How can I help my child be successful in school?

That's an excellent question, one which Ward Halverson has been asked hundreds of times over the years, first as a public school professional educator and later as a child and family therapist often working very closely with both parents and school personnel. Ward feels the best answer to that question begins first with the parents' attitude toward school and education.

What do you mean?

Pretty much every parent values education, Ward has observed. Some parents show that value in the daily interactions with their child, and others mostly just talk about it. Those who really show it, tend to raise children who do well in school, and those who just talk about how important education is with their children, but don't follow through on a daily basis, often have children who struggle.

So how do you really show it, if that's the case?

Ward Halverson is not the first professional to believe there are five factors that influence success in education:

1. Number of days in school.
2. Pages of homework read.
3. Hours of TV watched.
4. A love of reading.
5. Two parents in the home.

It should come as no surprise that children do better in school when they attend class, do their homework, and read a lot. It should also be self evident that turning the television off will help with this; Ward sees TV as essentially the opposite of reading. As for having two parents in the home, every parent knows how complex and active life with children usually is, and that help in any form - especially another loving parent - can make a huge difference.

What about being frustrated with the school system itself?

Someone once said, The schools would have driven me nuts, if it were not for the fact that I always considered it my responsibility to educate my children. I was grateful for what ever help I received along the way from them. In that sense, schools only "set the table," they cannot force children to eat. Some children have huge appetites, and cannot get enough. Others are picky eaters, and will not consume a well-balanced diet, as they should. Still others are inclined to start food fights. These activities are largely beyond the control of the schools, but usually fully within the control of parents. In that sense, holding teachers accountable for student achievement is as ludicrous as holding a dentist responsible for the number of cavities his patients receive. Ward believes that educational performance will not improve until parents realize that every home is a school, and that they are the teachers. The only thing schools can do is attempt to improve the quality of the meal being served.

So what can parents do?

It's no surprise to anyone that children need time with their parents. And even though most parents are extremely busy, whether they work outside of the home or not, they do find time to spend with their children. But they want that time to count in helping prepare their children for the world they will find outside the home.

What matters most is what we say and do at home, not how rich or poor we are or how many years of school we have finished. When children can count on getting attention at home, they have a greater sense of security and self-worth. This will help them do better not only in school, but also when they grow up.

If you think about it, school, while very important, does not really take up very much time. In the United States, the school year averages 180 days; in other industrialized nations, the school year can extend up to 240 days, and students are often in school more hours per day. So, the hours and days a child is not in school are important for learning, too.

Communicate. This is probably the most important activity we can do in our home, and it doesn't cost anything. Ask questions, listen for answers. These are no-cost, high-value things to do. Think of conversation as being like a tennis game with talk, instead of a ball, bouncing back and forth. Communication can happen any time, any place, in the car, on a bus, at mealtime, at bedtime. Ward is a huge fan of the nightly family dinner, as well as "Family Night" and other regular family activities.

Start early. Here are some things you can do when your children are young: Let them see you read, and read to them and with them. Visit the library. If they are old enough, make sure they have their own card. Keep books, magazines, and newspapers around the house. Keep pencils and paper, crayons, and washable markers handy for notes, grocery lists, and schoolwork. Writing takes practice, and it starts at home. Teach children to do things for themselves rather than do the work for them. Patience when children are young pays off later. Help children, when needed, to break a job down into small pieces, then do the job one step at a time. This works for everything - getting dressed, a job around the house, or a big homework assignment. Develop, with your child, a reasonable, consistent schedule of jobs around the house. List them on a calendar, day by day. Every home needs consistent rules children can depend on. Put a plan into action and follow through. Give each child an easy-to-reach place in which to put things away. Set limits on TV viewing so that everyone can get work done with less background noise, or just turn the TV off altogether. But if children do watch TV (or use the Internet), join them, share the process, talk about what you see and think of it.

Handling homework. These are the messages to get across to your children about homework: Education is important. Homework has to be done. Let children know that this is what you value. Try to have a special place where each child can study. Help your children plan how to do all the things they need to do - study, work around the house, play, etc. Let your children know that you have confidence in them. Remind them of specific successes they have had in the past perhaps in swimming, soccer, cooking, or in doing a difficult homework assignment. Don't expect or demand perfection. When children ask you to look at what they've done - from skating a figure 8 to a math assignment - show interest and praise them when they've done something well. If you have criticisms or suggestions, make them in a helpful way. The time we spend exchanging ideas at home with our children is vitally important in setting the tone, the attitudes, and the behaviors that make the difference in school.

In the Community. In many parts of our nation, the ties among neighbors have been weakened. For the sake of our children, they need to be rebuilt, and you can help. Be sure to introduce your children to your neighbors. You might even try a "child watch" program where adults who are home during the day keep an eye out for children when they walk to and from school and stand at bus stops. Some schools are helping families connect with the community by, for example, becoming centers for social services as well as for education. Getting to know your child's school can help you, in a very real way, get to know a major part of your community. It can also help you build a network of wider community support for your family.

At School. Parents can become involved with the schools in several different ways, by working with children at home, volunteering, sharing information, and helping to make policy. We need to remember that what works in one community (or for one family) may not necessarily work in another. It may no longer be possible for parents to volunteer as often for school activities. However, working with children at home and sharing information with the school are two things all parents can do.

What else helps?

  • Talk with your children about the value of hard work and about the importance of education
  • Talk about what's happening in school
  • Read report cards and messages that come from school
  • Go to school and meet with teachers
  • Take part in school events when you can
  • Find out about resources in the community
  • Talk about learning
  • Share the fun and excitement of new skills
  • Show your children that you are always learning, too
  • Practice what you preach!

How about a simpler version of that?

1. Wake kids up as early as necessary in order to be on time for school.
2. Eat a good breakfast every morning
3. Be sure your child gets a good night's sleep
4. Have your child prepare all of their things the night before, including clothes, backpacks, even hair accessories if necessary
5. Children should keep their backpacks, desks and rooms organized so they can find what they need easily and nothing gets lost.
6. Praise your children, encourage them, use positive reinforcement, work closely with them, and let them know you are available for help if needed.
7. Create a study routine; a good rule of thumb is to have kids do their homework right when they get home from school, usually while snacking.
8. Go over homework together.
9. Check backpacks for notes, missed assignments, book orders, and such.
10. Promote healthy habits like healthy snacks which are low in sugar, or fresh fruits and vegetables.
11. Make sure your children ask questions - it's how we learn.
12. Try to reduce stress at home, however possible
13. Ideally, review notes at least three days before a test, not the night, or that day
14. Make sure children should write down their assignments carefully. Parents should keep the number of a few classmates in case children forget to write it down.
15. Parents: be a role model.
16. Have your child read to you often and regularly.
17. Children should take notes when the teacher repeats something, tells them to write it down, says it's very important or will be on a test, or if is written on the board.
18. Children: don't cheat, don't be lazy, do your projects and assignments like reports, ahead of time. Study and learn: you will be proud of yourself.
19. During tests, read all of the directions, follow directions, read the questions carefully, and double check answers if there's time afterwards.
20. Parents: keep in touch with your children's teachers.