by Barbara Cervone and Kathleen Cushman
November 20, 2012
PROVIDENCE, RI— For almost a dozen years, WKCD has gathered the voices and stories of middle and high school age students nationwide. These youth have told us about their desire to do well in school, go to college, improve their community. They want to raise a loving family, right the wrongs they see around them, and much more.
When asked what keeps them going, so many of these youth point to a parent (and to mothers most of all) as their rock and inspiration.
“Everybody needs one person in their life who thinks they’re great, no matter what,” Alice, then 16, told us years ago.
The parents we've met and talked with express the same hopes: that their children will be good students, find a decent job, enjoy and support a family of their own, and stand up as citizens.
When educators think about how parents can help their kids succeed in school, they often speak of "parent involvement." They hope parents will participate in school events—parent-teacher conferences, special nights like "Family Math," volunteering in the classroom, chaperoning class trips, fund raising, serving on advisory committees. They always mention supervising homework. Schools that engage parents in these ways see positive results, according to three decades of research. Student attendance, homework completion, and persistence increase; disruptive classroom behavior decreases.in these ways see positive results. Student attendance, homework completion, and persistance increase; instances of disruptive classroom behavior decrease.
When kids see a parent, perhaps at the end of a long work day, head out to a meeting at school or never miss a parent-teacher conference, they "get" it. School is important and education matters. When the parents of middle and high school students make these same commitments, the message, ironically, can be stronger. As one tenth grader told us: "In high school, you kinda want your parents to butt out of school. The less they know, the better. When they hang in there you may not like it, but you see how much they care. It like rubs off."
How we can all better help parents in their role as their child's first teacher—and later, as a ballast and guide? In addition to encouraging parent involvement in school, how can we help parents nurture in their children habits that will last a lifetime, shaping their success in school, at work, and in the community?
Which are the most important of the many skills they will need? And how can families help children practice those things, with everything else they have to do?
WKCD's new "Advice for Parents" handbook and workshop (two videos and accompanying handouts) sketch out some answers—a contribution we hope to build on in the future. In keeping with WKCD's mission, we target the parents of middle and high school age students, especially parents whose circumstances cut short their own education or hindered their own parents’ ability to serve as guides.
Here's what we've learned so far.
“Monitor your child’s homework” typically tops the advice for parents. It sounds simple, but it’s not. Getting homework “done” requires more than mastering math facts or punctuation. Students need to organize their tasks, stick to them, and manage their time. They need to listen and ask questions when teachers assign the work. Parents can help their children develop these skills.
The advice continues: “Make sure your child has enough sleep, a nutritious diet, and exercise.” We parents try to do that, even though it’s hard as children grow older. We care about our children’s health, in and out of school.
But good study habits and hygiene are not enough to get ahead. Young people must also develop “character strengths” like grit, curiosity, conscientiousness, even optimism. Our children need to learn self-control and how to manage stress. They will have to learn from their failures. The more curious and resourceful children are, the better. They need self-confidence—the belief that they can succeed in spite of obstacles.
Educators often call this “social-emotional learning the skills that don’t show up on standardized tests.
And here are our guiding principles, drawn from the latest research on the science of learning.
Our potential is not fixed at birth
“Maria is a quick learner.” “Sean is poor at math.” “Aravis is well organized.” “TJ is lazy like his brother.” We speak of these traits as if they were fixed at birth. But scientists who study the brain and how we learn have reached a different conclusion. In fact, all of us can grow strong and meet challenges if we work hard and stick with it. Inborn talent and predispositions (like laziness or shyness) are just the starting point.
Effective practice makes the difference
What is the secret to developing our abilities, no matter what level we start at? Not surprisingly, the answer lies in practice. Getting good at a particular sport, we all know, takes hours of practice. Ditto for playing a musical instrument—or cooking or dancing or public speaking. Developing the skills to succeed in school, work, and life is no different: it takes practice, one step at a time. How we practice makes all the difference in learning to do something well, the scientists also say.
Habits, like abilities, are also developed through practice
Managing stress. Developing self-control. Keeping at it. Being curious and resourceful. Feeling self-confident. Getting a handle in these areas—these habits (like keeping anger under wrap)—challenges all of us, regardless of our age. The latest research suggests that these social and emotional skills are as important as academic skills in laying the foundation for student success—and can be taught and learned. Parents can help their child develop both strong abilities and lasting habits.
Success builds on success
The more we achieve, the more we will want to achieve. Parents can help set up a circle: when their children work hard and get good results, they’ll want to work harder still.
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“There’s a radical—and wonderful—new idea here… that all children could and should be inventors of their own theories, critics of other people’s ideas, analyzers of evidence, and makers of their own personal marks on the world.”
– Deborah Meier, educator