How to Help Your Kid Like School More
Every parent wants their kid to love school and learning. But it's not unusual for kids to have some negative experiences with both, especially during the pandemic. Luckily, there are ways for parents to help kids build a positive connection to school.
Teachers can usually sense when a child loves school. Kristi Oda, who taught fourth grade at a Hawaii public school for two decades before becoming a mentor for other teachers, says students who love school radiate obvious signals. "They feel comfortable sharing their ideas or their questions, their challenges, and what they're excited about," she says.
But what happens when kids enter a classroom having decided they simply don't love school? "A lot of kids come in and if they don't like school, their guard is already up. It's 'I don't like this' and 'I don't care what you say,'" says Antoine Sharpe, who has taught elementary and middle school for 15 years, four of those at a school for military families posted to South Korea where he was selected as the 2020 DoDEA Teacher of the Year.
As children grow older, they are prone to have some negative school experiences. But luckily, there are concrete ways parents can thoughtfully help their kiddos learn to enjoy school even when it's tough.
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Make Learning Fun
Some good news: kids are great at learning. When children are interested in a topic and in a safe environment, their willingness to learn is a joy to witness. Their brains naturally notice what's new in their environment and directs their attention to novelty, says Jodi Musoff, M.A., M.Ed., an education specialist at the Child Mind Institute in New York.
"Kids are very easy to inspire, and they take the lead from those around them," says Musoff. "If you act excited about something, they'll get excited. Add a little mystery, some intrigue, and you pull kids right in. Changing your tone of voice can make a huge difference, for example."
And amazingly, as much as kids love novel experiences, they can also get a dopamine rush out of predictable situations. Read a child a familiar story—like Goodnight Moon—and pause to let them insert a word. Watch their face light up as they experience a pleasurable surge of dopamine from accurately predicting the word. It's fun, which means they'll want to do it again.
"The brain loves narratives," says Dr. Judy Willis, M.D., M.Ed., a California-based neurologist who left medicine to spend 10 years as a classroom teacher. "And the brain gives us a dopamine reward for the prediction challenge, even if it wasn't a big surprise to know what's on the next page. So, let them experience the reward."
Kids who are bored, says Dr. Willis, are not able to process information in a way that leads to greater cognition and memory. The amygdala, a pair of almond shaped glands in the brain involved in emotional response, memory, and decision-making, will block the flow of information if the learner perceives information as boring or too difficult.
Boredom can arise when kids don't see the relevance of schoolwork. That's when parents can bring personal experience into the mix. "Building up personal relevance, making connection to prior knowledge, is profoundly useful to prevent the amygdala blockade," says Dr. Willis, author of How Your Child Learns Best: Brain-Friendly Strategies You Can Use to Ignite Your Child's Learning and Increase School Success.
Here's an idea: ask teachers about upcoming lessons, then begin to build connections to that material. Maybe the teacher plans to present a lesson about speed next week. Ahead of time, parents can be sure to reminisce with their child about various transportation experiences they had in the past, be they on a bus or an airplane, to get them excited.
Try Not to Push
Frustration can affect the amygdala in the same way as boredom, but this can also go deeper. When kids begin to struggle, parents need to recognize if their child is drifting into meltdown territory. When the frustration becomes overwhelming, experts say it is best to take a break or even call it quits for the night. "It's better to preserve a good parent-child relationship," says Musoff. "There's nothing good to be gained by pushing when a child is in a worked-up state."
Dr. Willis agrees, noting that pushing children who are struggling with a concept can reinforce negative pathways in the brain. When kids repeatedly hit failure, she says, their brain will create stronger and stronger resistant pathways.
Focus on Their Environment
Parents can limit the stress of homework by crafting reliable family routines, ensuring kids have the time to complete their learning tasks. Beyond a schedule, notice which kind of environment your child prefers for completing homework. Perhaps the child wants a parent nearby. Perhaps they wish to study alone. Either way, researchers say it's best to allow kids as much choice in the matter as possible.
Invite a child to personalize his workspace. For example, would the child like his pencils to live in a cup on top of a table, or inside a pencil case? When kids are invested in the process and see their choices reflected in their workspaces, they're more likely to calmly do their work, says Oda. "It doesn't have to be a ton of options," says Oda. "It's just about noticing what they prefer for their workspace."
Play the Student
Sometimes, learning can take the form of asking a child to teach the parent what they know already, says Dr. Willis. When she was a classroom teacher, she occasionally directed children to teach their parents science topics. "You learn something best when you can explain it," she says. "I would tell students, today we are going to learn this and I'm going to send your parents a picture of something they're not experts in. Your job is to teach this to your parents."
Encourage your kids to explain something to you that they love—or are learning—and feel free to ask questions. When kids are able to explain a concept, it helps them fully master it.
Step in When Necessary
When kids find themselves struggling with a learning task or new concept, parents can try to help the child identify which part of the concept or task is difficult. This can help avoid frustration and help them learn to break a task into achievable parts.
Musoff, who works with students who have learning challenges like dyslexia or dysgraphia, says parents can help break assignments into their components en route to achieving the assigned objective. "With kids with learning challenges, it's really about supporting them in the right way, setting them up for success by giving the right amount of scaffolding," she says.
Don't Only Focus On the Negative
Many parents begin their child's academic journey with a great focus on acting as a cheerleader and then slowly become more focused on mistakes and grades, says Sharpe. But it's important to focus on the process and not the product. "We have to see if we can find something to applaud and not miss a chance to be their biggest cheerleader and focus on the positive thing and not the negative," says Sharpe.
Focusing on process is important for success in the kinds of thinking needed to confront many open-ended, creative challenges, says Zorana Ivcevic Pringle, Ph.D., the director of the creativity and emotions lab at the Yale Center for Emotional Intelligence. Her research shows kids prefer and are more willing to persist in creative work compared to a rote academic structure that appears on formulaic worksheets. "Creativity is something new," says Dr. Pringle. "And if you're doing something new, there is no blueprint for how to get there, no blueprint of how it's done."
On that note, sometimes kids might be unable to complete an assignment or have a lot of trouble doing so. It can be difficult for parents themselves to feel OK with that. But parents need to acknowledge and perhaps step back from their own emotions and high expectations surrounding their child's homework, says Dr. Pringle.
Help Foster Friendship
Social relationships with peers are a huge part of school, teachers say. Friends are some of the most important people in a child's school life. So, when those relationships are tested, so too is a child's attitude about attending school.
To help kids have more positive relationships with peers, parents can make sure social emotional learning is happening early—even if that means Zoom playdates at the moment—to foster peer relationships. "Not everything needs to be educational, but how do we have a conversation? That's not a fast skill to learn," says Sharpe.
The more well-socialized kids are, the more capable of collaboration and social cohesiveness in a classroom setting they can be, he adds.