Helping children take control of their learningToo often children and parents experience dissatisfaction and disillusionment in the educational process.  Parents can feel frustrated in their efforts to help their child succeed.  How can parents help their child be successful and find joy in learning?  Parents can help their children thrive in school, and in life, by having realistic expectations of their children’s abilities and by helping them to develop independent work habits.

Leslie was helping her eight-year-old son, Ben, study for his weekly spelling test.  Ben was fidgety, jumping out of his chair, running to the refrigerator for a snack.  His mind was on anything and everything but learning spelling words.  Leslie was losing patience.  After all, she had other things to do tonight and she still needed to fix dinner.  If only she could get Ben to take this seriously.

Working successfully with a child on schoolwork requires understanding of the child’s developmental abilities.  Leslie could have asked herself why Ben was reluctant to work with her to memorize the spelling words.  Perhaps Leslie was asking Ben to spell words out loud rather than writing them down, which is a more effective method for most students.

Perhaps Leslie was expecting Ben to sit quietly in a chair for longer than was comfortable for him.  It is very common for parents to expect a child to remain quiet and still during learning activities, but research has proven that brains function better when movement is part of the learning process.  Most children need to move every fifteen minutes or so in order to concentrate.  Making movement part of the activity is a great way to stimulate optimal learning and also interest and joy in learning.

If Leslie had decided to put movement into the activity and had also made an effort to capitalize upon Ben’s natural gift for wonder and fun, she could have presented the activity to Ben as a game.  He would not only have been delighted to practice his spelling words, he would also have learned them more quickly and Leslie would have had a good time too.  For example, Leslie could have left pieces of a jigsaw puzzle in various places around the room and each time Ben wrote the correct spelling of a word, he would have been allowed to get a piece of the puzzle.  When all of the pieces were collected, he could put the puzzle together.  The time he would spend putting together the puzzle would not only be his reward for correct spelling, it would be a rest break before the next learning activity.

Leslie could encourage Ben’s efforts to work independently.  Frequently, in their desire to help their child achieve, parents set the bar too high, expecting more from their child than is reasonable under the circumstances.  If expectations are unrealistic, students practice failure more than they practice success.  They learn to avoid schoolwork rather than to relish their accomplishments.  Leslie could have helped Ben to make a plan for how to learn the spelling words.  The plan may have included writing each word five times while spelling it out loud as Ben walked around the room, mobilizing his whole brain for learning by incorporating movement into the activity.  The next step in the plan could have been a test of the words while Ben balanced on one foot (strange as it sounds, research confirms that students pay better attention when engaging in balancing activities).  And the plan could also have included a five to ten minute break (maybe to put together a puzzle) after completing the test.

Developing independent work habits allows a child to feel like a successful learner.  The feeling of success encourages more focus and commitment.  Parents can help their child most by clearly expressing confidence in their child’s ability to succeed.  Children who are encouraged to believe in success are much more likely to persist when the going gets tough.  They do not become discouraged by minor set backs.  They understand the control they have in their educational experience.

One aspect of independent work habits is good time management skills.  Helping children develop strong time management skills improves their grades and gives them the opportunity to spend more time with their family and friends.  Leslie could monitor the amount of time Ben spends on each assignment.  For example, Leslie could tell Ben that he has thirty minutes to practice spelling words, and if he gets at least 90 percent correct on the practice test, that he can use any time left from the thirty minutes for an activity of his choice.

Leslie could work more effectively with Ben by incorporating movement and fun into homework activities and by developing strategies and routines for homework management.  When parents take a child’s proclivities into account in teaching independent work habits, the mood around the home is improved and parents as well as children have fun and feel the success and joy in schoolwork.

Dr. Miller has a PhD in Educational Psychology, a master’s degree in Learning Disabilities, Gifted Education and Educational Diagnosis, and a bachelor’s degree in Education and Behavior Disorders.  She is the Director of Miller Educational Excellence in Los Angeles.

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