Meet with teachers. Volunteer. Help with homework. Bake for the bake sale. Chaperone school trips.
Many of us have received the message that the more involved we are in our children’s learning, the better off they will be. And sometimes, helping out is, well, helpful! Other times, not so much.
A new large-scale study suggests that more-involved parents can sometimes be doing more harm than good. For example, once children enter middle school, help with homework can actually bring test scores down. Other involvement, such as meeting with teachers and taking disciplinary action against a child when they don’t do well, can make kids more anxious or have no positive effect at all.
According to independent focus groups, the most successful children are those whose parents set high expectations and then step back. These kids were able to take initiative in their own learning.
While being plugged into your child’s needs and supportive of their educational process is important, we may be going about it the wrong way. What can we do to help our children become independent learners? Check out these five simple strategies.
1. Believe in Your Child
Take your cue from this study and let your child know that you have faith in his or her abilities. Children with parents who consistently help them do homework, study for tests and create projects for school can feel dependent on that assistance and unsure of themselves. Tell your child; “I know you can do this!” and “You are the picture of perseverance—you keep going until you figure it out. I know you’ll get there!” Allow them to work through their challenges rather than doing the work for them. You’ll know when they really need your help.
2. Ask What They Need
Many of the conversations that take place about children and education happen without children around! So, be proactive and ask your children: “Would you like me to help you study for that test?” and “Would you like me to volunteer to be a class parent?” Better yet, if they are in need of help, ask, “How can be helpful here? Would you like me to do flashcards with you or would you prefer that I just be here for support in case you get frustrated?” Your child may simply need a sounding board or an extra set of eyes rather than another teacher.
3. Encourage Progress, Process and Effort
It’s easy to get into the habit of praising or rewarding your child’s results. For example, “I’m so proud you got an A!” or “You get 10 dollars for every A on your report card.” But when we do this, we put the focus on results rather than progress and improvement. Children can then feel like they must do whatever it takes to get the best grade—even if it means turning to you for help or resorting to cheating. Instead, praise your children for the effort they put in, the work it took to get their grade or the improvement you see in their results because of their work ethic and persistence. When we reward our children for the action they take rather than the results they achieve, they are more likely to do it again and again—and have faith in themselves.
4. Create Opportunities for Independence
While your children are young, allow them to take initiative: Let them pick out their own clothes (even if they don’t match), make their bed (even if the sheets looks rumpled), water the plants (provide a towel for spills), or set the table (even if they sometimes forget the forks). These small tasks show kids that they can be effective on their own. As they get older, give them more responsibilities and step back. Without standing over them, allow them to make a salad, put away the groceries and get themselves ready for bed. We want our children to practice low-stake tasks on their own so that when the stakes are higher, they will have both the skills and the faith in themselves to move forward confidently.
5. Provide a Learning Space
Do your children thrive in a quiet room? When there are people around or when they’re tucked away in a private nook? Work with your children to determine what they need in their space in order to do their best work. For example, perhaps they need a stash of pens, paper, tape, a library book, a computer with a presentation program on it and a radio playing classical music. Brainstorm with them and then allow them to create the space they need. This way, they can stay focused on the learning rather than asking you for items they need.
Get Out of the Way
Stepping back can be challenging. After all, we all want our children to succeed and we want to help them! But sometimes, the best way to be helpful is to allow them to work independently and figure things out on their own.
While you should always be a safe haven for your child, and being a part of your child’s school can be fun, social and helpful to the teachers, it’s important to take a constructive look at our involvement. Is it strengthening our children’s learning or detracting from it? After all, self-assured independent learners become confident adults who have faith in their abilities to succeed, achieve and overcome challenges. And isn’t that what we really want?
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