe an improvement in a child’s behavior, just because an improvement is expected. This makes it difficult to determine the effectiveness of a treatment. Daily charting of behaviors will help mitigate this problem.
To track behavior with the tracking sheets behavior should first be charted before the treatment is tried. Ideally, parents, the teacher and the child will all fill out their own report, usually for about a week. After the initial charting period the treatment is begun and charting of behavior continues. Some medications take several weeks to begin to work in the child’s system, and all behavior systems take a while to show improvement. For these reasons behavior should be charted with the treatment in place for several weeks. Behavior can also be charted during an optional third period with the treatment discontinued. Ideally, each step would be done with behavior reporters not knowing when the child is receiving the treatment. Sometimes this can be done with one parent administering the medication and the other charting behavior, but this is not always possible. Charts are then compared from before, during and after treatment to see if the child really did show improvement with the treatment. If one treatment does not prove effective try another. Seldom is a first medication type and dosage or treatment effective.
If you have a child with learning difficulties please know that parental involvement makes all the difference. Children with learning difficulties that are left to their own devices will usually turn to inappropriate ways to feel successful and important. These children are at high risk for antisocial behaviors, committing crimes resulting in imprisonment, drug use, early experimentation with sexuality and teen pregnancy. There are children who will just not be successful academically even with all the help in the world. These children need supportive parents who will help them find skills in other areas and assure them that they are important and loved. If your child has difficulty in school help him find something he can excel in. Require your child to join a church or scout group, a sports team or musical group or pick up a hobby. All children have talents and it is important for children, especially children who struggle in school, to find and develop their talents. Help your child to become responsible, teach her to treat others with respect and help her become self-sufficient in other areas. You may also need to focus less on school success and failure with this child. See to it that your child is learning essential skills, such as reading and basic math computation, and lighten-up about the rest. On these children you may need to change or ease up on the rules you would normally set for a child about homework or task completion. Remember the goal is to raise a responsible adult, and adjust as necessary. When your child is an adult no one will ever ask her what grade she received in 7th grade, so don’t put too much emphasis on grades. People will notice if your child is responsible and respectful. Your child will learn these things if you make family guidelines clear and reasonable and set and reinforce limits.
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