Raising a child in 2019 is tough for a variety of reasons, but keeping them motivated at school when they’d rather be on their phone or tablet 24/7 can seem downright impossible.
That doesn’t mean all hope is lost. In fact, there are a few things parents can do to help guarantee motivated and successful kids.
Sending your child to school for the first time is nerve-wracking for both the parent and the student. That’s why forming a secure attachment before school begins is so vital, says Amanda Moreno, director of the child development program at Erikson Institute in Chicago.
“People forget that the reason parent-child attachment exists is to cause learning,” Moreno says. “This is called the ‘secure base phenomenon,’ meaning the security provided by parental love is what causes children to be brave and explore the world.”
Moreno says you can see this phenomenon in action at the playground, when a child goes off to play, but returns often to check in with parents.
She believes playing, talking and spending time together are the best ways to create an enthusiastic learner.
Camille Farrington, managing director and senior research associate at the UChicago Consortium, says that presenting new ideas to kids early on is the key to getting them excited about learning.
“It’s important to give young children exposure to new things and to help narrate their world.”
Farrington suggests introducing kids to new foods, places and cultures as often as possible. This can be as simple as visiting a new town or museum or restaurant. You don’t have to go far, either—just getting out of the Chicago area is enough to spark interest in how other people think and live.
When you look back on your own time spent in a classroom, do you have negative or positive memories? For some of us, thinking about math tests and science experiments is enough to make us break out in a cold sweat.
You don’t want school to be something your kids dread, however.
Your job is to be positive about school and homework.
“Talk to your kids about why we work and why school is so important,” Farrington says. “If possible, take them to work with you. Demonstrate how exciting it is to learn and how rewarding it is to do well.”
Rick Capaldi, author of 21st Century Parenting: A Guide to Raising Emotionally Resilient Children in an Unstable World, echoes this idea.
“A child who walks into the classroom willing and able to embrace a new opportunity does so because their parents set the stage for them,” he says.
Capaldi says that parents can help a child to embrace education by “talking up” school as a part of your family’s regular conversations. “You want them to see school as a rewarding, supportive experience and a natural transition from home.”
The older children get, the more difficult it can be to keep tabs on what’s going on in their classroom. That’s why consistent communication with their teachers is key, whether a child is 5 or 15, Farrington says.
“Start reaching out early on. Check in with the teachers, tell them, ‘I really want to hear from you and I want to support you.’”
Moreno adds that parents should not feel hesitant to give suggestions to teachers if they know their child is struggling. “Most teachers are willing to do a fair amount of individualizing, even for a child without delays, because they know each child is different.”
For instance, if you know your child would be more engaged at school if they were given more responsibility or if they were able to sit in a different area in the classroom, don’t be afraid to speak up.
It’s no secret that most kids don’t love homework. Since it’s an unavoidable part of school, how do we encourage them to complete the work without having a meltdown? To begin with, don’t use bribery or sticker charts to motivate them.
“When kids get frustrated with homework, it’s either because they don’t know why they’re doing it or they don’t know how to do it,” Farrington says.
She suggests connecting the work to something your child cares about to help make the assignment more interesting. “Don’t make them feel like the work is unpleasant. Ask them ‘what’s the opportunity here?’ or ‘what can we learn from this?’ Tell them, ‘When it feels challenging, it’s an opportunity to grow your brain’ versus telling them to do it because they have to do it.”
Instead of dangling a reward for getting through a bunch of homework, Farrington recommends offering breaks when the work seems overwhelming.
“Tell your child, ‘It’s hard to make your brain work hard for so long. Let’s work for 20 minutes, then rest for a little bit.’ Everyone has to take breaks when they’re working, even adults.”
Don’t assume your child will always want or need your assistance, however. Kids, especially those in middle and high school, need to feel empowered, since school often makes them feel like their power is being taken away.
“Ask them first, do you need help? And if they do, ask what kind of help do you need? Let them lead the conversation.”
It’s heartbreaking to see your child struggle in school.
Lines like, “I’ll never be able to do math!” or “I’m stupid, I don’t know how to do this” are hard to hear, but it’s important to let your child know their feelings are valid in those tough moments, Moreno says.
“You can do a lot of nodding and hugging... That doesn’t mean you’re agreeing with them that they’re stupid, it means you are acknowledging the high intensity emotions of the moment,” Moreno says. “Realize that in this moment, your child might believe with every cell of their being that they can’t do math, but if you stay grounded in your support, they probably won’t always feel this way.”
According to Capaldi, the earlier you establish communication with your kids, the better, so that you can avoid problems when your child is a teenager.
“Challenges up to, during and in high school are less overwhelming when addressed by parents who establish and ongoing dialogue about school as part of the family conversation,” he says.
As kids get older and enter middle and high school, pressures begin to increase. That’s why setting boundaries is also essential, even if kids object to them.
“Balancing schoolwork, housework, a social network, social media, preparation for college, along with hormonal changes and performance expectations all impact a teenager’s emotional temperature... Kids, no matter their age, feel more secure when they know there are boundaries,” Capaldi says.
“This is all about parental leadership, recognizing that sometimes parents have to make tough, unpopular decisions because it’s in the best interest of the family.”
This article originally appeared in the August 2019 issue of Chicago Parent. Read the rest of the issue.