As a teacher, I used to look forward to September, despite the typical back to school nightmares that would visit me before classes started. I still felt there was something special about the start of a new academic year, such as meeting new students or contemplating the challenge of helping them learn.
While my summers involved curriculum revisions and creating new lesson plans, I knew many of my students were likely groaning as their summer came to an end. I was never bothered by this and believed that with time, they would love being back at school again.
After a month into the school year, I would be reminded of how learning isn’t just influenced by me, the classroom, the tools, or curriculum I had. While teachers are responsible for creating a productive learning environment, parents play a critical role in ensuring a child shows up at school ready to learn.
From a teacher’s perspective, there are many ways parents can contribute to a child’s success at school. While many of them are common sense, they are routinely eclipsed by more academic concerns and go undervalued. The bottom line is this – when home and school work together, the learning outcomes for kids are exponential.
1. Normalize and support the challenges that come with learning –
So much of learning involves being placed outside of the comfort of ‘what you know.’ Learning is about being stretched and pulled a little, drawn into discovery and inquiry, taking apart what you know and putting it back together again, and being changed by the whole process. But all of this may create some discomfort as one moves to a place that isn’t certain, is vulnerable, and new.
I used to tell my students that if a teacher cares about their learning then they should feel challenged by this teacher. It was the student’s duty not to take offense but to realize the gift in having someone believe they are capable of learning and stretching.
A parent can help a child embrace feelings of discomfort and normalize these emotions as part of the learning process. It is important not to always try and ‘rescue’ a child nor prevent the discomfort that is part of learning process, but convey that you believe they will get there eventually and are there to help. In order to grow, there is going to be discomfort. Faulting a teacher because learning is hard doesn’t support the child’s relationship with the teacher nor convey faith in a child to overcome the challenge that is before them. Remember not all children find learning easy.
There are also times when kids need adult support and interventions to help identify and overcome their learning challenges. This type of support is made all the better when there is a good working relationship between a teacher and a parent.
2. Help your child adapt –
There are a lot of things at school that won’t go a child’s way – like recess breaks that end too soon, being one of many students with different needs and wants, having to wait for others, as well as following someone else’s rules. School represents many futilities that are part of life and beyond one’s control. Some kids seem more adaptable than others and part of this rests on the support they have at home.
Grumpiness is often a signal that a child is up against some frustration around things that are not going their way. They may unleash their frustration on siblings and loved ones, making after school tantrums frequent. Helping them find some words for their experiences and guiding them to express what doesn’t work can reduce frustration and help them adapt. Tears may be part of the process too, and we may need to support them in surrendering to the things they cannot change with warmth and patience.
3. Keep your relationship with your kid(s) strong –
When kids have strong caring relationships with adults at home, they are less likely to arrive at school ‘hungry’ for attachment. When they are not preoccupied with getting their relational needs met through friends, they will be better able to focus, won’t seek unhealthy connections to their peers, and will be less vulnerable to rejection and wounding from other kids.
One of the greatest challenges in classrooms today stem from peer orientation and the dynamics that play out when kids solely come to school to be with their friends. Adults are often seen as secondary to their school day, lesson plans are an inconvenience, and they share the same values as their peer group instead of the school culture. When peers replace adults, kids lose out on learning. If parents can hold onto a strong relationship with their kids then it frees their child to have healthy peer relationships, and to follow and learn from the adults in a school environment.
4. Match-make a child to their teacher and school –
When kids see that their parents like their school and teacher, it can go a long way to helping them trust their adults at school. Parents need to take an active role and play matchmaker with the teacher by arranging for an introduction (if possible), speaking with warmth about the teacher, conveying trust in them, orienting them to the school culture and rules, and ensuring that the relationship with their teacher stays on track. Kids do best when adults take the lead in introducing them to the people that will take care of them. It provides both security and a sense of rest so that the focus can go towards learning.
5. Put limits on technology –
Kids can be drawn to technology to quell boredom or to connect with their friends, or distract themselves from the challenges they face (same with adults). Setting and maintaining healthy habits around technology ensures it won’t hijack the time that is needed for homework, play, or connecting with family members. While many families start out the school year with good intentions around the use of technology, these rules can start to slide when things get busy. Parents need to be caring and firm as they create boundaries and limits around the use of technology in the home.
Teachers and schools should also set rules around technology use that will help create safe and productive learning environments. The rules will be age dependent but it is helpful for parents to ask about these limits and to support them. Schools are increasingly having to deal with issues between students that have blown up over social media and impact the learning environment. The digital world has made the divide between home and school weaker, and as such, parental guidance and supervision is important to prevent problems from occurring.
6. Support the school schedule and routine –
Schools have set agendas, calendars they plan well in advance, curriculum that needs to be covered, and holidays to navigate around. When parents support a child adjusting to the school routine, it makes classrooms flow better with more focus allowed for learning. When kids repeatedly come in late, don’t have their things ready for school, don’t have support at home with projects or supplies, or take vacations during school time, it makes teaching and learning harder. Parents can help by drawing a child into healthy habits and routine that support getting to school rested, fed, and ready to learn.
7. Let them play –
Kids work at school even though many teachers try to make learning fun and engaging. With so much work, kids need to play and rest so as to balance their day and have space to integrate new learning. While they may be engaged in structured activities after school, they also need time away from these as well as stimulation that prevents expression and inquiry. While it may seem like unproductive time to adults, it is the rest they need so they are able to work again in school. When we push kids to work too much, it can create defenses against learning and upend our relationship. There is a time for work and a time for play. Parents need to help structure a child’s world so there are opportunities for both.
8. Put them in charge of homework where appropriate –
Battles over homework are hard on relationships and do little to foster a child’s internal motivation to care about their learning. If a child shows signs of being responsible, help them take the lead in making decisions about when and where homework will get done and what type of help they want from a parent. When a parent’s agenda is hidden (homework needs to be done), under choices that a put a child’s will at the forefront (where, when, and how it is done), then the child will feel less coerced and resistant to getting things done. The goal for parents is to help create routine, structure, and play a supporting role in getting homework done, but not to descend into battles for control which erode parental influence and a child’s desire to learn.
9. Communicate with teachers and preserve your relationship –
When parents and teachers work on having a good relationship, their children benefit. It is ideal to try and communicate with each other before problems get too big. I often wished my students or their parents came to me when issues were smaller because there was often more I could do to help, instead of blaming the teacher for what is happening at home. It is useful to keep in mind that both parent and teacher see a child in a different environment and listening to each other’s perspective can go a long way. When there are problems, trying to preserve goodwill and a relationship is critical and requires maturity on all parts.
(Example: Trying to change the way a teacher teaches your 'sensitive' child could create tensions. There are usually 30 students in a classroom and although a teacher tries to find a middle road, it may not work for the remaining 28 students.)
The most productive meetings I have been part of are where the adults try to make sense of a child instead of focusing on fault finding and blaming others.
10. Support a child with challenging peer interactions –
In school environments, it is next to impossible to prevent wounding that happens between kids. There are times when they are left out, unkind words may be said, and gossip hurts. When peer troubles are present, it is helpful for parents to draw out tears at home and help them find their words for what has happened. What is most important is for a child to see that an adult believes in them. Confide in a teacher when a child is struggling with other kids too, there are many things they can do in a classroom and with supervision on the playground (of course that teacher must be willing).
What every child needs in their backpack is a relationship at home to turn to. While teachers should create safe and bully free classrooms, they don’t and can’t see everything that happens from the playground or the classroom. The good news is when a parent has a strong relationship with their child, then that child is more resilient and less impacted by the immaturity of others.
When parents take care of their child’s need for relationship and support their emotional development, teachers can harness a child’s natural desire to learn and to overcome challenges. Learning doesn’t happen in a vacuum, and when parents and teachers join forces, we are in the best position to help our kids reach their learning potential.
Dr. Deborah MacNamara is on Faculty at the Neufeld Institute, the author of the best-selling book, Rest, Play, Grow: Making Sense of Preschoolers (or anyone who acts like one), and is the Director of the Kid’s Best, Bet Counseling and Family Resource Centre.