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Starting School: The Right Start

The excitement of starting school is a wonderful time to motivate your child.
 

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Dylan bursts out of his mom's minivan on the first day of school. He's excited to reconnect with friends, explore his new classroom, meet his teacher, and call himself a 3rd grader. Just two grades away from top dog! As Dylan takes his seat, Ms. Hinckley introduces herself and soon gets down to business. She asks the students to get out paper and pencil and alphabetize the names of their classmates written on the board. Dylan digs in, excited to be challenged so quickly. Finished!

Dylan's first-day enthusiasm is typical of many elementary-age students. Kids often find that returning to the school routine is a welcome change of pace after the long summer vacation, and they will work eagerly through the first three to five weeks. But even after the novelty of the new school year wears off, Dylan's chances for sustained success are excellent. It's not only because he's curious, eats a healthy breakfast, and is physically active (though these things certainly help). It's also because he likes the feeling he gets from doing schoolwork, and this motivates him to try his best. For Dylan, a job well done is its own reward, no matter the task, or even the time of year.

Starting school: Form a Partnership
Not every student is as motivated as Dylan. Some balk at the return to the responsibility of schoolwork. But there are ways you can begin to address those feelings. Dylan's enjoyment of school has been reinforced through a solid connection between his family and school in previous grades. The support he has received from his parents and teachers has consistently made elementary school a rewarding experience, which helps to keep him focused. Through a few simple yet meaningful things such as frequent conversations between his parents and teachers, his mother's involvement in the classroom, and stimulation of his natural curiosity at home, Dylan's parents have helped their son gain a sense that school is important and that doing his best at schoolwork is his current role in life.

Encouraging those same feelings in your child is a key to long-term academic success. One of the best times to start is at the beginning of the school year, when everyone is fresh. By capitalizing on this unique window of opportunity, you can build on the natural excitement your child feels and help him develop the motivation that will carry him through the last school bell.

The following ideas will help you establish or enhance the partnership between home and school that forms a foundation for a love of learning. 

Starting school: Talk about your child. Find a mutually convenient time early in the year to share your child's interests with her teacher. For example, if your daughter is into horses, share that information, suggests psychologist Adele Brodkin. "Perhaps there will be a way for the teacher to incorporate that interest into a lesson plan by recommending a book on farming or the Wild West, for example." The recognition that your child's interests are respected is likely to further motivate her.

Starting school: Bring home the teacher's goals. Every teacher has defined curriculum goals she must cover during the school year. Learn about those goals, and then try to complement the curriculum at home when you can. If the teacher is doing a lesson on marine life, for example, take a trip to a nearby pet shop or an aquarium. Or, if there's a science class that involves cooking, and you enjoy cooking, offer to do some fun experiments with your child at home. This will reinforce the connection between classroom learning and home learning.

Respect his homework. If you show an interest in your child's homework — looking over his work, not doing it for him — your child will stay more motivated. Be sure he has a quiet study area and make sure homework time is accounted for and not an afterthought. In addition, wander over sometimes when he's doing homework and ask if you can take a look at his assignments. Child psychologist Aaron Cooper says: "Take a few minutes to browse through the text, not to check up on his work but to familiarize yourself with what he's learning. Show interest and curiosity."

Tune in to her world. When your child talks about her school friends, commit to memory the names of the kids in her class and listen to stories about school. Ask about your child's teachers as if they are members of the family, Cooper suggests. "Say things like, ‘How was Ms. Carlson today?'" he says. "It's another way of demonstrating to your child how meaningful her school life is to you."

Starting school: Get involved in the school. If you can spare the time, sign up for a committee at school or to work in the library. By being involved in issues — whether it's overcrowding, the lunch program, or the need for more recess time — you'll show your child your interest in the school. Also, try never to miss an open house or parent-teacher conference. "Afterwards, come home with enthusiasm about the experience, relaying with delight any positive comments about your child that teachers or others shared with you or your excitement at seeing his work pinned on the wall," Cooper says. "It's okay to exaggerate."

Celebrate stepping-stones. Identify steps along the way as your child gets closer to finishing a certain book or learning multiplication tables, and acknowledge these achievements. "This will go a long way to encouraging your child to keep trying," suggests Donna Bell, a spokesperson for the National Center for Family Literacy.

Reward a job well done. Show how much you value your child's accomplishments by doing something special for him when he finishes with a book report or a project, for example. Think about what his interests are and then choose a reward that is meaningful to him — if he likes baseball, take him to a game. "Make it a surprise, not a bribe for completing a task," says Brodkin. "The goal is to give your child the sense that a job well done is something to be proud of." 

Praise the effort. When it comes to grades, show interest in a particular topic and the work — more than just the grade. "Remember that the most effective praise and recognition is praise for effort," Cooper says. "For example, you might say, 'I'm proud of you — you should feel very good about how hard you worked.'"

Talk around the table. It sounds very basic, but it's more important than ever to take the time to sit around the dinner table with your kids and ask them about their day at school, says Cooper. He suggests asking specific questions. For example, "What went well today? What didn't? What are you learning?" You can also ask open-ended questions that stimulate conversation, such as, "If you were the principal of the school, what changes would you make in school lunch?" These questions have no right or wrong answer and invite your child to think critically. If he doesn't have an answer, however, that's okay.

Share memories. Talk about your own early school experiences, Cooper suggests. "This means funny stories, serious stories, or excitement about things you learned," he stresses. "It reinforces the message that school is both important and fun."

Read together. If your child is in middle school, consider reading some of the books she is assigned in English class. "By this grade level, the material has become more interesting," Cooper says. "And when parents read books with their kids, two things happen: The kids see that what they're learning has interest and value beyond the classroom and kids and parents have shared material to talk about — what they each liked and disliked in the story, what they found boring or engaging, etc. It extends the reach of the classroom learning experience."

Starting school: Laying Down Roots
Let's face it, homework is not always the most exciting task in your child's life, and almost every student resists going to school or having to work hard now and then. You may find that the suggestions in this story only begin to help your child feel motivated. But the more you can do to create an enriching connection between home and school, the more you're laying down the roots for future success. If you can make the process enjoyable for your whole family, you're steps ahead of the game.

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