By Caolan Madden
If you want your child to be a stellar student, don't limit learning to the walls of his classroom. Although the skills he's learning there are crucial to his intellectual and social growth, your child needs your help to really "open up the world of ideas," according to child psychologist Robin Forman, PhD. His renewed joy in discovery will transfer to his schoolwork, so you'll boost his academic achievement, too!
- Fill your child's world with reading. Take turns reading with your older child, or establish a family reading time when everyone reads her own book. It's important to show her that "it's not only a school task," says Ted Feinberg, Ph.D, assistant director of the National Association of School Psychologists. Demonstrate how important reading is to you by filling your home with printed materials: novels, newspapers, even posters and placemats with words on them. According to Stephanie Fanjul, director of student achievement at the National Education Association, "Children can learn to read by living in an environment that's rich in words."
- Encourage him to express his opinion, talk about his feelings, and make choices. He can pick out a side dish to go with dinner and select his own extracurricular activities. Ask for his input on family decisions, and show that you value it. "One of the things valued in school is class participation," says Feinberg, and "having practice at home expressing his feelings" is "good for self-esteem and self-confidence." He'll be more likely to engage with the material he studies if he's comfortable asking questions and drawing his own conclusions.
- Show enthusiasm for your child's interests and encourage her to explore subjects that fascinate her. If she's a horse nut, offer her stories about riding or challenge her to find five facts about horses in the encyclopedia. Make sure she has the tools she needs — since Feinberg's daughter "loved looking for sea life" at the beach during family vacations, he bought her little nets so that she could catch crabs and minnows. Now she's a marine biologist.
- Provide him with play opportunities that support different kinds of learning styles — from listening and visual learning to sorting and sequencing. Fanjul recommends supplies that encourage open-ended play and "do more than one thing," such as blocks — your child will develop his creative expression and problem-solving skills as he builds. He'll need lots of unstructured play time to explore them. Although sports activities and language clubs are valuable experiences, too many scheduled activities can add "too much stress" to your child's life, and distract him from exploring the pleasures of learning at his own pace.
- Point out the new things you learn with enthusiasm. Discuss the different was you find new information, whether you're looking for gardening tips on the Internet or taking a night class in American literature. Let her see you in action: choose an activity that's unfamiliar to you both, such as playing tennis or speaking Spanish, and schedule a lesson or pick up a couple of instructional tapes. "Parents are the single most important modeling agent in a child's life," says Feinberg, and if you "demonstrate that learning is a lifetime adventure," your kids will get the message.
- Ask about what he's learning in school, not about his grades or test scores. "Even if he doesn't do well grade-wise compared to the other students, he might still be learning and improving, and you don't want to discourage that," cautions Fanjul. Have him teach you what he learned in school today — putting the lesson into his own words will help him retain what he learned.
- Help your child organize her school papers and assignments so she feels in control of her work. If her task seems too daunting, she'll spend more time worrying than learning. As she gets older and has more responsibilities, things can get "excruciatingly painful," warns Fanjul. So check in with her regularly to make sure she's not feeling overloaded.
- Celebrate achievements, no matter how small. Completing a book report calls for a special treat; finishing a book allows your child an hour of video games. You'll offer positive reinforcement that will inspire him to keep learning and challenging himself. "If a child feels as if he is successful regardless of what it is, it builds him up and makes the next challenge easier," says Feinberg.
- Focus on strengths, encouraging developing talents. Even if she didn't ace her math test, she may have written a good poem in English class. In addition to a workbook for math practice, give her a writing journal. When she knows that she's talented in one area, she'll be confident enough to try to achieve in others. "You don't want to not offer challenges," explains Feinberg, "but there's always a transfer when you have your kid feeling good about who she is."
- Turn everyday events into learning opportunities. "Being educated doesn't mean knowing a lot of disconnected facts," says Fanjul. "Learning is building from what you know and connecting it to new facts." Encourage him to explore the world around him, asking questions and making connections. Fanjul remembers pointing to a prickly pear in the produce aisle and asking her young daughter, "Have you ever seen anything so bizarre?" When she replied that the fruit looked like "one of those fish that blows up," Fanjul knew that the structures for learning were firmly in place.