Parenting Solutions: Help Your Child to Be a Better Student

Brainpower is only part of the equation in being a good student. Some parental motivation and creativity can help any child do better in school.

Illustration by Bob Dacey

As a grade-school child, Paul Marks did not exhibit the characteristics of being an intellectually gifted child. His grades were always in the average range; and while he faithfully turned in his homework, his interests were more oriented toward sports than academics.

But something had changed by high school. While he did play varsity and junior-varsity sports, Paul also exhibited at the science fair, was chosen for the National Honor Society and National Association of Student Councils, and did student commentaries on a local television station. And he amazed his family by maintaining straight A’s during the last two years of high school, becoming valedictorian of his class.

Paul is a good example of the truth that brainpower is only part of the equation in being a good student.

“Top grades don’t always go to the brightest students,” notes Herbert Walberg, professor of education at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Dr. Walberg, who has conducted major studies of high-achieving students, says, “Knowing how to make the most of your innate abilities counts for more. Infinitely more.”

Some parental motivation and creativity—integral to Paul Marks’s success, by the way—can help any child do better in school. Here are some ways parents can help a child tap into his or her natural abilities and become a better student.

  • Convey your interest. ”Show me a parent who is really concerned about his child, and I’ll show you a youngster who can learn” is a statement made by many teachers. Ask your child about his school day. Better still, ask your child to teach you something he learned in class that day. Then listen carefully.
  • Establish a rapport with the teacher early in the school year. Meet your child’s teacher. Arrive early one morning and introduce yourself. Faithfully attend parent-teacher conferences. Be present at as many school functions as you can. Each time you are at the school, try to speak a few words with your child’s teacher. This will help you and the teacher communicate more easily about your child’s schoolwork when necessary.

    “It’s not enough for parents to go once or twice a year for P.T.A. meetings,” declares Dr. Vartan Gregorian, an educator and former president of Brown University in Providence, R.I. Dr. Gregorian recommends that parents not only attend all programs children put on, but also volunteer to help in the school.

  • Set a regular time and place for homework. Be flexible and respect a child’s working style. Some children prefer to come home right from school and begin their homework. This frees up the rest of their evening for leisure activities. Other children like to come home from school and play with friends, watch television, or just relax. However, once parent and child have established a time for homework, that time frame should become a disciplined pattern. If from 7 to 8 p.m. is the designated schoolwork time, be firm and protective of that time.

    Likewise, be sure your child has an appropriate place to do homework. Some children like to work on a desk in their own room while others prefer to work on the dining room or kitchen table. A child’s work area does not need to be large but should be quiet, well lighted, and clutter-free so that the child has room to spread out books, papers, pens, pencils, and the like. Be certain to equip your child with the necessary supplies and resources.

  • Check homework. Make sure your child’s homework is done and help him correct any errors. See that it’s neat. Instill the neatness principle early in the learning process. Neat papers and projects earn higher grades than sloppy ones. Even first- and second-grade students should be encouraged to turn in work which is on time, neat, and clean.
  • Become your child’s academic cheerleader. When you see progress and improvement, be sure to comment positively. Encourage your child by saying things like: “I saw how much you studied for that spelling test, and I’m impressed!” “You put a lot of work into that project and I am very proud of you!” “I know it took you a long, long time to complete your homework last night. You showed a lot of patience and maturity!”

    Children need to know that parents appreciate the effort they are putting into their schoolwork.

  • Avoid becoming a faultfinder. Accentuating the positive is always more motivating to a child than emphasizing a negative. Do not expect perfection from your child.

    This was an important lesson learned by Michele, a Nevada mother of Jonathan, a sixth grader. When her son proudly handed her his report card, he enthusiastically announced, “All A’s!” Michele quickly scanned the grades, ranging from 91 to 97 and was pleased. However, “my eyes flew on to the conduct marks, zeroing in on an N (Needs Improvement) that seemed to jump from the page,” she recalls.

    “These are good grades,” she admitted somewhat reluctantly, “but look at this N in conduct. You need to try harder,” she declared. Jonathan’s smile quickly evaporated as he took the report card back and walked away slowly.

    Initially confident she had “improved” her son, Michele realized the next day that “I had stolen his self-confidence and the pride he felt in a worthy accomplishment.”

    Ashamed, she apologized to her son and gave him a big hug. “That day I made a silent promise to myself that I would be generous with praise and cautious with criticism when it came to my son’s academic work.”

  • Beware of over-programming children. During a parent conference, a teacher was asked by a parent how her daughter could improve her grades. After asking a few simple questions, the teacher learned the girl was playing in two after-school sports, taking martial arts lessons, singing in a youth choir, and engaged in weekly ballet lessons.

    “I explained to the mother that children, like adults, can be tempted to overextend themselves,” the teacher recalls. “Parents should set a reasonable limit on after-school activities. Sometimes children need parental help to set such restraints for themselves. This not only helps improve their school performance but alleviates unnecessary pressures on a child,” the teacher advised the mother.

  • Set up a school calendar. All students, including those in early grade school, are informed of projects and due dates. Set up a school calendar with your children. This will help them plan wisely, organize their time efficiently, and ensure that assignments are turned in on time.

    A school calendar will also serve as an effective reminder to both student and parent to begin papers, projects, and research early.

  • Turn summer into a resource. Summer is the ideal time for children to pursue academic activities and interests more intensely than during the school year. The best way to do this is to first learn what really interests your child. Then build on your child’s interest.

    For example, a child who is highly curious about marine life would benefit by several visits to an aquarium. A child who is interested in animals would enjoy spending time at a zoo or a wildlife refuge. And, a child who has a passion for Nintendo or other electronic games is an ideal candidate for a computer camp at which he or she can master important computer skills.

Finally, you as a parent should plan to stay involved as long as your child needs your support. While some children will accept their school responsibility early and be able to handle homework fairly independently, others may need continued parental direction and supervision. One mother monitored her daughter’s homework until the girl reached 10th grade. That daughter recently graduated from a university and is enjoying a successful career.

Victor Parachin writes from Tulsa, Okla.

“Family Talk” from recent issues

Teaching Children to Bounce Back (May-June 2000)
When a crisis arrives, there are steps that parents and other significant adults can take to help children not only survive, but even to thrive.
How to Talk So Your Children Will Listen … and Learn (March-April 2000)
Parents and other significant adults can employ several key communication techniques to “get through” to children about the tough issues kids face every day.
What Do You Want to Be When You Grow Up? (January-February 2000)
Helping a child explore his personal interests and attributes gives him a starting point in the search for a career.
Connecting With Your Kids (November-December 1999)
Cultivating closeness in a family can produce a peaceful, harmonious home life in which members experience love and support as well as find refuge from the storms of life.
How to Help a Clumsy Child (October 1999)
To develop coordination and confidence, children with two left feet deserve attention which may include an individualized program designed by a professional therapist and patiently executed at home.

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