2017 Greatest hits #7: What the research tells us about how to help your kids do well at school

(During December we will be reprising some of  “2017’s greatest hits” from the Act Locally Waco blog. I couldn’t possibly pick my favorites – so I used the simple (cop out?)  approach of pulling up the 10 blog posts that got the most “opens” according to our Google Analytics.  It is an intriguing collection that gives at least a little insight into the interests and concerns of Act Locally Waco readers. I hope this “Top 10” idea inspires you to go back and re-read your personal favorites.  There have been so many terrific ones… If you would like to see the Top 10 according to Google Analytics, here’s the link: 2017 Greatest Hits.  Merry Christmas! — ABT) 

By Jon M. Engelhardt, Ph.D.

Most parents want desperately to see that their children do well in school — and in life.  And we know from research, and general observation, that one key to realizing the “American dream” is a good education.  But a good education depends upon more than what schools and teachers do — much more. It starts with what parents, families and perhaps others in a child’s life do to help prepare that child for school. It includes both having faith in the child as well as trust in their teachers and school. Children are always learning, but what they are learning and how that learning is shaped can be critical for school success.

For a number of years I had the honor of serving as a School of Education Dean at four universities, most recently at Baylor University.  A few years ago, I asked the Education faculty at Baylor what research-supported suggestions we might share with parents/grandparents to help them “promote positive school outcomes” for their children.

Based upon that input, listed here are nine things (in no particular order except the first one) that research unquestionably tells us parents can and should do to help their children be prepared for success in school. While there is much that can be said about each of these, the kernel of each idea is presented here for consideration.

1. Read! Read! Read! – The single most powerful thing parents can do to help their children (especially ages 3 to 8) get a strong education is to have plenty of reading materials in the home. Books, magazines, newspapers…read all these kinds of things yourself regularly while your child is watching.  Read to your child and discuss what you are reading with him/her. Reading to your child and showing your child that you read can have a tremendously  positive effect on your child’s language and vocabulary development, reading achievement and school outcomes generally (grades and graduation). This kind of exposure to reading even seems to predict eventual college completion.

Other important things we know from research that parents should consider are:

2. Pre-school matters. – Children who participate in quality early (pre-school) education are more likely in later life to be consistently employed and are 4 times more likely to earn a college degree.

3. Get out the blocks and build with your child. – Playing with blocks at an early age promotes language and social-emotional development and has a positive impact on a child’s math learning. You can use blocks to practice basic kindergarten-entry math skills, like meaning for numbers (one, two, three. etc.) and order (first, second, etc.). Simple projects can pack in a lot of learning. For example, build a tower with blocks of different colors, sizes and shapes and then have your child build a tower that looks just like yours. This helps little ones learn how to analyze things visually and notice differences and similarities. Learning these concepts and skills at an early age is a powerful predictor of later math learning in school. Blocks are a great way to help your child grasp crucial early math concepts.  The seeds you are planting during those hours spent on the floor playing with blocks take a while to grow. The benefits of this early learning with blocks sometimes becomes most noticeable in high school.

4. Educate yourself about parenting. – Parents of 3 to 6-year-olds, who read about parenting, are better able to cope with child behavior problems and feel greater confidence and satisfaction with their parenting efforts.

5. Out of school programs make a difference IN school. – Afterschool and summer programs, clubs, and enrichment activities that encourage reading and writing activities make a difference.  Children who participate in these kinds of activities 3-4 times a week experience broad and positive impact on their reading (drawing conclusions, spelling, identifying main ideas) as well as on their writing and speaking skills.  This is especially true for younger children who are behind academically.  Children participating in afterschool/summer programs that focus on math, science or robotics demonstrate positive attitudes about math and science (especially during intermediate school and above) and have higher high school graduation rates. Furthermore, out-of-school programs and experiences that involve similar content to what the child is learning in school make it more likely that the student will participate in the classroom.  This enhances the student’s achievement and outcomes

6. Talk to your child.  Use lots of words. –Very young children (ages 1-3) who get to talk regularly with adults who have good language skills and who use a wide variety of words have a profound advantage when it comes to success in school. This is especially important for their reading achievement.  Vocabulary level when a child starts school is a powerful predictor of school success.  The more words a child can use and understand in conversation when she starts school, they more likely she is to be a success in school.

7. Learn things together as a family. – For children at all ages, their involvement with family and community in learning activities of most any sort makes a difference in student success in school (and beyond).

8. Get out and explore the world together. – Spending at least 15 minutes per day outdoors examining their world (at least sometimes with a parent/adult caregiver) promotes children’s curiosity and creative thinking as well as positively impacts their science education.

9. Teach your child that being good at school takes work not luck. – Praising children for their schoolwork outcomes in ways that focus on effort, rather than on “in-born” traits like intelligence has long-term positive impact on their future school success.  For example, comments like “You are so smart, you always make good grades” or “You are just bad at math, that’s OK, I was bad at math too,” teach children that their chance of being successful in school is out of their hands. Praise like “You really stuck with that and you figured it out.  Good for you!”  when a child tackles a difficult problem or “You studied and it paid off!”  when a child has worked hard, help the child understand that their learning is in their hands and that if they work at something they can usually master it.   Children who understand the learning takes work and that by working hard at something they can usually learn it, are more likely to succeed in school in the long run.

Jon Engelhardt is a retired Dean of Education at Baylor University. He served as co-chair of the Prosper Waco Education Steering Committee and continues to work with the various education related working groups associated with that initiative. Before coming to Baylor he served as Dean are UT El Paso, Wichita State, Northern AZ University.  Before that he was department chair and associate dean at Arizona State.


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