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The 10 Best Ways to Help Your 1st-Grader Succeed in School
A parent's to-do list.
By Ann E. LaForge
1. Encourage reading in any way you can
1. Encourage reading in any way you can
But you shouldn't worry so much about how well your child is reading in any particular grade. Different children acquire reading skills at different ages and in different ways. And you can't force a child who's not ready to start reading.
But you can promote a love of reading by giving your child lots of fun experiences with print at whatever level she's in. Here are some reading milestones you should look for now (but remember, your child's skill level may vary), and specific tips on how to help.
MILESTONE 1: Your child realizes that individual printed words represent individual spoken words and begins to recognize and read a few such as dog, car, and no, plus his own name.
How to help:
Read together every day.
Encourage your child to point to words as he "reads" a book.
Help her learn to write and identify upper- and lowercase letters.
Teach him how to spell and write familiar words and names.
Play word-related games (as in: "I'm going to eat something on this table that begins with the letter B. Can you guess what it is?" or "Let's say all the words we can think of that start with the letter T").
Together, come up with a list of short, simple words that rhyme (such as bat, cat, sat, rat, hat). Write them down in a column, so your child can see how part of each word is similar.
MILESTONE 2: Your child can read simple, repetitive books using the text or illustrations to figure out unfamiliar words.
How to help:
Read a new book aloud several times before encouraging your child to tackle it on his own.
Listen to your child read and help if asked with problem words. Act like it's no big deal if he misses some. Concentrate, instead, on making the experience fun.
If your child misses a lot of words while reading, and starts acting frustrated, offer to take over the reading, or choose an easier book. Never force your child to read a book that's too hard just because his friends can read it, or his sister could when she was his age.
Help your child write and read his own stories and books. Accept whatever spellings she uses, even if it's only the initial letters of each word.
Get your child her own library card.
MILESTONE 3: Your child begins to read short, illustrated books on her own, for enjoyment.
How to help:
Make frequent trips to the local library, and encourage your child to pick out her own books.
When your child is reading to you, casually supply the words she doesn't know or can't figure out. Encouragement is still more important than correction.
Play games that involve reading skills (for example, have a treasure hunt and place written clues around the house; play Junior Scrabble and other age-appropriate board games).
Ask your child to read to a younger friend or sibling.
Leave your child brief notes to say "I love you" or "Good luck" or "Don't forget to take your homework to school" in her lunch box, near her cereal bowl at breakfast, or on the bathroom mirror.
Give books as gifts.
Limit TV, computer, and video-game time, and encourage your child to read instead even it's only his baseball cards or some comic books.
MILESTONE 4: Your child begins to read longer books with fewer illustrations and distinct chapters (chapter books).
How to help:
Take turns reading the pages aloud together.
Talk about the plot, characters, and conflicts in the story you're reading together.
Explain complex words and sentences; help with pronunciations.
Encourage your child to read you recipes and other written directions.
Show how much you value reading by doing a lot of it yourself. Ask for books when it's your turn to get gifts. Talk about the books or magazine articles you're reading and enjoying.
2. Treat your child as though he's an author
As with reading, you can help in different ways, at different stages of development. Look for these milestones, and use these tips:
MILESTONE 1: Your child can scribble or draw a picture and associate words with the picture (such as, "This is the sun" or "This is me").
How to help:
Provide lots of materials (paper, markers, crayons, paints, chalk, etc.) and time for drawing.
Ask your child to tell you about the pictures she draws, and label the objects as she points them out.
Ask your child to dictate stories or poems to go with the pictures he draws, and write them down for him. Then, read his work aloud, exactly as he dictated it.
MILESTONE 2: Your child begins to produce marks on a page that resemble written words, and can "read" you what he's written.
How to help:
Encourage your child to "read" you his words, and express your enjoyment ("What a wonderful story!" or "Thank you so much for sharing that with me").
Keep providing the materials and time for your child to write her own stories and books.
Write stories and poems alongside your child, and read to her what you've written (even if you think it's awful your child won't judge it).
MILESTONE 3: Your child understands that sounds are represented by certain letters, and begins to write actual letters to represent real words ("sn" for sun, for instance).
How to help:
Encourage your child to write notes, keep a journal, or write her own books.
Offer to rewrite his words or sentences, using the real spellings.
When reading together, point out how most sentences have the first letter of the first word capitalized, spaces between each separate word, and a period at the end.
Mention who the author is when you read books together, and talk about what authors (and illustrators) do. Point out that when your child writes stories, he's an author, too.
MILESTONE 4: Your child begins to fill out the words she writes, using more standardized spellings.
How to help:
Don't act overly concerned about spelling. Instead, continue to praise your child for the imagination and ideas he expresses in writing.
Gently correct spelling on school homework assignments (when the teacher requests it). Your attitude should convey "Let me help you" rather than "Get it right!"
Reinforce the idea that a piece of written work rarely just happens: It gets written, edited, proofread, and rewritten before the final copy is published.
Let your child create a quiet writing corner in the house, and encourage her to write frequently. Give her ideas about what to write if she's stumped. For instance: "Write a note to Grandma to say thank you for the birthday present"; "Write down your favorite memory from when you were little"; or "Write a story about your favorite toy."
Have your child write lists of anything from what she wants for her birthday or what her favorite movies are, to what she loves most about school or what she wants you to buy at the grocery store for snacks.
Let your child see you writing, and talk about how you're using writing: to express thanks, for instance, communicate information to office mates, lodge a complaint, request vacation information, remember errands; create a shopping list, etc.
Get the whole family involved in keeping a vacation or "special days" journal.
3. Make math part of her everyday life
Almost anything you do that involves numbers and/or problem solving will build your child's math skills. Here are just a few ideas to get you started:
Have your child set the table (counting and sorting the sets of plates, napkins, cups, and silverware).
Post a running countdown of the days until her birthday. Let her change the number each day.
Challenge him to guess at things, and then find the answers. For example: How many bowls of cereal do you think we can get out of this box? How many M&Ms do you think are in your (snack size) bag? How many minutes do you think it will take to clear off the table? Which of these cups do you think will hold more juice?
Play a copycat game, where one person creates a pattern (pat your head, touch your knee, clap three times) and the other person has to repeat the pattern three times in a row.
Ask your child to help you create a pattern for a quilt square or an abstract picture using markers and paper; construction paper in different colors, cut into square, triangle, and other shapes; or shapes cut out of different fabrics.
Ask your child to measure things in non-traditional units. For example: Let's see how many footsteps it takes to get from here to the door. Why do you think it's more for you and fewer for me? How many action figures (or Barbie dolls) long is this table?
Have your child compare things: Which do you think is heavier a cookie or ten chocolate chips? Who do you think is taller, mom or dad? Which carrot is longer? Fatter? Crunchier?
Give your child problems to solve and let her work them out by touching and counting actual objects. For example: I have four cookies here, but two people want to eat them. How many should each person get? If we invite six kids to your birthday party, and put two candy bars in each kid's treat bag, how many of these candy bars will we need?
4. Teach your child how to listen
But being able to focus on what other people are saying is an important element in learning. So, whenever possible, try to build your child's listening skills. Here are some strategies that will help:
Read aloud to your child on a regular basis even after she has learned to read by herself. Ask questions as you read, to make sure your child is understanding what she hears.
Limit television, computer, and video game time. While they're all entertaining, and can even be educational, they tend to promote tunnel vision. Make sure the time your child spends in front of a screen is balanced by time spent with other people, talking face to face.
When you speak to your child, make eye contact and gently touch his shoulder or arm, to secure his attention.
When giving directions, ask your child to repeat back to you what she heard you say to make sure she really did hear, and does understand what she needs to do.
Model good listening behaviors. When your child wants to talk to you, for example, stop what you're doing and look at him while he's speaking. When he's finished, say something that indicates you heard him, even if you only repeat back what he said.
Play talking and listening games with your child like Charades, Red Light/Green Light, Duck, Duck, Goose, and Twenty Questions.
Teach your child that even if an adult is saying something he finds boring, he still needs to listen, look at the person, and show respect.
Spend time with your child doing quiet activities that encourage conversation, such as taking a walk together, taking a ride in the car, folding laundry, picking strawberries, etc.
5. Support your child's teacher and the school
So even if a school rule seems silly or unfair to you, or you think your child's teacher is dead wrong about something, don't make a big issue about it in front of your child. Instead, take your concerns straight to the source.
The key steps toward resolution
Make an appointment to see or speak to the teacher. For minor problems and concerns, a telephone conference may be sufficient. But if you feel the issue merits more serious discussion, arrange to meet with the teacher face to face. Don't try to corner her before or after school, when her attention is on the students. Instead, shoot for a time when she can give you her full attention, and is less likely to be stressed or tense.
Consider carefully what you want to say before you visit the school. Write down a list of your concerns, and why they're concerns. Let your list rest for a while, and then go back to it, when you're feeling calm and rational. Try to frame all of your concerns in the most positive light possible, so you won't immediately put the teacher on the defensive. For example, instead of saying, "You're not doing anything to help my child improve in reading," you should shoot for: "I'm really concerned about my child's progress in reading. I wanted to check in with you to see if there's anything else that can be done, at school and at home, to help her move forward."
If necessary, practice your spiel in front of a third party, to make sure you don't sound too threatening. You may feel like blasting the teacher; you may even have good reason to do so. But your child will not benefit in any way if you alienate her teacher. Try to remember that the best school solutions come when teacher and parent act as a team.
When you meet with the teacher, voice your concerns in the least threatening, most friendly tone you can muster. If you lose your temper, you may lose the chance to be taken seriously. Remind yourself that your goal is to help your child, not blow off steam. If possible, bring tangible evidence to back up your side of the story.
Prepare to listen to the teacher's side. There may be mitigating factors of which you're unaware; you may have gotten the wrong information from your child; there may be a miscommunication that's complicating the issue. Try to be and act open-minded.
If you and the teacher cannot come to a mutually satisfying solution, enlist the principal (or the school's psychologist, or a learning specialist). "I appreciate what you're saying, but I'm still concerned," you might say. "I'd feel more comfortable if I got another opinion on the matter. I'd like to meet with the principal." Or, if you're afraid the teacher will take her anger at you out on your child (this shouldn't happen, but it could), request an anonymous meeting with the principal. If the second meeting doesn't help, the next step is to contact the superintendent. But only you can decide whether or not that's necessary.
Sometimes you just have to accept a less-than-perfect teacher or classroom situation. In most cases, it won't do permanent damage to your child, and it may even help him develop some healthy coping skills. Also, sometimes things that upset parents about school don't really bother the students. So you may want to talk to your child first, before forging ahead with a complaint, or requesting a transfer for your child. In some cases, moving a child from one classroom to another mid-year would be worse from the child's point of view than having him stick it out with a weak teacher.
On the other hand, you shouldn't feel intimidated by school personnel. If you feel you have a legitimate complaint (or if your child's health, safety, or welfare is at stake), and your gut keeps telling you to fight for your child, you should do that. Just try to remember, at every step of the way, that the less hostility you communicate, the more likely people will be to listen carefully to your concerns, and work toward a mutually acceptable solution. Let the power of persistence rather than the impact of aggression carry your case.
If the teacher calls you
6. Tell the teacher everything
It's not that teachers are nosy. It's that most children are not terribly skilled at handling excitement or coping with changes or stress. And they all carry their baggage from home into the classroom. Even something little, like a fight with a sibling in the car on the way to school, can affect a child's behavior or performance at school.
If a teacher knows there's a problem or change at home, she's less likely to react inappropriately when behavior goes awry at school. Under normal circumstances, for instance, a dip in grades might prompt a teacher to suggest extra help or tutoring. If she knows that the child just got a new baby brother, however, she might react instead by pulling the child aside and inviting her to talk about how she's feeling now that she's a big sister.
You needn't go into all of the gory details of what's happening at home, either. All the teacher expects to hear is, "I just wanted to let you know that we're moving to a new house next week, and Allan is pretty nervous about the whole thing" or "If Sheila seems a little hyper these days it's because her aunt is taking her to her first Broadway play this weekend."
What else do teachers want to know?
How your child feels about school: Is she unhappy? Does she think it's too hard? Is she complaining about it at home? Or does she like it? Is there some special activity that she really enjoyed? Does she talk about the things she learns in school? Most teachers would rather hear about problems sooner than later, so they can work on turning things around as quickly as possible. They like the rest of us also appreciate a kind or encouraging word now and then. So don't forget to mention the good stuff.
How your child feels about school friends: Is she making any? Does she feel like a part of the class or an outcast? Is she being teased or harassed? Is she too shy to make new friends? Does she need to branch out from her one best friend and get to know other kids? In elementary school, there is still a lot teachers can do to mold social relationships. But they need to know what the problem is before they can start to solve it.
What your child's special passions are: Sometimes, a child who is a reluctant reader can be drawn to books that speak to a special interest, such as sports, or pirates, or ice skating, or animals. Or, a desire to write may be stimulated by an invitation to describe one of the subjects your child loves. Let the teacher know if there is something that really motivates your child, so she can capitalize on it in the classroom.
What your child's special needs are: That includes anything from allergies to phobias, physical or medical conditions, learning problems or preferences, special talents, emotional concerns, and behavioral patterns. If you think an issue might come up in these or other areas, let the teacher know.
Gets to bed at a reasonable hour. That means around 7:30 to 8 p.m. Children who regularly go to bed later on school nights have a hard time keeping up in school, teachers say. They end up being tired and grouchy, they're more likely to have behavioral problems, and they aren't able to fulfill their academic potential. Even sleep specialists are now beginning to believe that certain behavioral and learning problems among children are the result of undetected sleep deprivation.
The bottom line is that a good night's sleep is the best guarantee of a pleasant and productive day at school.
Eats a filling and nutritious breakfast. Children who skip breakfast may not feel hungry when they first get to school, but according to teachers, they usually hit a slump around mid-morning and can't keep their minds on schoolwork, until sometime after lunch.
If your child doesn't like the traditional foods kids eat for breakfast, let him eat what he does like. There's nothing nutritionally wrong with eating pizza or a peanut butter sandwich in the morning. Or, if all else fails, send him to school with a breakfast bar and a box of juice, so he can get something in his belly before the first bell rings.
Wears the proper clothes for both the day's activities and the weather. A kid who goes to school without mittens, a hat, or boots in the winter may have to sit inside for recess while her classmates spend their excess energy on the playground. A child who doesn't have shorts and sneakers on gym day may end up sitting on the sidelines, while everyone else is running around having fun.
Children don't always have the best judgment when it comes to protective clothing. (If it's warm in the house, they assume it's going to be warm outside, for example.) And they don't always remember which days they have gym or other special activities. So it's up to you to tell your child what to expect in terms of weather, and what to wear or at least bring to school.
Labels all belongings. That includes his backpack, lunch box, books, school supplies, gym clothes, gym bag, art smock - and any other piece of clothing or personal item that might somehow get separated from him during the school day.
Has a lunch or lunch money. Most children aren't thinking about lunch when they run out to meet the bus or jump in the car in the morning. It's your job to either make it, take it, or remind your child to remember about lunch.
Puts her homework in her backpack, to bring to school.
Remembers to bring special supplies for special days. There's nothing more devastating to a young child than to be the only kid who forgot his teddy bear on the day the class was having a teddy bear picnic at school. Or to show up on picture day wearing his rattiest clothes. Or to forget to wear the class colors for the all-school field day. These are the kinds of details most kids (and parents) have a hard time remembering. So it's your job to find a way to help you both stay on top of teacher requests. Hang up a big calendar with important dates circled in red, for instance, or put up post-it notes on the bathroom mirror the night before a special day at school.
Knows exactly who will pick her up and what will happen when the school day ends. Children will worry all day long if they don't know what to expect when that final bell rings. So remind your child when she's leaving home: "I'll see you at the corner when the bus drops you off at three p.m." or "I'll be home from work at six p.m. Then we'll have supper and I'll check your homework." If you anticipate any change in the daily routine, or in the person greeting your child after school, make sure you give plenty of notice.
Gets to school on time every day. Chronic lateness is not only disruptive to the entire class, it can make a child feel out-of-step all day. Plus, it sends a message that school is not important enough to be on time for.
8. Spend time in your child's classroom
Seeing the classroom firsthand is also the best way for you to get a perspective on what and how the teacher is teaching, what kinds of challenges the teacher is facing, what the class chemistry is, how your child fits in within the group, and how she interacts with specific peers. Plus, it will give you a better idea of the kinds of questions you should ask to draw your child out when talking about school.
In most schools, you don't need an excuse to visit the classroom. Just ask the teacher if you can come in and observe. If you want an excuse, volunteer. Teachers are always looking for parents to:
Share expertise in a particular subject area related to your job or hobbies
Read to children
Conduct writing workshops, or help children "publish" their books
Tutor kids who need extra help, or work with a small group of advanced students in math or other subjects
Chaperone field trips
Sew costumes for a school play, bake cupcakes for a party, or cut out paper shapes for a class project
Type up a classroom newsletter or literary magazine
If you have lots of time to give, you might consider:
Being a "class parent" (the person who acts as a liaison between the teacher and the other parents rounding up chaperones for school trips, for instance, or finding volunteers to bake for the class bake sales)
Being a playground monitor
Joining the school's parent/teacher association
Joining the principal's school advisory committee (if there is one)
Running for your local school board
At the very least, you should plan to make time to attend:
Special events to which parents are invited (a Mother's Day brunch, prepared by the children, for instance; or a Writer's Tea, at which children read their stories aloud to their parents)
Special school events, such as the annual Holiday Show or Spring Musical
The school's annual open house
All of the scheduled parent/teacher conferences
9. Encourage responsibility and independence
For example, encourage him to:
Play an active role in getting ready for school. hat includes picking out school clothes (preferably the night before), getting up on time (using an alarm clock, if necessary), getting dressed, washing up and brushing his teeth, getting his own breakfast ready, making up his bed, and checking to make sure he has everything he needs in his backpack. Once your child is physically capable of doing these things, let him take charge. If necessary, make him a checklist to help him remember everything that needs to be done.
Develop a homework routine. While there's no set formula, it will help if your child has a regular time and place to do her homework each day. That way she's less likely to forget to do it, and less likely to fight about doing it "later on."
Unpack his own backpack. Teach him that as soon as he gets home from school, he should unpack his backpack, put his homework materials in his homework place, and hand you (or put in a special place) any newsletters, notes from the teacher, papers to sign, or special work he's brought home. Then he can watch TV, or have his snack, or do whatever else is planned.
If you make this part of a daily routine, you're less likely to be hit during the morning rush with, "Oh, no! I'm supposed to bring in cupcakes for the party today" or "Today's the day you're supposed to come to school for our science fair."
Pick up her own mess. That includes toys scattered on the living room floor, bikes, and roller skates left out on the driveway, and wet towels left cold and lonely on the bathroom floor. It may take longer and require more effort for you to insist that your child pick things up herself, but in the long run it's better for her than having you always do it. In school, she won't have a choice.
Get involved in family meals. Young children can set the table or help with the grocery list.
Perform regular chores that benefit the entire family. Even little things like taking out the trash regularly will help your child see herself as part of a larger family team. It will also build her sense of competence and confidence.
10. Ask your child about school every day
One reason is that so many things happen in the classroom that it's hard for the average child to answer a question like that. She can't remember everything she did, and even if she could, she wouldn't know where to start. It doesn't help to ask, "What did you learn at school today?" or "How was school today?" either. Both will elicit one-word answers ("Nothing" or "Fine"), because they're too broad and too vague for most children to process.
But it's still important to ask about school, because it teaches your child that school is important, and that you really are interested in her life. So how can you get your child to open up? Here's what other parents say really works:
Don't ask too soon. "When my son gets off the bus, the last thing he wants to do is talk about school," says parent Mary Mitchell. "He's too busy thinking about playing with his toys or visiting his friends. So I've learned to let him chill out and play awhile before asking any questions."
Develop a ritual. "For some reason, the only time my 5-year-old son, Jack, really opens up about school is when he's taking a bath," says mother Tamara Eberlein. "So every night, when he gets into the tub, my husband sits with him for ten or fifteen minutes, and Jack tells him everything that happened at school. He really looks forward to that time with his father."
"For my son, the magic moment is bedtime," says parent Charles James. "He's probably just trying to stall me, so he can stay up later. But when he's all tucked in and the lights are off, I hear the most detailed descriptions about school."
Ask specific questions. "I get the best responses when I ask my son about something I'm pretty sure he did at school that day," says parent Julie Ritzer Ross. For instance: "Did the teacher read any new books today? Did you learn any new songs during music class? Who sat next to you at lunch? How did you do on your spelling test?" The more specific you can be, the better.
Read everything the teacher sends home. "The notes and newsletters that come home in my son's backpack are really the most reliable sources of information," says Charles James. "I find out what my son is learning about, what's coming up in terms of special events or field trips, what kind of help the teacher could use in the classroom, and what I can do at home to reinforce what my son is learning in school. It's not always easy to find time to read them, but it's worth the effort because it helps me fill in the blanks from conversations with my son."
Give your child space. Some children like to think of school as their own private world, where their parents and siblings can't intrude. If your child is like that, don't push. Let him know you're interested in his school day, and let him approach you if he has anything really important to share. Then stay in touch behind the scenes with the teacher, to make sure everything's going okay.