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After three months of summer – when the living is easy, or so goes the song – children and teens are heading back to school and all of the studying, homework and tests that come with it.
With teachers ready and eager to begin building on the lessons of last year, rather than repeating them, how can parents help their children get back on track academically?
Lindsay Harris, an assistant professor in the NIU Department of Leadership, Educational Psychology and Foundations, has four ideas – as well as a bit of good news for some moms and dads.
“If your kid read regularly over the summer, they’re fine. In fact, they might have actually gained something,” Harris says. “The kids who are suffering from ‘summer slide’ haven’t read at all during the summer. They haven’t been involved in any kind of activity. They haven’t visited any museums. They’ve checked out entirely.”
So, for those parents of summer-sliders, here are four strategies to reignite the fire.
“If your kids didn’t read over the summer, it might be because they struggle with reading to begin with: you don’t read well, so you don’t like to read, so you read less, and you fall further behind,” Harris says.
“Offer them some incentive so that they will read, say, 20 minutes a night,” she adds. “That will pay off in the long run. There are lots of lists online of books for reluctant readers. They’re called high-interest books, and they’re targeted for these kids.”
More and more research is confirming that non-cognitive factors such as self-efficacy and self-control can help level the playing field between academic superstars and everyone else, she says.
Parents should know that if their children believe they can accomplish something then chances are better that they will.
Harris also urges gender inclusiveness.
“Parents – and I’m sometimes guilty of this – often use different language about certain academic subjects when talking to boys and when talking to girls,” she says.
“Studies show that when talking to daughters, parents tend to shy away from technical terms for scientific language,” she adds. “Girls are every bit as adept at science and math as boys are. By the time girls get to middle school, though, they get good grades in science and math but report having less confidence in their STEM abilities, and are much less likely than boys to enter a STEM profession. Expose girls to science and math as you would a son.”
Help Set Goals
“But don’t just leave it there,” Harris says. “You also then need to help them understand the steps to reach that goal and, at the same time, help them to visualize what happens if they don’t meet one of their short-term goals and to prepare for that.”
Children, throughout adolescence, have not fully developed their prefrontal cortexes, that part of the brain that allows humans to plan ahead and consider the consequences of their actions.
“It’s very helpful for kids to see, ‘This is how you plan for a goal,’ ” she says. “That works better than just saying, ‘Why don’t you try for an ‘A’ this semester?’ ”
Praise the Effort
Children and teens want and need reassuring pats on the back when they succeed.
What word should not leave a parent’s mouth, however?
“Don’t tell your kids how ‘smart’ they are. Praising your kids for ‘being smart’ can actually backfire. If they think they succeeded at whatever task because they’re naturally smart, they won’t take on anything challenging in the future, because they think that if they fail, it will reflect on their intelligence,” Harris says.
“What really leads to academic success is hard work. Say: ‘Wow, you really worked hard!’ ” she adds. “In situations when hard work pays off – they won the game, they got the ‘A’ – that’s the time to praise effort rather than natural ability.”