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How Parents Can Set Their Kids Up For Success This School Year

Your child might not recognize that school has changed, or if they do, they might not know how to cope with it. Here’s how you can help.

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Most children are elated to have returned to a more typical school environment. Even the lucky ones who attended school in person last year are experiencing fewer restrictions and a different atmosphere this fall.

But while kids will have a much better time socially, I am afraid many will struggle academically.

Most teachers went easy on kids last year. All families were under stress, and for kids learning remotely, Zoom communication added another layer of difficulty. So, appropriately, teachers had lower expectations.

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For many kids in middle and high school there were fewer assignments, and deadlines could be extended without a grade penalty. Students were allowed to consult their notes and textbooks during tests, and many teachers even provided their own notes for students to use. Some remote learners, realizing they didn’t need to take notes or even listen during class, turned off their cameras, muted their mics and spent class playing on their phones.

School won’t be like that this year.

The teachers I’ve spoken with are not frantic to catch up on content that kids missed last year, but they do think it’s time to get back to work.

Your child might not recognize that school has changed, or if they do, they might not know how to cope with it. How can you help?

For starters, monitor your child’s progress a little more closely. You can, of course, simply ask your child how school’s going, but they might be slow to recognize there’s a problem. Even if it hasn’t been your practice, this is the year to log in to the student information system your child’s school uses to be sure assignments are complete and grades are in the range you expect.

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If your child is struggling, part of the problem might be organizing their work. Many schools use online planners that are supposed to make it impossible for students not to be aware of assignments; the teachers fill in the dates of tests, homework deadlines and so on. The disadvantage of such tools is that they don’t help kids develop the habit of tracking their responsibilities. If they’re old enough to need a calendar, they’re old enough to learn the habit of monitoring their commitments themselves.

And because that habit isn’t developed, students don’t put other claims on their time in their calendar—the ones their teacher couldn’t know about. Your child might consider it essential to listen to new music by their favorite artist the evening it’s released. They should block out that time on their calendar, so they can complete homework in advance, ensuring that evening is free. Show your child how to plan their schedule.

Now, what if organization is not the problem? What if they know what they are supposed to do, but simply aren’t getting it done?

Working even when you don’t feel like it is not something that kids magically start doing when they reach a certain age. Discipline, like planning, must be learned, and therefore it must be taught and practiced.

Taking away their screens and saying, “you need to work in your room until your homework is done,” might not be enough. Parents may be amazed that a child can fail to complete a short assignment after an hour alone in their room, but it takes a lot of self-control to concentrate on a boring assignment when the rest of the family is downstairs watching TV.

But the opposite approach—working through the assignment with your child—doesn’t build self-discipline either. You’re ensuring your child stays on task, so they don’t have to learn how to focus when their mind wanders.

Your child can best learn self-discipline through practice in a supportive environment. For example, suppose that, for an hour each evening, your family gathers, each working quietly on their own activity. Kids will do homework, and parents might catch up on work themselves, write a letter or read.

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This practice brings several advantages:

  • First, it obviously makes it easy to unobtrusively monitor whether your child is actually working.
  • Second, it actually makes it easier for your child to work. Humans are a social species, and evolution has left us feeling it’s safe and smart to do what others are doing. It’s hard not to yawn or laugh if people around me do so, and it’s easier for your child to do their homework if you’re reading than if you’re playing Words With Friends on your phone.
  • Third, you are readily available to offer help with your child’s work. That’s important not just for the assistance, but because it will give you a sense of how well your child really understands the lesson, whether they are taking good notes in class and so on.
  • Fourth, and most important, setting a consistent time to work each night is an invaluable study habit. Kids fall behind in their work because they don’t plan. Even college students typically choose what to work on simply by determining what’s due next. Thus, if the next due date doesn’t seem pressing, they conclude they can take the night off.

But that assessment—“no due date is pressing”—doesn’t account for the planning fallacy. Whether students or adults, people consistently underestimate how long it will take to complete a task. The best way for students to keep pace with their workload is working a set period of time each night. You can model that behavior and support it.

When the pandemic hit, parents were vigilant in helping their children manage the novel challenges it brought. Now that it’s easing, we must help our children manage the old challenges that have grown unfamiliar.

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