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Deals You Can Make with The "System"

Parents are removed from their kids' schooling in two ways: One, of course, parents aren't the ones in school. Sure, homeschooling parents are closer to the daily experience, but still, the student has to be the one to learn. Two, parents aren't in school now. Times do change, and today's school (today's world) isn't the same as twenty-odd years ago. These two "experience gaps" between parents and their school-age children give rise to a lot of questions. Here are just three, along with some ideas and resources.

How can I help my kids be better students?

First, you have to believe that your involvement really can make a difference. Luckily, the evidence is strong that it can. According to various sources, 1/2 to 2/3 of the variance in student achievement is due to parental, rather than school influences. Three practices in particular seem to help:

  • Keep absenteeism low
  • Have plenty of stuff to read at home (and provide a good role model by reading yourself)
  • Control TV and video-game time

Basically, showing your kid that learning is important (and fun) is better than telling that message. Each age can be helped by a different kind of parental support:

  • When your kid is young, talk about the numbers and words in everyday life (how long will it take us to drive to your friend's house? can you help me read the street signs? when do we have to leave if we can only stay for an hour and a half?). Just showing a young kid that reading and numeracy come into play every day is a good start.
  • With a kid in upper elementary school, put up a map or have a globe in his or her room and talk about places in the news or otherwise connected to things of interest to your kid. Let your kid watch the weather report and repeat the forecast to you. Always ask why your kid liked or did not like a particular movie, and don't stop asking until your kid offers some analysis, not just an opinion. Help your kid understand how to use a clock and a calendar - time management is hard for most kids to master, but those who do are ahead of the game. Basically, giving your kid the skills to get information and interpret it really builds in the middle years.
  • As your kid moves through middle school and into high school, responsibility is the watchword. Give your kid more chores and deadlines. Join your kid volunteering for some community service. Have more discussions, and visit friends in workplaces, to help your kid understand the world of work. Encourage your kid to understand the correlation between educational achievement and quality of life. The skills your kid might have mastered in middle school won't do any good unless your kid has motivation and responsibility too.

When is too much homework not too much homework?

Speaking of quality of life, do you have to "pull teeth" to get your kid to do homework? Does it seem that the homework process goes on all night? Most teachers really do assign only a reasonable amount of homework, so you might want to ask whether the struggle over "too much homework" is really too much struggle about homework. Here's a possible cure you might implement early in the year.

Typically, at a back to school presentation, your kid's teacher or teachers, or perhaps a principal speaking on behalf of all teachers, will say how much time you should expect your kid to spend on homework. Back at home, tell your kid you want to test the teacher estimate(s), so you want your kid to complete all homework each night for one week without any discussion (other than homework help, of course), any "breaks," or any delays. Just one week to measure how well the teacher or teachers estimated the homework.

Whether the teacher estimates are a little low, a little high, or even a little more than a little low is not really the point of this exercise: Really, it's about breaking your kid of the habit of wasting time complaining about or delaying homework, rather than just doing it. Many kids pick fights with their parents over homework just to pick the fight, not necessarily because the homework is too much or too hard. Breaking your kid of that habit, or preventing the development of that habit, can help keep your kid's energy where it should be during homework time.

If a teacher expects no more than half an hour of homework per night, and that first week turns out to be 45 minutes, tell your kid you want to extend the test another week, just to see if getting "into the routine" affects the average time. The truth is, your kid or the teacher may be working a little slowly or underestimating, but it's also possible that your kid is just not clearing his or her mind and simply focusing on homework. This is especially likely if homework or chores have already been a point of contention. So try to extend this "neutral approach" for as long as possible. Good luck!

For more on homework issues, check out the following Education World articles. These are from the teacher's point of view, mostly, but might be of interest to you!

What is the teacher's point of view about parental involvement?

Teachers welcome involvement but have a natural reaction against invasion. Remember, the role of a classroom teacher is a hard one, even in very nice schools. In addition to teaching, there are meetings, grading, preparation, and other duties, so it's a long work week. Also, being responsible for two dozen kids all the time makes teachers feel that it's important they remain in charge. All of this can make teaching an isolating job.

So how best to approach your kid's teacher? Make sure you acknowledge your kid's teacher as the education professional. Recognize that he or she has a lot of other kids to think about and can't always alter the classroom environment as quickly or as thoroughly as you might sometimes like. Think about how a suggestion of yours would actually play out in a classroom before making that suggestion to your kid's teacher. Also, focus not on what your kid must do or can to "to get an A," but on clearly understanding what the teacher's goals are for his or her students.

Most importantly, parental involvement is valuable to the extent that it results in kids being more motivated to learn. It doesn't matter if you end up knowing about Colonial tinsmiths or sedimentary rocks or even that you agree with how the teacher has chosen to structure the lessons on such topics; what matters is that your kid continually increases his or her desire and capacity to learn.

Here are a few Education World articles, from the educator's point of view, on parental involvement:

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