How to help your child do well at school: 'Helicopter parents' and 'tiger mothers' should back off, say researchers

Researchers in the US came up with the astonishing finding that parental involvement in children's schooling makes no difference at all to test scores and exam grades. So what does help them learn better?

Hilary Wilce
Wednesday 25 June 2014 23:11 BST
Amy Chua is the author of the controversial book, Battle
Hymn of the Tiger Mother
Amy Chua is the author of the controversial book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother

Children do better in school when their parents are fully involved with their education, right? Amy Chua would certainly say so. The author of the controversial book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, famously argued that strict supervision of children's learning is the best way to optimise their achievement.

But it seems that she might be wrong. Earlier this year, researchers in the US came up with the astonishing finding that parental involvement in children's schooling makes no difference at all to test scores and exam grades.

After looking at 25,000 student surveys, spanning three decades and covering all kinds of communities, they reported that no matter how much a parent supervises their child's homework, liaises with their teachers about progress and behaviour, or volunteers for school events, their child's academic progress will be unaffected.

So does this mean that we can wash our hands of our children's schooling and put our feet up in front of the television? On the contrary. What this study actually shows is that we've got it all wrong about how to help our children thrive at school, and that it's time to forget hovering over homework in favour of something more subtle and powerful altogether.

"Parents are critical to how well children perform in school, just not in the conventional ways that our society has been promoting," say the authors of the US study, sociologists Keith Robinson of the University of Texas, Austin, and Angel L Harris, of Duke, in North Carolina. "The essential ingredient is to communicate the value of schooling, a message that parents should be sending early in their children's lives and that needs reinforcing over time."

But how do we go about creating a climate that makes children want to learn? From the thousands of hours I've spent in schools, I know that parents have more power than anyone to motivate their children to study, but that they can't force school success by helicoptering around over ever detail of their child's life. Instead, they need to provide the kind of secure, thoughtful, encouraging environment at home, from which children can go out and forge their own successful way through school and beyond.

Yet although this sounds simple, it's not that easy to pull off. Which is why I've just written a short book about the six key things that parents can do to help their children thrive at school. Here are the areas that parents need to focus on:

Good attitudes

Children do what we do, not what we say. A classic experiment in the US found that by far the best way to encourage children to be generous was for their parents and teachers to show generous behaviour – without a word about it. So, model what you want your child to imitate. Keep anxiety about school down and encourage them to see learning as interesting, enjoyable and exciting. Foster a positive problem-solving attitude. Not "I can't do this", but "How can I do this?" Keep the pressure off, and show a genuine interest in what they are doing at school.

Good health

Dull, sluggish children can't do well in school. Brains and bodies are too intimately related. To give just one example: omega-3 fatty acids, found in foods such as salmon, walnuts and kiwi fruit, help support brain synapses, which in turn help turn on critical brain functions such as memory and learning. There are thousands of others. That's why it's vital that your child has a good diet and enough exercise and sleep – even when it means unpopular decisions like being strict about junk food and banning electronics from the bedroom.

Good relationships

In school, children need to get on well with classmates and teachers, work in groups, deal with bullies, and know how to ask for help when they need it. So show them what good relationships look like. Try not to be over-critical of yourself or your child. Aim for friendly, honest and straightforward dealings with others, and fight any school battles firmly but without blame and anger. Encourage your child to "self-talk" positively, so the voice in their head is helpful and supportive, and teach them thoughtfulness, good manners and how to think about other people's feelings.

Amy Chua has argued that strict supervision of children’s learning is the best way to optimise their achievement

Good choices

Good choices are at the heart of good learning, whether it's when to do homework, who to choose as a friend, or what subjects to take in the sixth form. Allow younger children to make simple choices – grapes or banana for snack? Teach older ones to weigh options and think about consequences. Talk about short- and long-term benefits, and help older children learn how to examine their priorities and be true to themselves in the choices they make.

Good learning

Lay the groundwork for school with lots of relaxed reading, talking, noticing and experiencing. Encourage your child to see that learning is a balance between enjoyment and effort. It's fun to learn a new thing such as adding up, but it takes concentration and repetition to master it. Get them to see how good it feels to acquire new skills. Teach them that learning is a journey that everyone does in their own way, and that setbacks and mistakes are part of it. And show them that they are in the driving seat. People are there to help, but no one can do it for them.

Good organisation

Children get more from school if they live in a well-run home and learn to manage their "stuff". UK researchers have found, for example, that dirty, noisy and cluttered homes contribute directly to poor health, and therefore learning, in pre-schoolers. Manage family time for calm mornings and a proper breakfast. Children thrown late and frazzled into school lose significant learning time. Help your child keep their school things organised and arrangements clear in their minds – especially important if they are living between two homes. Teach older children how to plan ahead, to watch what activities are "eating" their time, and how to manage their possessions and money.

Hilary Wilce is a former education columnist with 'The Independent', and a personal development coach. Her latest book, 'The Six Secrets of School Success', is available from the Amazon Kindle store, as is her previous book 'Backbone: How to Build the Character Your Child Needs to Succeed'. She is available to visit schools and work places and talk to parent groups about how to support children in school

Five ways to help your child do well at school

1. Teach the magic word "yet"

As in, "I haven't yet learned how to tie my shoelaces." Or "I haven't yet understood electromagnetic induction". Seeing learning as an optimistic, positive process boosts success.

2. Move bedtime forward

Canadian teachers report more restlessness, volatility and frustration in 7- to 11-year-olds who get half an hour less sleep than their classmates. US researchers have found that high-school students who achieve C, D and F grades get 25 minutes less sleep than students getting A and B grades. Sleep is vital. It processes learning and regulates health.

3. Read together

According to UK researchers, children who read for pleasure make more progress in maths, vocabulary and spelling between the ages of 10 and 16 than those who rarely read, and reading for pleasure is more important than either wealth or social class when it comes to doing well in school.

4. Learn something yourself

This means you are modelling what enjoyable, rewarding learning looks like. Also model how difficulties in learning can be overcome with cheerful fortitude!

5. Do nothing

If your child acts up in class or fails to do their homework, let them take the consequences. Experiencing the results of actions is essential to good learning. Shielding your child from every bump in the school road will produce a passive, dependent learner.

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