10 proven ways to help your child do well at school. Simple steps every parent can try at home


What children bring to the classroom matters every bit as much and in some ways more than what they are taught at school. We live in a world of high expectations. A world where five good GCSEs are a minimum requirement and giving your child the edge is key.


The good news is that your child's potential can be easily developed and success can stem from simple everyday attitudes and examples. Don't worry, we are not suggesting you brush up on your Advanced Algebra just yet. The learning attitude that your child arrives at the school gates with each day can directly improve performance.

Nature can be nurtured. These common traits are either already naturally at your disposal or a small shift in awareness can quickly put them in reach.

 

1. Teach your child that failure is a stepping-stone to success

Any skill requires a period of incompetence in order to get competent. In short: to get good at something you have to start out being bad.

What’s more, encouraging your child to increase their failure rate (‘If at first you don’t succeed, try, try again…’) is the best way to increase their learning and develop their success in any field.

To do this children need to have two key traits: little fear of failure and the resilience to push through when they fail the first few times and get to the point where they become skilful.

What can you do to develop these key traits in your child?

  • Teach them Chess
    Chess has often been described as the perfect teaching tool because of all the positive effects it has on children's logic, problem solving and strategic planning. It also requires discipline and concentration and these are excellent transferable skills in the classroom. Many board games involve a level of chance; not chess. It's completely dependent on the skill and patience of the player.

    The innovative Yes 2 Chess campaign is a free online schools' chess community that has seen fantastic results in improving children's educational and social development through connecting junior players and international tournaments. Memory, maths, imagination and creatvity all get a boost during a game of chess and any school can sign up via a short application form to take part. Find out more about how to access free chess resources and support here.

    The benefits of teaching chess to children are well documented in this summary of research papers: The benefits of chess study.
     
  • Tell them of your own failures and how you overcame them
    We may take it for granted that success requires hard work and overcoming of obstacles but this is not necessarily obvious to children. If you take time to explain your experience of a learning curve it will help them connect hard work with future rewards.
     
  • Don’t over praise
    Explain early on in life that everyone has different talents and that not everyone can get a trophy. Modern parents tend to over praise, which can lead to problems when children realise that they are not as ‘brilliant’ or ‘amazing’ as they thought they were. We like these Ten Top Tips straight-talking tips from All Pro Dad on the power of setting positive but realistic expectations: 10 things to teach your kids about failure.
     

Further reading
The Globe and Mail: Why kids need to fail in school by Margaret Wente.
Chicago Now: Parents stop rescuing kids.

 

2. Make learning an activity your child loves

Learning is a hundred times harder if it is seen as a chore. Many of us had a mental block about maths at school and much of this was down to the fact that we told ourselves we didn’t like maths.

Research psychologists have proven time and time again that a good mood makes you smarter, more engaged, more creative and more willing to persist at a difficult task. So if you
can encourage a child to enjoy learning, then the rest is easy... or easier. The key is to set out with a positive mind-set that is pre-programmed to succeed.

 

3. Allow your child to follow their passion

In a world of hyper specialisation it isn’t important – or even possible – to be good at everything. It’s more important to be excellent at a few things. So, if your child shows specific interest and takes a lot of joy in a certain topic at school, they will find it a lot easier to excel.

As parents there is a natural tendency to worry about the things our children are less good at and allow them to get on quietly with the things they love. If English is their passion, don’t be afraid to encourage and go OTT on its positive impact. Spending time with them as they connect and enjoy a subject will also give insight into ways we can help transfer that joy to a less loved topic.

The Reading World Cup, a joint project between the Literacy Trust and the Football Foundation and the Professional Footballers’ Association, has helped thousands of sports-mad boys unlock a love of reading. Making reading a challenge and introducing a competitive element with specific goals is key.

Further reading
Education.com: Hacking education how kids love learning by Dale Stephens.
PowerToChange: Helping your child love learning by Dr Dave Currie.
SchoolFamily: Instill a love of learning in your child by June Allan Corrigan.
Parents: Raising kids who love to learn by Ginny Graves.


4. Make academic subjects feel relevant to your child

Often it is hard for a child to focus and truly enjoy a subject because they cannot see how has any relevance for their life or will help them in the future. Specific subjects are branded in their heads as something they need to do to keep the adults around them happy.

In her book ‘How to do Maths so Your Children Can Too: The essential parents' guide’, leading maths teacher and author Naomi Sani encourages mums and dads to live maths as a family, counting coins for bus fares and dividing slices of cake to bring division alive. Lego bricks can be a colourful and playful way to explore fractions. Everyday objects are mathematically sorted.

When travelling, involve your child with map reading (geography), ask them to help with finding the translation of a word on your iPad (French, Spanish… even Mandarin)! Ever tried making homemade modelling clay or slime? This is science in the real world. Tell them it is chemistry. Or dip in to biology when they bump and bruise their knee.

You can also tell your children how maths has been useful in your jobs. (‘When I was a student I worked in a bar and I had to learn to do mental arithmetic very quickly. Drinks were 99p back then and I was I glad I knew my 9 times tables.’)

Further reading
How to do maths: Maths problems winning heart and minds by Naomi Sani.
Edutopia: Science Shows Making Lessons Relevant Really Matters by Sara Bernard.
American Psychological Association: Helping students find relevance by Robin Roberson.

 

5. Involve games in learning as much as possible
 

If you can turn learning into a game, children, who are hard-wired to play, will respond and learn much more quickly. An entire area of psychology has developed to study this field. It’s called gameification, and the term is used to describe the action of turning something into a game in order to improve engagement.

My own son sees a tutor to help him with his English. Some weeks he turns up, tired and disconnected, and the idea of completing a comprehension exercise is clearly a no-no. The tutor, who is also a trained child psychotherapist, regularly pushes aside the workbooks and suggests they play Hangman or Scrabble. His love of words has come on in leaps and bounds.

Indeed, Scrabble is widely recognised as having benefits for literacy rates. Watch this clip from CBS News in the US. The benefits of scrabble.

But it’s not all about board games and old school parlour play. Over the last decade, there has been an explosion of computer games designed to make you more intelligent. Brain training games are popular but there has been little evidence to prove that the games in themselves had any actual positive effect on the player.

One exception is Dual N Back, a video game based on a proven cognitive neuroscientific test, the N-Back Test, which is similar to a visual and electronic version of the classic memory game of Concentration. This game, dubbed the brain training that works, has been shown to improve working memory (short term memory), fluid intelligence (general problem solving) and even IQ.

Further reading
Brain Workshop: N-back training tool
Michigan University: A Brain training exercise that really does work by Diane Swanbrow.

 

6. Motivate children by consequence rather than punishment

We’ve all done it. Used the threat of taking away something our child loves in order to try and motivate them. ‘If you don’t start doing your homework in the next ten minutes, there will be no iPad after dinner.’

The problem is that this does not mimic life as a grown up. Adult life is determined by a cause and effect, and if a child starts to learn that the outcomes are determined by their actions, you can nurture a strong sense of motivation which they can take with them right through their education and beyond.

Motivation by consequences

  • Helps the child learn self-control
  • Can be used with teenagers, who might otherwise find ways around a ban
  • Builds the child's self-esteem
  • Sets a good example of effective ways to solve problems

Motivation by punishment

  • May teach children to deceive parents
  • Rarely helps teenagers to learn valuable lessons
  • Can reduce self-esteem
  • Teaches children that threats are an acceptable way to solve problems

This is a good example based on a real experiment designed to explore cause and effect in child psychology:

“ A Mother told her daughter, in a firm and friendly voice, that in the future she would only wash clothes that were placed in the laundry bag. After five days, the girl had no clean clothes to wear to school and was unhappy to have to wear dirty, crumpled clothes. After that, she remembered to place her clothes in the bag.”
Valya Telep, Child Development Specialist, Virginia State University

Further reading
Virginia State University: Discipline and Punishment: What is the Difference? by Valya Telep.
Empowering parents: How to give kids consequences that work by James Lehman.

 

7. Improve your child's depth of processing

Researchers at Sheffield University found that trying to remember something has been shown to have almost no effect on whether we actually remember it. Look at notes with your child and help them reorganise the information in some way so they process and understand it. This approach, called depth of processing, is one of the best ways to ensure material gets lodged in your memory.

This article from The Guardian cites depth of processing as one of the five secrets of successful revision and was based on an acclaimed study from Professor Tom Stafford, Department of Psychcology at the University of Sheffield. Five secrets of successful revising.

The implication for revision is clear: just looking at your notes won't help you learn them. Instead, you need to reorganise the information in some way – whether by making your own notes or practising writing answers. This will help to ensure that material gets lodged in your child’s memory.

A popular online tool called memrise can also help with improving depth of processing. It’s basically a quiz that is designed to help you memorise anything.

It’s a double whammy too: just by building the test you are improving your depth of processing then, after you have finished, you can run through the test again to improve your recall and understanding.

Further reading:
Psychological Science: Tracing the Trajectory of Skill Learning With a Very Large Sample of Online Game Players by Tom Stafford.
EdLabs: Memrise - A Green-thumbed Approach to Language Learning by Stephen Pratt.
MIT Technology review: Plant a New Language in Your Mind by Kristina Bjoran.

 

8. Equip your child with switching off and relaxation techniques

Focus and concentration can be one of the biggest barriers to success in school. Teaching your child to shut down can be vital in improving their ability to switch on at the right times. Active relaxation, simple breathing exercises or even basic meditation can have a powerful impact on the ability to learn. Switching off in front of TV may feel relaxing for your child but it is far better to learn the skill to calm your mind on its own. Charlotta Martinus of Teen Yoga, the UK’s specialist yoga training centre accredited with the Yoga Alliance UK, says developing pro-active relaxation tecnhiques helps combat stress and improves learning. She has taken yoga courses in to hundreds of UK schools to great educational effect. Watch a short video about Teen Yoga. This is also a useful link to find out more about teaching children to meditate and the benefits on their ability to learn: Introducing your children to meditation.

Further reading:
Teaching children meditation: Parenting and education with mindfulness by Lorraine Murray.
The Independent: Meditation to stop tantrums by Rebecca Hardy.

 

9. Allow your child (safe) access to the internet

Historically, academic success has been founded on an ability to remember and regurgitate facts and figures. This is changing in our hyper-connected modern world where the answer to pretty much any question can be found at the click of a mouse.

The ability to research and find answers to questions is as important as ever, if not more. The internet can be a powerful tool in learning this key skill.

As parents there is a tendency to try to limit screen time as we often use iPads and PCs as virtual babysitters, something our children can switch on and give us a little space. This shouldn’t stop pro-actively scheduling computer time for educational purposes: so-called ‘tech for good time’ can be highly beneficial. Children with regular, education-focused internet access are at an advantage when it comes to exams according to this article: Children with internet access at home gain exam advantage.

Follow these two easy steps:

1. Keep the computer in the living room 
By having the computer in a public room of the house you can monitor what your children are doing and also more easily manage time limits.

2. Install a protection tool
It’s vital that you have child security settings installed to enable you to relax and let your child research to their heart’s content without fear of them coming across inappropriate material. Internet Service Providers (ISPs), such as Virgin Media, TalkTalk, Sky or BT, provide controls to help you filter or restrict content. You can install software packages, some are available for free, that can help you filter, restrict or monitor what your child can see online.

10. Allow them the space to learn empathy

“Unstructured play is that set of activities that children create on their own without adult guidance. Children naturally, when left to their own devices, will take initiative and create activities and stories in the world around them.”
Avril Swan, Parenting Expert

Children with better empathy tend to relate and do better in the world. Can you directly teach empathy? The short answer is no. The more you try to actively encourage empathy, the more you get in the way. The presence of a parent often goes hand-in-hand with a set of instructions (i.e. we tell them the right way to behave) but a hands-off approach to encouraging empathy can be very effective.

There are two key ways that are you can encourage empathy:

1. Allow time for unstructed play
Empathy is often learnt when authority is removed and a child without a structure or parental guidance needs to make decision by themselves. In a structured team sports game, children are organised to play with each other. However, during unstructured play, the child has to take in to consideration the actions and feeling of the other children. If they don’t, they will quickly find themselves playing on their own. Giving your child this space will mean they need to quickly learn to consider others' opinion and learn to negotiate.

2. Facilitate children of different ages to play together
Children spend a great deal of time with their peers at school as they are taught in year groups and often socialise with other children from their common Key Stage groups at playtimes. Outside of school, our extended families often live far away so social time with cousins of different ages can be limited too. A lot is gained, however, if we facilitate children of different ages play together. This benefits both children: the older child get the opportunity to learn leadership and nurturing skills whilst the younger child is given an effective role model to emulate and extra source of care and support.

“Unfortunately, many children in our society today have little opportunity for age-mixed play. More and more, free neighbourhood play - which was usually age-mixed - has been replaced by adult-directed, age-segregated activities for children and by indoor solitary play. Before we move even further in this direction or give up on the idea of reversing this trend, we would do well to have a firm understanding of the evolutionary functions of age-mixed play and how those functions are still relevant to children’s development today.”
Peter Gray, Leading Research Psychology Professor

Cubs, Brownies, Girl Guides and Scouts can be an excellent way for your child to mix with a range of ages of children locally.

Theatre groups such as Curtain Up, whose motto is ‘lifting the curtain on confidence’, or the National Youth Theatre sees children of different ages and acting abilities work together week in, week out and also nurtures a good sense of camaraderie. Likewise, youth music groups and orchestras can enable the mixed age experience. Try Youth Music for groups and opportunities in your area of the UK.

Further reading
Kevin MD: Why children need more unstructured play by Avil San MD.
On Being: Play spirit and character by Stuart Brown.
Psychology Today: The Special Value of Children's Age-Mixed Play.

 

{Bonus tip} And finally… lead by example

The New York Times recently ran an article with the headline 'If Drivers Buckle Up, Children Do.' It was based on a US study looking in to the way children copy the behaviour of the adults around them.

So how can we expect our children to love reading if they don’t see us pick up a book?

 

All of the areas in this article that we have highlighted as being able to help your child do well at school lead back to you. This isn’t a statement to add pressure or guilt about our behaviour or habits. It’s the opposite: we have all the tools in our educational armoury to show your children the way.

By doing the following, your children will follow you:

  • Love to learn – no matter what age
  • Show empathy
  • Learn to relax
  • Be bold and embrace failure
  • Make time to mix with family and different friends with an age range of children
  • Join them in their learning journey and share real-life and personal learning examples

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