It's true: practice really does make perfect

Home Help; Our Home Help series for parents which ended last week offered practical advice for supporting children's learning at home. How do real families cope with the highs and lows?

1. Reading: Parents Sonya and David, Sophie, 71/2, Ella, 6

David: "Reading has been a bit of a struggle, because Sophie is not very confident, so there hasn't been a strong sense of progress. I've always been home from work in time to read with them, but often I'm tired, and my tone can be impatient rather than encouraging. I've got less diligent about writing comments in the home-school reading book; when you feel the teacher is not reading it, you don't do it so much.

"I get a bit more pleasure from reading with my younger daughter, Ella, because she seems to take a lot more in. But I think I'm a harder task master than Sonya, and sometimes the girls don't want to read to me because I've been a bit impatient the night before."

Sonya: "It does seem to be down to the parents to teach children to read, and that's quite onerous. Reading last thing at night is a problem, with the younger two also wanting stories but the mornings are a rush, too. Sometimes I feel despondent after reading with Sophie, but at other times she reads beautifully.

"When I hear the children read, I help them along to keep the flow going, and give them the word rather than make them work it out. The school doesn't really know what's going on, they just assume we're getting on with it."

Sophie: "Sometimes the books are boring. Sometimes I get chapter books and I think they're nice. I like the more grown-up books - they're hard, but I enjoy it. The book I'm reading at the moment has got such long sentences; I'd prefer it if they were a bit shorter."

2. Writing: Mother Ruth, Alice, 9, and Joe, 71/2

Ruth: "The children have written holiday diaries since they were five or six. In Alice's case, she was keen and put a lot of care into her diaries.

"With Joe it was quite different. He's been much more reluctant to write, and didn't like having to sit down and concentrate. Writing Christmas lists was never a problem, but he found writing postcards to his friends a chore. He never enjoyed the diaries - and still doesn't. Last summer, when we were about to go on holiday to Switzerland, he said he didn't want to go because it would mean `lots more diary'.

"I've seen the diaries as a kind of homework and I've been fairly directive about it. Sometimes Joe refused to do it and there would be lots of stomping around - but then he'd feel jealous later that his sister had produced something nice and he hadn't.

"He didn't like reading at home either: but we insisted. I felt that giving him the confidence to cope with reading and writing at school was more important than the aggravation about it at home - and I think it has probably paid off.

"He's now at a new school and suddenly writing is not so much of a chore; he takes a pride in his homework, takes the initiative and writes more than he has to. On reflection, perhaps we needn't have got so het up; but how could we know it would all come right?"

Joe: "It was boring doing the diary because I wanted to get on with my holiday and not do any work. I like writing stories better - with the diary you have to write what you did in the day, and that's not as much fun."

3. Practising: Mum Nancy-Jane, Hermione, 9, and Eleanor, 7

Nancy-Jane: "When Hermione began the violin two years ago, we made the mistake of trying to practise in the evening when the younger two were in the bath. It was disastrous: she was very tired and got dispirited.

"I now feel you need an individual, quiet time to practise, so we do it before school. Eleanor does piano at 7.45 and Hermione does her violin at about 8.10. I do it with them, while the others are having breakfast with their father. That way I can help them with the difficult bits. We end the session with the fun thing of playing the piece. At the weekend we call it playing, not practising and find easier music to do.

"There are still times when practising goes badly - if the children are tired or finding something difficult they can get angry and refuse to do it. We have had some awful fights in the middle of practising, but I think that's inevitable because this is one of the areas where you have to work out your relationship with your child.

"Now, when they get cross, I go out of the room and that quite often has the effect of making them try harder; it's also shown that really they like me to be there. Also bribery is not a bad thing, and I will give them extra pocket money if they've practised well.

"I do think learning to play an instrument is a very important learning experience for life: children nowadays don't have many models of having to get through difficulties in order to do something worthwhile. But, if you encourage them through the hard bits, when they emerge and can play the tune they're so pleased and excited."

Hermione: "I like to practise in the morning because I'm fresh then. At the moment, I'm learning shifting on the violin and that makes me bolshie and frustrated because I can't play the notes in tune. Sometimes I'm ungrateful about Mum being there, but actually I like her being there. I like it when she praises me."

4. Homework: Mother Liz, Alexander, 16, and Joanna, 13

Liz: "The transition to senior school when homework is taken seriously is always difficult. Alexander was still trying to do it in front of the television, but after he got some very bad marks, he realised he should do his work in his own room. He is very studious and homework hasn't been a problem.

"Joanna doesn't like being by herself at the top of the house, so she has colonised the sitting room and turns everyone else out.

"On some homework she will ask for our involvement but when she's tired it can all seem too much. Her father helps with her Latin and I've helped her with history essays, marshalling the information and seeing the point. Sometimes I think I help her too much - but if I help her, say, to plan her first paragraph, she should then find it easier to do it herself.

"Mostly I leave it up to them when they do their homework, otherwise it causes friction. I don't really like monitoring Joanna's homework diary because there needs to be trust. The worst thing is when homework gets left until too late at night and then they get angry with me about it.

"When Joanna was 11 and 12, she would sometimes spend the whole evening on homework and her father, in particular, thought she was overdoing it. Now she's beginning to rebel; she'll stomp around the house and say she's not doing her homework. It's a lot of sound and fury and at the moment my strategy is to avoid confrontation because that's what she wants; I just say, `oh, really?' It's going to be tricky, this new phase, but I think I will let the school deal with it."

5. Friends and bullies: Parents Sally and Richard, Rachel 91/2

Sally: "We went through a very difficult period when one of Rachel's friends was making unpleasant, personal remarks about her at school and excluding her from the `cool' group. I found it really hard because the girl's mother was a friend of mine.

"I had to defend my daughter, but she didn't feel defended because I was still friends with the mother. The school was aware of the problem and began to record the incidents. Rachel's teacher was very sensitive about it and I let Rachel have the odd day off school.

"Now the girls are friends again. Children's friendships can shift quite rapidly, and it can be dangerous for parents to get too sucked in. But I try to give my children times when they can talk to me about the things that are worrying them - a listening space. I get them to describe their day, and that gives me quite a good idea."

Richard: "I was badly bullied at my boarding school, and what I didn't like was that, for a time, I became a bully myself as a result. You need to teach your children to step outside that, so that they don't become one or the other. What I told Rachel to do was: `as soon as you feel uncomfortable, find something else to do; as soon as other children see you're not dependent on them, they won't pick on you'.

She would come home and say, `I did what you said, and walked away'.

"I think it's important to get the school involved: a child can't deal with a problem like that all by themselves."

Rachel: "Dad helped me a lot, giving me tips like, ignore them, find someone else. Mum and Dad were too busy when I talked to them about it in the day; but I talk to Mum at night-time, when my brother and sister are in bed, and she talks to me and helps me."

Some names have been changed

In the new year we will be producing a new Home Help series, looking at Internet sites supporting the national curriculum.

If you would like free copies of the last Home Help series, with advice on the issues raised above, please call Chris Brown on 0171 510 6176

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