How to support your child emotionally so he/she can learn
by Ann Bartz
Learning isn't just about taking in dry facts and spewing them out later for the test. It's a complex process, one that's greatly influenced by how your child feels about herself and the people around her, and by how they feel about her.
Like most parents, you may be anxious about your child's performance in school as she heads into this new phase of her life, and concerned about the quality of the education she is getting. You can do a tremendous amount to foster a love of learning through your patience, interest, encouragement, and delight in her and your efforts to make her school better. You may also reap some rewards yourself: the joy and satisfaction of learning with and from your child, and the sense of accomplishment that comes with helping out at her school. Here are some important things you can do:
• Avoid blaming your child when she has difficulties in school ("You should know all your letters by now! You must not be paying attention!"). She is actually doing her best to understand what the teacher is saying and may be trying to do the work in spite of feeling bored or stupid or troubled by other issues at home or at school.
• Make time to listen to your child talk about school and her feelings concerning it. If she wants to tell you about her day, give her as much time as you can, and really pay attention to what she tells you. Knowing that you respect her thoughts and feelings will give your child great confidence. Being able to talk about them with you will help her sort them out more effectively than she could on her own. Allowing her to cry or laugh about pressures in school, the ups and downs of friendships, and her efforts to master new subjects will free her to think more clearly about all these issues.
• Keep your own bad feelings about school (if any) to yourself. You may have had a terrible time in school; many people do. But your child will have her own experience, and it will go better if she has an open mind.
• Get to know your child's teachers and other school personnel. They are important people in your child's life. They have good information for you about your child, about what is going well in her life at school and what is hard for her. And your good relationship with them enhances your child's relationship with them.
• Get involved in school projects in some way. Schools and teachers need all the help they can get, and besides being fun and a great way to meet other parents, this provides a good opportunity to find out firsthand what your child's school is like and how she's doing there.
• Join with other parents in stating your positions on educational issues and school policy. Once you're involved, you'll know what you like and what you don't about your child's school. Organized parents can make a huge difference in a school.
• When your child wants to learn something, put her in charge of the topic, the pace, and the approach. (She may not get to be this powerful in school!) The more in charge of her education she can be at home, the more confidence she'll bring to the classroom.
• Ask your child to teach you about something she's interested in. Ever notice how teaching someone else reinforces your own knowledge? Your child will love having you as a pupil and will be motivated to find out all she can about her chosen topic.
• Encourage and appreciate her questions. Whether she's 3 and wants to know "Why?" every few minutes or 5 and trying to master the alphabet, she's looking to you as the fount of all knowledge. If you respond to her natural curiosity now — even if you don't have all the answers and need to make frequent trips to the Web or the library — you'll encourage her to go on asking questions and pursuing things that interest her for the rest of her life.
• Help her make connections to things she already knows. People learn by comparing and contrasting new information with what they already know. Think of what your child has already learned or seen that relates to the new information, and talk about it: "Remember when we went to the beach and walked by those cliffs that were crumbling? Well, sandstone is that same stuff — rock made out of sand — but compressed so it's hard."
• Touch and hold your child while she is learning new things. Anything goes better when you feel that someone loves you, and learning is no exception. Cuddle up to read the new book about space; put your arm around your child while she counts the socks in her drawer.
• Listen when your child talks about things she is learning. Children retain new information better if they get to show someone how excited they are about learning it.
• Encourage your child to be active while she's learning. All children like to move. Let her get up, move around, sing a song about what she's learning, act it out, or draw it.
• Offer to point out errors in what your child is working on, but don't do it unless she asks you to. She may want you to tell her whether she found all the hidden animals in a puzzle, or she may not. Let it be up to her.
• Encourage your child to take pride in all she has learned. By the time she starts preschool, she has already learned much of an entire language, plus how to walk, feed herself, and maybe even play chess or program the VCR better than you do. Recalling her accomplishments will buoy her up as lessons get more challenging in school.
• Ask questions to help your child discover what she already knows. She may not remember, when trying to learn a new set of numbers, that she already knows lots of them. Building on this prior knowledge will boost her confidence and help her remember how smart she is.
• Encourage your child to experiment and take risks. If she wants to get lots of wet and squishy things out of the refrigerator and mix them together to see what happens, and all you can think of is what a mess it will make, let her do it anyway — out on the driveway. Great thinkers forge ahead despite the naysayers around them, but you don't want to be a naysayer. Let her make big messes, learn from them, and try something even more ambitious next time.
• Offer information and demonstrations, but don't impose them. Of course you can hook the toy trains together faster than she can, but she'll learn more if she tries it herself and then asks for help if she gets stymied.
• Encourage your child to buddy up with a classmate so they can teach each other and cheer each other on. If the teacher allows this in the classroom, great. If not, someone else to compare notes with outside of class is still a good support.
• Remember that your child is always doing the best she can. She wants to learn, she wants to do well, she wants to please her teachers, and above all she wants to please you. She's doing her best to fit into this new world of school and its demands, but it won't always be easy for her.
• Respect and appreciate your child's intelligence, and encourage her to appreciate herself. This can take many forms, but it can be as simple as asking your child's opinion on matters of importance to her, to your family, or to the world, or remembering that it's only all the extra information we have that makes adults seem smarter than children. Recognizing that she is an intelligent person will keep her a confident learner.
• Understand that mistakes are an important part of learning. The process of trial and error is pretty much how we human beings have built our whole body of knowledge, from physics to archeology. None of what we know came to someone the very first time they wanted to figure out a problem. School often makes people fear mistakes, but anyone who's really thinking and not just memorizing answers will make plenty of mistakes, and that's a good thing.
• Remember that play is an important part of how children learn. Children use play to solve problems, to organize their thinking, to practice activities they see others doing. Children will spontaneously organize their time to play, learn, and try new things if left to their own devices — or, better yet, if their time is unscheduled and an attentive adult is around to delight in them as they set themselves new challenges.
• If you have negative feelings about how you were treated as a learner, get some support for yourself. Many of us parents were treated badly at some point as students, and not all of us were given enough emotional support. The baggage we carry from our student days affects our children in both subtle and overt ways. If you can find someone — another parent, a friend, a clergy person — to listen to you periodically about your experiences as a student, you can begin to unpack that baggage. As you lighten your load, you'll be a better support for your child, and increasingly able to implement the suggestions in this article.
(Adapted from "Tips for Teachers" and the 1984 Draft Program for Educational Change in Classroom, vol. 9, 1991, by Rational Island Publishers, Box 2081, Main Office Station, Seattle, Washington 98111.)