The key to raising a well-rounded child is to establish a solid support system at home so that she grows up satisfied with her achievements and ambitions. "The goal as a parent is to help your child feel competent and confident, and to help her develop a sense of passion and purpose," says Susan Stiffelman, MFT, an educational therapist and author of Parenting Without Power Struggles. It's the education that happens before she sets foot into school that is crucial in bringing up such a child.
"If you want to enhance your child's learning abilities to eventually boost her academic performance, it will take consistency, dedication, and patience," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., an advisor for Parents and the author of The Big Book of Parenting Solutions. Consider these seven techniques if you're looking to raise a child who is well-balanced, healthy, and happy with her accomplishments.
Every child has unique gifts and talents. These special attributes can show up in a traditional school setting, but there are plenty of children who shine after the final bell has rung for the day. Activities like a mommy-and-me music class or karate lessons can open their minds, but your wallet does't need to be involved. "Do not underestimate the power of unstructured play," says Stiffelman. Playing catch in the yard, dancing in the living room, and chasing after lightning bugs provide opportunities for intellectual, physical, and personal development. Stiffelman also suggests finding a hobby or two for yourself. "Allowing your child to see you trying something new may inspire her to do the same."
Research conducted by Carol Dweck, Ph.D., Professor of Psychology at Stanford University and a leading researcher in the field of achievement and success, discovered that a person's mind-set can influence behavior. When it comes to parenting, she suggests praising your child for his hard work instead of labeling him as "smart" or "talented." People with a fixed mind-set are usually reluctant to take on challenges because they believe their achievements come from innate abilities. Those with a growth mind-set are usually more willing to face challenges with hard work because they believe in always learning new skills. "Above all, keep in mind that the grade is not what motivates a top student to succeed—it's his inner drive for learning," adds Borba.
Just because you need complete silence while typing an e-mail or balancing your checkbook doesn't mean your child needs a noise-free environment when doing his homework. Harvard researcher Howard Gardner established eight kinds of intelligences, or ways kids learn best, some that include musical, logical-mathematical, linguistic, and interpersonal traits. The trick is to pay attention to how your child learns best so you can identify her specific learning style. For example, if your school-age child is visual, consider using flash cards when she's trying to memorize multiplication tables. If your child falls into the interpersonal intelligence category (that is, he has people smarts), help him improve his vocabulary by connecting descriptive words to people like friends, relatives, and historical figures.
When it comes to picking up a book and having story time with your kid, there is no such thing as starting too early. Reading to preschoolers—and keeping books at home—encourages language development, reading skills, and future success in school. "Even if your child is still too young to understand everything you're saying, he will learn to notice the rhythms of language, which will help him build a listening vocabulary," explains Susan M. Heim, author of It's Twins! Parent-to-Parent Advice from Infancy Through Adolescence. In fact, reading to your child has been proven to help him emotionally: A government-funded study conducted by The Institute of Education in the United Kingdom found that 5-year-olds who were read to daily by their parents were less likely to have behavioral problems in school.
Don't worry if cooking isn't your strongest skill -- your child will reap the educational and emotional rewards from conversation, not chicken cacciatore. "Informal discussion topics ('How was your day?,' 'What are you discussing in science?' 'How will you study for that test?') lets your child know your family values learning," explains Borba. A study conducted by Columbia University showed that children who eat at least five meals a week with their families are more likely to achieve higher grades in school and are less likely to develop an eating disorder. If everyone in your home is on a different schedule and can't enjoy dinner at the same time, find another meal (like breakfast or an evening snack) when your family can sit together and review the day's events.
Establishing a bedtime—and keeping to it every single night—can be highly effective, but Borba further suggests turning off the computer and TV at least 30 minutes beforehand. If your child has access to a cell phone, she recommends taking it before bedtime because "62 percent of kids admit they use it after the lights go out -- and their parents are clueless!" In 2005 researchers at Tel Aviv University found that missing just one hour of sleep can be enough to reduce a child's cognitive abilities by almost two years the following day. Borba says that a sixth grader who loses precious zzz's the night before a big test could end up performing at a fourth- grade level.
Giving your child a number of hugs throughout the day will help ease any tension she may be feeling. "There's nothing like the human touch to give a child a sense of security," says Heim. Studies of neglected children have shown that kids who don't receive affection can suffer from chronic stress, which can disturb the parts of the brain involved in focusing, learning, and memory. A study in the American Journal of Public Health, published in 2005, reports that touching another person gently has the power to alleviate symptoms—emotional, behavioral, and physical—related to stress. Not only will hugging your little one improve her ability to concentrate, it will also have benefits for you (and make you feel like a million bucks).
Amy Capetta is a freelance writer whose work has also appeared in Woman's Day, Prevention, and Self. She is also a contributing writer for AOL Health. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/amycapetta