Different Advice for the Beginning of a School Year

Now that we’ve been in school for several weeks, parents have already heard the usual advice for supporting kids in the new school year, suggestions like make sure kids get plenty of sleep and good nutrition, set a regular time for reading and homework, get to know your child’s teacher, etc., etc.

All great suggestions, no question about that.  But parents might also want to think about these suggestions that Jessica Lahey, a writer who focuses on parent/child issues, thinks we should also consider:

  • Focus on the process, not the product. Very young children are naturally driven to learn and explore…  As they reach out, fall, and get back up again, they gain a heightened sense of mastery, competency, and self-efficacy.  Somewhere around kindergarten, however, stickers, points, and grades seem to become more important than the natural passion for learning.

Parents can focus on the process they used to achieve their competence, asking questions like “What worked for you?”  and “What are you going to do next time?” keeps the focus on the process, the learning, rather than the external rewards or punishments.

One of the best questions that parents ask when looking over a child’s schoolwork is “How are you going to use this experience to be better next time?”  Helping children and youth focus back on the process can help future performance and also help to reduce anxiety.

Modeling:  Parents can also talk about our own successes and failures, showing them that we, too, are invested in the process of learning.  We can all learn from our mistakes.

  • Encourage kids to self-advocate. Starting as early as kindergarten, children need to be encouraged to speak up, tell adults what they need, and stand up to people who are not treating them the way they want to be treated.  Self-advocacy is a key part of building… the understanding that they have the power to control and change their behavior, motivation, and environment.

Coach your children through talking with teachers about problems and talk through the approaches they take.  You can write scripts or role play if a child is anxious about the discussion.  This can actually be a fun way to dispel anxiety and play-act the conversation until your child is comfortable.

Modeling:  Talk about how you ask for help and assert yourself even when it makes you nervous.  Explain how you make sure your needs are heard and addressed…  We are, after all, our children’s first teachers when it comes to conflict resolution and self-advocacy.

  • Keep a long-term perspective. Education and parenting are both long-haul endeavors, and improvements don’t happen on a daily basis…  think about where you’d like your child to be in a year or five years in terms of competence or growth.

Modeling:  When things go wrong in our own life, talk about them.  Keep our focus on doing better next time and your long-term perspective… Model thinking about long-term progress: “…this project did not work out the way I wanted, but I still love what I do…  Here’s how I plan to learn from this…”

  • Encourage good study habits. Multi-tasking is a myth, especially for kids.  Shut off the TV, and if they like to play music, studies show that music with lyrics undermines concentration and productivity. 

Phones are a distraction in the room, even when they are turned off, one study shows.  If they are a distraction for adults, with our fully mature executive function skills, they are even more distracting for kids.

Modeling:  Let kids see us working distraction-free, in an environment that promotes focus.  As ever, kids do what we do, not what we say.  Work on our projects the way we’d like to see them doing their work.

  • Plan for technology use. Have a plan in place for family tech usage.  This can be around minutes, data, or context.  If you want family dinners and homework and reading time to be tech-free zones, agree to that ahead of time.  Then sign a tech contract.  Some kids respond to the clarity of a signed contract.

Modeling:  When I ask kids what they’d most like me to convey to their parents at my speaking events, one of the comments I hear most often is something like: “If you want us to turn our phones off or spend less time texting with our friends, then parents should do the same.”  When we ask kids to make sacrifices we are not willing to make ourselves, they see us.