The aim of education is the knowledge not of fact, but of values.
—Dean William R. Inge
Train a child in the way he should go, and when he is old he will not turn from it.—Proverbs 22:6
The MacKenzie family moved around a lot. They home schooled during the seven years the parents served as missionaries overseas, and they eventually moved to Oklahoma after a short stint in another state where their children attended a Christian school. Soon after entering the public middle school in their community, their son Anthony went into a downward spiral. He'd scored very low on standardized tests taken on enrollment day, and after a week or two, he was so discouraged with his low test scores and mounds of homework, he wanted to quit.
Anthony's mom, Maggie, began volunteering in his classroom one afternoon a week. There she realized more clearly the challenges and expectations for sixth graders. The teacher gave her supplemental materials for Anthony, and she began working with him after school at home — having him reading his science and history textbooks aloud; providing extra books, maps, and atlases from the library to enrich the material; and equipping him with study strategies.
When the students were to enter the science fair, Anthony found a project that piqued his curiosity; his mom, dad, and brothers helped him find interesting resources and cheered him on as he worked. When he was awarded first place in his division, Anthony, who'd always been in the shadow of his two high-achieving older siblings, began to feel more confident. After that success, he made it a goal to get straight A's and worked even harder. During the many months Anthony persevered, his parents focused on his progress and effort, instead of on what he hadn't yet achieved or an occasional low grade.
It wasn't easy and Anthony had plenty of setbacks, but with his optimism, effort, and determination fueling him, by the end of the next year, he'd made all A's for the first time ever, and his standardized test scores went way up.
This young man didn't stop there. Though he had to work harder than other classmates to get high grades, by college he was a 4.0 student and was on the president's honor roll. Along the way, the boy who struggled with middle-school homework fell in love with learning, which took him to a Japanese university to teach English as a second language and on a history fellowship to tour and write of his travels in Europe and around the world. Now in his late 20s, this lifelong learner plans to study for a Ph.D. and become a college professor.
Just as Anthony's parents found, there are many ways you can equip your child for lifelong learning and success. This article series will share how you can be a homework consultant and encourager yet leave the ownership of the responsibility with your child. You'll also learn how your role model as a parent is one of the best ways to impact your child's achievement. In addition, you'll see how a positive home environment that supports learning and develops strong character and values is vital as you build momentum for lifelong learning.
When I was a classroom teacher, it wasn't hard to tell which kids were getting too much outside help from their parents. A project and poster would look like a graphics team had created it, or a homework paper would be perfect, but the student would fail the test on the same material.
Today the urge to get overinvolved in homework is just as great, and perhaps even greater because some experts say that many parents "consumed with overprotective zeal" are coddling their kids through homework, correcting their errors or even doing the papers for them1.
Telltale clues of overinvolvement are when parents say "Our project is taking a lot of time," or "We have so much homework tonight!" Actually, it's the child's project and homework, and even though parents are just trying to help, if they take over, kids start thinking, Why care or put out so much effort? Mom and Dad will do it for me!
What can you do then to support your children in learning and help them take ownership? The first step is to build responsibility. Kids who learn responsibility at home (by doing a few daily, age-appropriate chores and completing their own homework assignments) tend to be more competent and successful at school.
You should provide an organized study area (with good light, paper, and color-coded file folders to keep papers in, and let them choose some of their own supplies) because disorganization causes stress and distracts from the learning process. Children need a break and physical play after school, but then you need to establish a fixed place in your house and a regular time for homework and reading because it helps build a strong "mental set" for studying.
Another thing you can do is show your child how to break assignments into doable bites so the pressure won't be on the night before due date (when you're more tempted to pick up the ball and do the project for him so he won't get a zero) — but then expect your child to do the work. Teach good study strategies that build on your child's learning strengths — but let him or her keep the "ownership" of the homework and school responsibilities.
And if he's done a math problem incorrectly, show him how to work a similar problem but let him be the one to correct it on his worksheet. When parents repeatedly bail kids out if they fail to do their work, the kids don't learn responsibility or use their own abilities. But when you encourage self-reliance and responsibility, you'll be empowering your child with an "I can do it" kind of attitude.
As long as kids stay curious, they are motivated to learn, but when their curiosity dies, their learning ability suffers. Many experts believe curiosity may be the most important factor for children's brain development and their ability to tackle academic tasks. Just as my friends the MacKenzies found, when their son's curiosity was stimulated, it boosted his motivation to learn.
Like curiosity, thinking is perhaps one of the most important subjects of all, and it begins at home. Use opportunities in real, everyday living to give your kids problem-solving practice. Let them help figure out how far apart to space vegetable and flower seedlings in the garden. Before a trip, let them help plan and budget the vacation money and navigate using maps while en route to your destination. Turn a walk to the park into a nature investigation with an inexpensive magnifying glass, a sack for interesting rocks or leaves, and a critter jar made out of a plastic container with a mesh lid to let in air.
Ask curious questions when you go to the zoo together like "Why do you think this animal has long legs? Is this animal a meat eater or a grass eater?" Give them toothpicks and say, "What are all the ways we can use a toothpick?" Brainstorm and see who can figure out how to use something that would normally be thrown away. "What are all the ways we can use a toothpick?" Brainstorm and see who can figure out how to use something that would normally be thrown away. "What can we do with a Styrofoam tray the chicken was in?" (After washing, of course!) And there are many other creative ideas kids can think of on their own.
And most of all, take your kids' questions seriously — even though little ones ask a lot of questions that can seem endless. (Remember, this curiosity, these questions, are a key to his desire to learn, so avoid putting out the fire!)
At the same time, don't feel like you have to give all the answers; it's valuable to help your child think through the question and ask, "What do you think about that?" or "That's a really great question," and then guide him through applying facts he's already learned or coming up with a theory of his own. If you're too busy to talk about it at the time or don't know the answer, write your child's questions on an index card and next time you're at the library, have him take it to the librarian to help discover the answer, or search together on the Internet later.
When kids are in junior high and high school, critical-thinking skills are developing, so it's vital to keep an open dialogue with them about issues and situations they face. When they make a statement that contrasts with your values, avoid overreacting. Instead, guide them through the thought processes, and encourage them to consider what determines right and wrong and to search for what God says about that issue in the Bible. But let your children explain their views and not always be put down for their ideas.
Also, find out what the school is doing to inspire kids' curiosity. If your discoveries prove disappointing, band with other parents to brainstorm for creative ideas and buy hands-on science equipment (lots of which is inexpensive). Meet with teachers and the principal to see how parents can partner to improve the school environment and build students' sense of wonder, curiosity, and motivation for learning.
We want to have great schools to send our kids to, but the truth is their home environment has a profound impact on their learning. The old saying, "The most important work you do takes place within the walls of your home," applies here. Let me demonstrate this truth with an example of how to raise writers (that is, students who have strong writing skills).
When I taught high school English, I could always determine which students did some writing at home with their parents in the course of their everyday life. They did better in classroom writing and generally had a more positive attitude about writing, assuming that it was what grown-ups did in real life, not just cruel and unusual assignments reserved only for school.
Then some interesting research came out a few years ago, studying factors in families that support kids' developing writing skills, that confirmed what I'd observed in the classroom1.
Here are some of the findings: These children had a lot of conversation and reading at home. There was at least one adult who interacted with them about their writing; took time to let them read their stories, poems, or whatever they'd written aloud; and encouraged them to express themselves on paper. They suggested real reasons to do practical writing like making lists (of friends to invite to a party or foods they'd like to eat in the coming week) and wrote notes to their kids at home on sticky notes, on a whiteboard in a central place for family messages, and in their lunch boxes.
These were not parents who were professional writers, but ones who saw writing as a lifelong skill and encouraged it at home.
And writing, by the way, is a valuable skill, even (and especially) in this high-tech era. There are well over 30 million jobs today in which people use writing to convey and transfer information; because we're in an information-oriented world, success in great part depends on a precise and effective use of spoken and written language. So a young person who can write and speak well (the two skills tend to work together) will be the adult who can rise to the top of his field.
Take this same principle and apply it to other things your children need to learn, such as math (the attitude about math that kids come into the classroom with, and experiences at home with measuring, learning to set up a simple budget, counting toys while putting them away on shelves) and reading (avid young readers tend to come from homes where there's a lot of reading aloud, parents are engaged in their own reading, and interesting books and magazines are available).
Not just moms, but dads also have an important role in developing their kids to be lifelong learners. Mothers are often the ones expected to help with homework and volunteer at school, but over and over studies show that a father's encouragement and support — whether it's reading aloud to his children, sharing a hobby, or showing genuine interest in the content that his kids are learning, not just the grades — can have a powerful impact on raising lifelong learners.
And if you decrease your own and your children's time in front of the television during the school week and spend the time in other, more productive ways like playing board games or talking around the dinner table, you'll be surprised at how this translates into more motivation for learning in the classroom.
Excessive TV watching (including DVDs and videotapes) robs kids of important parent-child time and is strongly related to inattention and childhood obesity. And please don't put a television or computer in your young child's room, isolating him or her from family interaction and parental supervision.
Make the most of your role model, because the top way kids learn is by imitation. The daily example you set in being interested in learning about the world around you, being persevering, patient, and optimistic about your challenges at work or home (including parenting!), will help your sons and daughters develop the determination to keep going on difficult math problems or other tasks despite frustrations.
What is your son or daughter most interested in? Is it whales, Civil War history, science fiction, cooking, computers, horses, or astronomy? Discovering and tapping into kids' special interests is a key to helping them become lifelong learners.
When they have their own "expert territory" or topic, hobby, or interest they know more about than anyone else in the family or classroom, their desire to learn accelerates. In addition, having an area of expertise can build self-worth and help a child overcome obstacles. It's a painless, effective way to help a child love to learn because you're plugging into something he wants to know.
You can begin to discover this center of learning excitement by asking questions, listening well, and noticing what your child gets excited about doing and takes pride in. You may need to be aware it might be something you have little or no interest in, so don't try to push him into the mold of what the rest of the family pursues or excels at.
Here are some good questions to discover your child's favorite interest:
What do you like to do most?
What do you think you're really good at?
What do you enjoy doing most — at home or at school — that you'd do even if you didn't have to and it wasn't scheduled?
What would you like to know more about?
The answers are clues to interests you can highlight and develop. What you're looking for is what subject makes your children's eyes light up. Once you find it, here are some things you could do to develop it and connect with learning:
Provide resources like a subscription to a magazine on the subject of interest, books, or computer programs where they can learn more about it.
Take outings and day trips to hands-on science or living-history museums and other places that tap into kids' interests. Take them to live performances if they're interested in music; sit up close at the symphony and let them gaze into the orchestra pit to watch the conductor and musicians.
Find a class or summer camp in your community that is taught by someone who really knows this subject and can help them learn more. Examples include local art centers with Saturday classes and zoo internships for kids who are interested in animals. You can investigate courses on a variety of subjects that are offered to children and teens through 4-H clubs, YMCAs, universities, and community colleges.
Jenny, a fourth-grade girl I met when serving as an artist-in-residence, was fascinated with Arthurian legends, and after learning what she could in a unit and doing a project in social studies at her school, she still wanted to learn more. Jenny and her mom went to the library for more books, which spurred on her interest. Eventually her dad found a university professor who was willing to work with Jenny. Through e-mail and CD-ROMs the expert sent, he shared information he knew about Arthurian legends with Jenny, and eventually she majored in history in college.
While we need to be very selective about the mentors we allow in our children's lives, qualified, trustworthy people of integrity who share their expertise and skills with our kids can help develop their interests and love of learning.
As parents, we want our children to improve in their behavior, make good grades, and clean up their messy rooms. It's nice to have high expectations and goals for our kids, but sometimes our correction can turn into criticizing, and when this happens they don't get the encouragement they need. In fact, one study showed that moms tend to criticize their children 10 times more than they say a positive remark.
Consistent focusing on what our kids have done wrong rarely works to improve learning or motivation at school. Similarly, comparing them to a sibling ("If only you applied yourself like your sister!"), name-calling ("You are just lazy and childish"), and overreacting to mistakes are poor motivators.
Most children really want to please their parents, and discouragement and frustration set in when they think that no matter how hard they try, they won't be able to please Mom and Dad. Part of having a great support system at home (which children really need for the long term — 12 years plus higher education) means building an environment of encouragement. It's important to establish a home base where kids know they're accepted and loved not just for what they do (their grades, soccer wins, and achievements) but who they are (the valuable person who is your son or daughter).
As John Drescher, a pastor and father of five, once said, "An ounce of praise can accomplish more than a ton of fault-finding"1. We can always find fault since kids are works in progress, but encouragement to children is like sun and rain are to flowers — vital and necessary if they are going to grow and bloom as they were created to.
In fact, studies show that students who are successful learners have parents who are involved in their lives and have built strong, loving relationships with their kids, set limits, and spend time together. This is because emotional security (the foundation of which is a loving, trusting relationship with parents) is at the core of students' motivation systems and what experts call their "availability to learn." There's a high correlation between emotional insecurity and the turmoil it produces in a child's heart and mind, and his inability to learn in the classroom.
The opposite is also true, however. Encouraging children's efforts spurs on their learning. This is the good news! When a child grows up in a home with loving parents and an atmosphere of encouragement, it fosters mental growth. A good example of this is a young woman named Lana Israel who was awarded the highest honor for smart kids in England — "The Brain of England."
After the award ceremony, Lana was asked why she was such a great student and so successful in academics. She told about how her home was full of continual encouragement, where she and her sister didn't have to be perfect, and when they made mistakes, their parents encouraged them and believed in them. This encouraged Lana to take risks, try new courses of study, and use her creative abilities.
How can you apply this to your child and your home environment? When your daughter brings home a math test with a score of 82 (but you wish the grade were 90), you could say, "That's a real improvement honey; you got six points higher than last week." When her team doesn't win the debate, you could praise her efforts and the preparation that went into the event. When she does well and makes a high grade, praise effort, not just her intelligence. Research shows this stimulates more effort, but if we tell kids they are geniuses and the smartest person in the class and then they make a lower-than-expected grade, they'll reduce their efforts and thus learn less on the next unit of study.
One thing I learned in years and years of cheering for our three kids in their swim meets, volleyball and tennis matches, and baseball games is how very important momentum is to who wins the game. Education is like that too; it's a lot about momentum.
So, when the school year begins, getting off on the right foot is important. Meet the teacher and let her know you're involved in your child's education at home. Help your child get organized and use study methods that work for him and build on his strengths.
Then, if a problem hits in math, science, writing, or another subject, you and your child tackle the problem together and come up with a solution to get her back on track. You don't waste time over-focusing on mistakes but notice what she's doing well or trying hard at and praise that. You don't have to wait until a special occasion or the highest score on the SAT is made to encourage the right actions.
For instance, if your child has remembered to do his homework for five days and turned it in (quite a feat for some kids!), say, "you've been really responsible about your schoolwork this week" or "I'm happy about the effort you've put into your homework." In a sense, you become your child's best encourager because if you don't accept and encourage your kids, they'll find someone who will, and that person might encourage them to embrace values that you don't share.
You can also build momentum by looking for ways to tap into his center of learning excitement so his confidence and love of learning can build. As you apply these principles and ideas, positive momentum will grow as year by year your child develops the skills to be a life-long learner, equipped to succeed in school and life.
Let me encourage you along the way as you are juggling work responsibilities, maintaining the household, and driving your kids to and from sports activities — keep believing in them, share their enthusiasm for learning and life, and most of all, enjoy their growing-up years — they fly by so quickly!