Essay and open-ended questions often account for a large part of the grade on school tests, and doing well on them can mean the difference between a so-so score and a great one. But what exactly are teachers looking for when evaluating these questions? “Details and more details,” says Lynn Livingston, a fourth-grade special-education teacher at Old Farmers Road School in Long Valley, New Jersey. Her insider test-taking tip: When answering essay or open-ended questions, students should pretend they’re “teaching the teacher” about the subject by explaining the concept and providing examples to back it up. “Many children assume that a detailed explanation is unnecessary because, as they say, ‘the teacher already knows this stuff,’” points out Livingston. “But the truth is that to get a good grade, students do have to go into detail. That’s the only way they can show the teacher that they truly know the material.” Help your child prepare to score well on essay questions by having her give you mini lessons on concepts likely to be covered on the test.
Perhaps you think a teacher's assignments are silly or the school’s exam policy is too demanding, and you may have a point. Still, resist the urge to voice these criticisms to your child, and make sure he's out of earshot if you share your worries with your spouse or another parent. If a child thinks his parents hold critical views of school, it gives him permission not to do his best, says Betsy Wiens, a seventh- and eighth- grade teacher at Washburn Rural Middle School in Topeka, Kansas. A better tactic for airing your concerns, she says, is to speak to your child’s teacher directly. If you aren’t able to resolve the situation by meeting with the teacher, then talk to the principal.
"Though it may be tempting to keep your family’s personal matters strictly private, it's important to let your child’s teacher know about significant events such as a birth, divorce, remarriage or a death, because a change at home can cause social, academic and behavioral changes at school," says Jeanine Ryan, a kindergarten teacher at Tradewinds Elementary School in Coconut Creek, Florida. For example, the arrival of a new sibling or a stepparent can make a child act out to get attention. Knowing what’s behind this helps the teacher to respond more appropriately. And this goes for children of all ages. "Talking with the teacher is as important in junior high as it is in preschool," adds Ryan.
“Children need visits to libraries, museums, zoos, gardens and even restaurants,” says Betsy Rogers, a first- and second-grade teacher at Leeds Elementary School in Leeds, Alabama. “These learning experiences increase a youngster’s knowledge of our world, offer early exposure to the arts, inspire creativity and bolster language development in conversations.” The more children know about the world around them, the better prepared they are for school, explains Rogers. So schedule day trips to places like science centers and aquariums that offer interactive programs for children. Is your son or daughter crazy about anything furry or feathered? Pencil in a trip to a zoo or working farm. Junior star-gazers will find a planetarium trip out of this world. To get the most from your outing, always end the visit by discussing with your child the many things she saw. You can even have young children draw a picture or write a story about what they learned, suggests Rogers. Older kids can create a special scrapbook dedicated to the outing.
High standards are good, but sometimes even the most well-intentioned parents can fall into the trap of placing excess emphasis on good grades. Pushing too hard for your youngster to excel may not be the best strategy. In fact, focusing heavily on grades can have the opposite effect. “If parents place too much importance on getting A’s, then the child is not going to perform as well,” says Jane Webster, a third-grade teacher at Booker T. Washington Elementary School in Clarksdale, Mississippi. The Rx? Relax and lean on your child’s teacher for assistance. “If a parent explains that things are stressful at home because the child isn’t living up to expectations, the teacher can suggest low-pressure ways to help the child learn what he’s missing,” says Webster. “For example, a teacher may pair a child with a classmate or introduce a game to reinforce a concept. These things can make learning fun and help students relax."