When it comes to your child’s school life, many seemingly logical assumptions — for instance, that the teacher will warn you if your daughter’s performance is slipping — can get in the way of your kid’s success. As a child psychologist and author of several parenting books, including “Overcoming Underachieving,” I see it happen all the time. Below are six common mistakes parents make — and what you should do instead.
MISTAKE #1: BELIEVING THAT NO NEWS IS GOOD NEWS
You’d think the teacher would tell you if your fourth-grader’s report card was about to reveal sinking grades. But with 23 kids and no aide for backup, a curriculum to design and teach, and administrators to appease, she may simply not have the time or inclination to contact you.
So be proactive. At the first sign of a problem (e.g., poor quiz grades), set up a communication program with the teacher to stay on top of your child’s performance. Will a weekly e-mail work best for her? Most teachers don’t mind a quick note every Friday and appreciate the concern. Ask just a few questions, such as “This week, which assignments, if any, did my son not turn in?” “What grades did he earn on tests or quizzes this week?” and “Is there anything in his behavior that you’re concerned about?” And add “Thank you very much for your time.” (Or leave a voice-mail message for her at school asking these questions.)
MISTAKE #2: BEING OVERINVOLVED IN YOUR KID’S SCHOOL LIFE
Of course you want your daughter to ace that spelling test or computer project. And while taking an interest in your child’s work is important, you need to avoid industrial-strength overinvolvement (for example, your completing her math problems). Why? You’re robbing her of the satisfaction of completing a project on her own. You’re also training her to depend on you to do the challenging math problems, rather than reinforcing the concept by having her do the work, and you’re teaching her to expect you to fill in the science work sheet, instead of letting her search through the text to find the answers on her own. And look at the messages you’re sending: “You can’t do this well enough; you need my help” and “Whining will get you out of doing your work.”
Being involved means being available. You’re there to check for accuracy, answer questions, and explain concepts that your child may be having trouble with, but you’re not responsible for doing her work. And if your kid’s typical reaction to homework assignments is “I don’t get it,” explore what she doesn’t understand and help her work through it. If it’s, say, math, and she’s not showing her calculations on the page, explain that it’s usually difficult to complete the problem without reviewing the process as she goes along.
MISTAKE #3: BEING UNDERINVOLVED IN YOUR KID’S SCHOOL LIFE
On the flip side, I’ve also seen many parents adopt a “leave it to the teacher” attitude when it comes to schoolwork. Teachers, however, don’t have the resources or ability to make sure that home assignments are completed. Also many children simply aren’t motivated to tackle difficult assignments or to complete tedious homework tasks. That’s why parents need to jump-start the habit of completing what’s assigned. Here’s how:
Set up a planner that your child fills out for each subject, every day. This is great for kids in all grades. The child writes down which assignments need to be done at home and when the next test or book report is due. If your child isn’t jotting everything down accurately, consider asking his teacher to check the planner daily.
Insist that all materials for current assignments be brought home from school daily. We’re talking folders, books, work sheets, and the like. (To get him to comply, see “Don’t Take No for an Answer” on the following page.)
For kids in grades kindergarten through third, consider the timer method. Say: “Mark, I’m setting the timer for 15 minutes, during which you have to complete the ten math problems. If you beat the buzzer, you earn a token that can be traded in for a special privilege, such as going to the arcade. If you don’t beat the buzzer, you still need to complete the problems and you don’t get a token. Now let’s get going!”
Check that homework is carefully done. Circle errors lightly with a pencil or verbally bring them to your child’s attention, and ask him to correct them.
Check for quiz and test preparation by asking a few questions from a science work sheet or history review paper. If his performance is spotty, have him review the material again and give him another quick quiz.
Don’t take no for an answer. Insist that your child complete all of the above successfully. When he does, reward him (e.g., with use of electronics, extra playtime, a special snack, or an “attaboy”). When he doesn’t, let him know there will be no TV, CD player, telephone, computer, Internet, or outdoor play each day until he follows through with his school responsibilities.
MISTAKE #4: IGNORING YOUR CHILD’S NATURAL STUDY STYLE
Maybe you were a self-motivated child who plunged into your homework shortly after coming home from school. And what worked for you should work for your daughter too, right? Not necessarily. If your daughter’s a bundle of energy after school, then she’ll most likely be more productive tackling homework after, say, riding her bike. Or if your sixth-grader is an organized self-starter and appears insulted by attempts to regulate her schedule (e.g., your insistence on homework being completed before dinner), it’s probably best to respect her responsible nature and let her call the shots.
Ignoring your child’s study preferences sends the message that you may not trust her judgment and takes much of the joy out of learning. Similarly, be open-minded about how she studies. Just because you can’t concentrate on a project when there’s music playing in the background doesn’t mean you should make it off limits to your child. (Do make sure, of course, that when you check in on her, she’s working, not dancing around the room.) Similarly, if she says she likes preparing for tests together with friends, let her do it; it’ll be more fun for her, and she may learn more effectively that way.
MISTAKE #5: HAVING UNREASONABLY HIGH EXPECTATIONS
Many parents don’t have realistic academic goals for their kids. To see if you’re one of them, ask yourself:
Am I expecting the same grades, creativity, and academic interests for my child as those of my neighbors’, friends’, or relatives’ kids?
Do I assume that all my kids will have similar levels of achievement — that is, in advanced classes that carry high academic expectations?
Am I disappointed when my child receives a B on a major project, even if he seems thrilled with the grade?
Do I expect my son to have the same academic interests I had as a child?
Am I fighting for advanced-placement curriculum while my son seems content with his regular classes?
Am I embarrassed that my kid doesn’t seem to read as quickly or memorize math facts as readily as some of the others in the car pool?
Does my child seem stressed by being placed in the tougher courses at school (for instance, he’s become moodier, cries easily, and says that he feels “stupid”)?
If two or more of these sound familiar, your expectations are probably out of whack. To know where to set the bar, take a good look at your child. Does learning come easily for him? Does he understand abstractions quickly, enjoy education for the sake of gaining knowledge, and whiz through assignments? Or does he tend to memorize facts, take a little longer to understand a concept, and need lots of repetition and practice? (Both of these are common and perfectly valid learning styles.)
Another clue to what to expect from your child academically is how he views projects. A lover-of-knowledge type will most likely go beyond what’s assigned, use additional resources in gathering information, and bring in a touch of creativity (including, say, an audio tape of Grandpa’s recollection of his Iwo Jima landing to accompany a World War II report). By contrast, the child who’s just trying to keep his head above water and get a decent grade will most likely have a pattern of simply completing assignments to the letter.
Finally, talk with the teacher about whether your child is thriving, just getting by, or struggling. And talk with your child; see how he feels about his work habits, the amount of time spent on schoolwork, and his grades. Then keep your expectations in check.
MISTAKE #6: ASSUMING HOMEWORK WILL BE TURNED IN
Most parents think that if their child has done her homework, it will make it to the teacher’s in-box. But lots of kids are disorganized or busy yakking with their friends when the teacher calls for the work — or just too lazy to unzip their book bag to get it out!
If the above sounds a bit like your child, make it easier for her to find her papers. Set up a folder (one with pockets on each side) for each subject and designate the right-hand side for “Work to be Done at Home” and the left-hand side for “Work to be Turned In the Next Day.” Or use one large binder with several sections for each subject and place a clear pocket in each section. Write “Homework to be Turned In” on each pocket. Every night before she goes to bed, have your child show you that the homework has been placed in the proper folder or pocket. If something’s missing, that’s the time to remedy the situation.
Article appears as seen in the September 2003 issue of Redbook magazine. For more information about Redbook, please visit their Web site at: www.redbookmag.com
Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to “Today.” Copyright 2003 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved. For more information you can visit her Web site at: www.ruthpeters.com.