Rory Jefferson sailed through elementary school. But when he got to junior high, he hit a wall.
"He just had a meltdown," recalls his father, Kent Jefferson. Rory would put off doing homework, or do it but forget to hand it in. Sometimes it took hours for him to complete assignments that should have taken minutes.
"He just wasn't there, mentally," Kent says.
So Rory's parents, Kent and Maureen, worked with him. They met with teachers. They helped him get organized, buying loose-leaf binders and a hole-puncher so he could organize his work.
At a teacher's suggestion, Maureen and Rory went through his locker every week or so, regularly finding homework that had been completed but not turned in or assignments that never made it home.
It was a stressful year, according to Rory and his parents. But things got better. Rory, now 15 and a high school sophomore, does all of his homework on his own.
"He did really well on his first-quarter grades," says Kent, although some missed assignments brought him down from an A to a B+ in geometry.
Looking back, Rory says he simply wasn't prepared for seventh grade.
"You had to do a lot more on your own, and I just wasn't ready for that," he says, adding that he needed his parents' help. To help get his work done on his own, he's learned to manage his time better, especially because extracurricular activities such as twice daily swim team practice make it essential that he stay on top of his work.
Learning to Help Learn
Rory's experience shows how parental involvement can improve a child's performance at school.
"Research shows clearly that children are more likely to succeed in learning when the family is actively supporting them," says Nancy Paulu, a writer and editor for the U.S. Department of Education who has written department publications such as Homework Tips for Parents (available at http://www.ed.gov/parents/academic/involve/homework/homeworktips.pdf).
Judith Langer, director of the Center on English Learning and Achievement at the University at Albany, State University of New York, says helping your child to do well in school means creating a learning environment in the home. (See pointers, below.)
It also means reading to children — not just when they're pre-schoolers and kindergartners, but as late as fourth grade, when parents can read books to them beyond their own reading level.
This is important because kids who get off to a good start as readers and writers harvest the advantages of this early literacy for years and years, according to Lucy Calkins, professor of English education at Teachers College, Columbia University and author of Raising Lifelong Learners: A Parents' Guide, published by the Perseus Book Group.
Everyday Life Learning
Parents can also help by putting book learning into the context of everyday life.
Parents should talk to their kids about what they're doing in school, not just to find out about their lessons but to draw parallels between what they're studying and real life, according to Langer.
"When you go on vacation, as you go to the store shopping for food, as you're watching television together or visiting relatives, you may make a connection about things they're studying in math, science or social studies," she says. Putting what they're studying into the context of the real world gives students a more sophisticated understanding of what they're learning, she says.
Educators also say it's OK to give kids a leg up every once in a while. One of Calkins' sons constantly lost pens in middle school.
"Me telling him 'Don't lose your pens' just wouldn't work," she says. She bought him a box of 200 cheap pens to keep in his locker. He'd stash the pens in a few classrooms, so he wouldn't miss something in class because he was trying to find a pen.
Youngsters can also be helped by structure.
At the beginning of each school year, Calkins and her two sons, now in high school, talk about a plan for the whole year and update it throughout the year. Periodically, they talk about projects, what's due — not just tomorrow, but next week.
The boys have assignment pads — if there is not an assignment for that day, they write down "No assignment."
In addition, they study not just subjects but also what's important to particular teachers. One son decided to lean forward and take notes while his social studies teacher spoke because he felt that that sort of close attention and note-taking was important to that teacher.
If one of her sons doesn't do as well as expected, Calkins makes him meet with the teacher, so both student and teacher recognize that this is not business as usual.
Finally, say the experts, take your children's stumbles in stride. Calkins points out that they teach children about perseverance and retooling.
"It's good to have it happen," she says.
Creating a Learning Environment at Home
Educators Calkins, Langer, Paulu give the following tips for helping your child do better with schoolwork at home:
Set up a specific area in your home for homework — even if it's the kitchen table. Know what works for your children. Sequestering them in their room with the door shut may be too isolating, while being on the fringe of family activities may be better.
If possible, have some member of the family work at the same time the child is — be it reading, checking e-mail, paying bills, balancing the checkbook, etc.
It's OK to help. Sometimes students can get sidetracked from the main task by something that is part of the assignment but not the main job. The fact that they can't think of a particular word or remember how to spell it, for example, may throw them off track and cause them to lose sight of the main goal — writing a paper. In these instances, it's fine to supply the answer in order to help children to complete the main goal.
Ask questions. It could be about books they're reading or a science or social studies topic. The questions shouldn't have right or wrong answers but generate conversations. A parent could express admiration for one character and give reasons, then ask the child which character is his or her favorite and why.
Appreciate your children's work. Praise it when it merits it — not falsely, but honestly. Show their work to friends and relatives. Hang younger children's work on the wall or refrigerator, send it to grandparents.