Supporting Children's Education
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Research has found that exposure to words, reading, and different types of stories has significant benefits for children, not just academically but socially, as reading aloud to children fosters bonding and security. However, the belief that a child’s intelligence is “locked in” during the first three years of life is not reflective of what’s been learned about neural plasticity in the brain. Neither intelligence nor personality is cemented during early childhood: Kids may eventually thrive even after a neglectful childhood, or grow to struggle after an indulgent one, for reasons not necessarily limited to their parents’ abilities.
There are proven cognitive benefits of learning to play an instrument that are apparent at a young age, including greater executive function and cognitive flexibility, as well as increased focus, working memory, and ability to shift between tasks. However, the belief that simple exposure to classical music, in the womb or in infancy, will boost a child’s intelligence—the so-called “Mozart Effect”—has been widely debunked by research.
A debate has long raged over whether preschool and kindergarten programs should emphasize academic skills or socialization, but a good deal of research supports the theory that early academic training produces long-term harm. Studies have shown, for example, that while students raised in poverty who attended academic early-childhood programs did have initial advantages over their peers in elementary school, by fourth grade, kids who attended play-based kindergartens actually started earning higher grades. No matter what type of program they attend, kids whose parents emphasize play, socialization, and initiative at home during early childhood, some studies show, tend to outperform others in later years.
Young people can benefit greatly from early exposure to computers and software programs that will help them read, write, and create. But a body of research also shows that students remember things better when they write them down than when they type them. Many schools today no longer require students to write their notes but it could benefit parents to encourage their own kids to do so.
The ability and desire to learn independently are crucial factors in anyone’s academic success, which is why it’s so important both for parents to model those traits and to manage their involvement in a child’s schoolwork. A child’s self-discipline, research has found, is at least as important to their academic success as intelligence. Intrinsic motivation—a child’s desire to learn for learning’s sake, instead of to please parents and teachers—is essential as well, but can be compromised when parents insist on good grades to satisfy their own standards and expectations.
Children whose parents take an active role in their education tend to perform better in school and on standardized tests than other kids, research has found. Such parents are most effective by creating a “scaffold” for academic achievement—conveying the importance of education, perhaps by talking with children regularly about their school days, communicating with teachers, volunteering in school buildings, and checking in on homework, without being intrusive or aggressively correcting it. In general, giving a child as much autonomy as possible, even as they occasionally stumble, will help them build confidence in their own abilities.
Aside from the perennially guilt-inducing question of whether a parent is too involved in a child’s work, and therefore stifling their development, or not involved enough, and therefore allowing a child to struggle, there is the question of how much involvement a child’s school asks of parents, and whether economic pressures or other factors limit the involvement of some parents, potentially putting their students at an unfair advantage. While it’s fair for schools to expect parents to ensure that students are keeping up with assignments, other academic demands, such as direct involvement in projects, not only may burden families with stress, but, research suggests, may not benefit students academically anyway.
Many families commit to homeschooling for personal or religious reasons, or to accommodate a child’s special needs. Those considering it because they hope it will benefit a child’s education or learning style need to weigh the pros and cons. Homeschooling can be efficient, as it eliminates the distractions of a school building; it is safe, nurturing, and flexible, and allows for deep exploration of topics that interest a child—and ample resources are available to support learning and arrange social and extracurricular activities. But parents must also consider if they are able to fill the roles of both parent and teacher, be prepared to consistently motivate and engage their student, and be aware of the risk of emotional burnout for themselves and their children.
Research has long shown that children whose fathers are more actively involved in their lives—whether or not they share the same home—are cognitively healthier. Recent studies of divorced fathers in particular find that, when they overcome the challenges (such as limited communication) and remain actively involved in their children’s education, children achieve higher grades, avoid suspensions, and are less likely to repeat a grade.
First, acknowledge the child’s stress without dismissing it. Encourage a child to talk about their stressors, and listen without judgment. Then, talk through how to manage the concern, step by step, including calling on sources of support such as peers, teachers, or the parents themselves. Encourage students who are stressed not to become paralyzed with inaction, and especially to maintain an exercise routine, practice mindfulness, and get sufficient sleep.
As kids enter high school and get more involved in extracurricular activities, they may begin to aspire to leadership positions among their peers, but many young people may not know where to begin. Parents can help through holding regular family meetings with agendas and goals set by their children, as research suggests that the ability to set goals can be a key factor in success in school or elsewhere.
Parents should keep in mind that there are many paths to success, and not everyone who becomes successful started out with straight As. Some research suggests that students with top grades often reach average levels of success in the workforce while others with exceptional resilience, social skills, and creativity thrive despite average grades in school?
It’s not as important as many parents think, and often, it’s more important to the parent than the student. The college application process has become a source of intense pressure for many young people, often driven by what the students understand to be their parents’ expectations. Research suggests, though, that the differences between “elite” schools and others is more correlation than causation: Top high-school students do tend to congregate at elite schools, but attending those schools is not necessarily the cause of an individual’s future success. One’s alma mater also has little effect on whether one eventually finds work that engages them or satisfaction in their personal lives.