Children in School

How To Help Kids Do Well In School

by Queena N. Lee-Chua, Ph.D.

A best practices study shows that the best students do not have tutors or go to Kumon.

They are the products of good parenting.

Home and family are significant factors in student learning and achievement. Studies done all over the world attest to a variety of best practices, ranging from parental involvement in school to various enrichment activities. But how many of them really work? Which are applicable to the Philippine setting -and most importantly, which are already being practiced by the families of our best students? The only way to find out is to ask parents themselves.

As a psychologist-educator, I am often faced with the problem of student mediocrity and underachievement. I try my best to motivate them by using creative and innovative teaching styles, but learning is not the sole responsibility of the teacher. The family environment is even more crucial, especially in forming good habits early on.

Last year, I teamed up with a concerned Ateneo High School parent, Maribel Sison-Dionisio (herself a family counselor), to conduct an extensive study of the best practices in our school. A 100-item questionnaire was given to 823 parents of honor students excelling in extracurricular activities. (These students were selected by administration based on academic and extracurricular performance.) We received 533 responses (a whopping 65 percent rate of return), and conducted a focus-group-discussion with 27 parents. The first local study of its kind of this scope, this truly is a community effort – sponsored by the Parents Union for School and Home, and endorsed by President Fr. Ben Nebres, SJ; Basic Education director Fr. Bert Ampil, SJ; and principal Carmela Oracion. Following are the top 10 strategies to help our children do well in school:

1. Home learning environment

In our tutor-obsessed culture, the most surprising finding may be that the majority of honor students (more than 80 percent) have never had professional tutors after school. (Another 10 percent say they rarely have tutors.) But then again, this may not be so surprising, as internationally, many student achievers seldom rely on professional tutors.

How do these students achieve? Many parents tutor their children until Graces IV or V, by which time these students have already developed good study habits and can study well on their own. In the upper grades, parents act more as guides, and are consulted mainly on complicated topics. Interestingly, many parents in the survey say that at the very least, they still make sure their high school son completes his homework. Most parents also say they spend the most time with their child (not the yaya, house help or lola), which includes at least an hour a day.

What this means: The first 10 years of our child’s life are essential not just for building relationships but for developing good study habits as well. Investing time and effort especially in the early years provide a steady foundation for lifelong learning and many prevent future problems.

2. Students have a quiet place and a set time to study everyday.

This may be plain to common sense, and it is. However, when the Third International Math and Science Study (TIMSS) compared the typical American and the typical Japanese eighth grade students, researchers found why a set time and place for daily study is important. The former studies wherever and whenever he feels like it, while the latter has his own space (tiny though it may often be) and time for learning. No wonder Japan ranked in the top five and the US barely made it to top 20 in the 1999 TIMSS ranking. (The Philippines was 36th out of 38 countries.)

As for the Philippines, not all teenagers have a set time to study – often, they study after dinner, sometimes in between TV shows or perhaps only hours before exams (when they pull in ineffective all-nighters). Some students swear they study better with stereo blaring, the TV on, the cellphone turned to maximum volume – all at the same time- but chances are these students are not doing the best they can in school. Abstract subjects such as math require reflection (and constant practice.) With the ear-splitting sounds of MTV, how can our children hear themselves think? Moreover, many parents in the survey also say that their child had a set time to go to bed and to wake up.

What this means: Make sure each child has a set time and his own private space to study. Ensure that each child has his own desk. Turn off all possible distractions, invest in good lighting and make sure that children develop a solid routine for daily study.

3. Parents frequently discuss with their children what happens in school.

These talks range from daily news to significant events (such as a particularly vexing teacher or an inspiring play). Third and fourth-year parents spearheaded discussions on possible career choices, while most parents provide counsel on balancing academics and activities, or dealing with teachers and lessons.

What this means: Ensure that communication lines are open and free. Our child has to be able to confide in us about mundane and important things. Inevitably, peer pressure becomes significant in teenager life (whether for good or ill), but one way to prevent negative influences is to be constantly present so that our child does not have to turn solely to peers for affirmation.

4. Aside from the Internet and textbooks, a variety of reference materials are available in the home.

These materials include encyclopedias, yearbooks, manuals, CD-ROMs. The school library may be well-equipped, but if possible, we must equip our home with educational materials – and make sure our children learn to consult them. Love of reading is extremely important – more than 80 percent of parents say they encourage their child to read for leisure. When their children were young, many parents also frequently read to them. (This also prevents feature problems in college – college English professors trace student’s lack of language skills to avoidance of reading “big books.”)

Interestingly, TV may not be as horrible an influence as is usually thought. Many achieving students still watch TV and surf the Net (but rarely for more than a couple of hours, and many limit TV watching to weekends). Shows such as those on Discovery Channel and National Geographic are popular.

What this means: Invest in educational references and resources. These may be pricey, so wait for book sales and book fairs, or patronize second-hand shops. Inculcate a love of reading in your children. For parents with pre-school kids, for those who haven’t done so yet – start reading to (and with) them. Make reading a bedtime ritual.

5. Again, in our culture, after school enrichment activities such as Kumon and speed reading are very popular.

It may be a shock for parents to learn that most of the student achievers have never attended any of these sessions. Keep in mind that these are commercial ventures, often run not by educators but by ordinary franchisees. These sessions are not bad, of course. But consulting their own teachers, reflecting on homework and constantly doing all the exercises in their textbooks may be more effective ways of learning for kids.

In other countries, outside-school enrichment sessions may be more regulated (for instance, education units are required), and thus, they may prove more effective. But here in the Philippines their quality varies. With luck, we may be able to find a dedicated educator-franchisee who can personally oversee our children’s learning, but from experience, I don’t think there are many of these. (If these franchisees undergo training in academic content and student motivation, and perhaps go for a master’s degree in education, then they may be more effective. But this is not yet the case today.) The bottomline is: educational fads come and go, but solid grounding in the basics (without fancy formulas or strategies) is still the main factor in academic achievement.

What this means: The good news is we don’t have to spend money on outside-school sessions. But the challenging news is we have to invest time and effort in developing good study habits in our children. There are no quick fixes in education.

6. Success is due to maximizing potential, rather than luck or fate.

Is student achievement a result of pure luck or good genes? Neither. No study has shown, for instance that the Chinese excel in math because of genetics (they may do so because of other factors such as language similarities, dual math studies, Confucian style of education, etc.). Some parents also say (with a sigh of relief) that thank goodness, their high-school children are doing well in school. (He took after his dad.”) Heredity aside, what they do not realize is that their children will not have done well without good study habits or solid learning background – which can be attributed to parents’ prioritizing of their children’s learning. Moreover, when their children complain that a subject is too hard, parents do not say “that’s really hard,” or “That’s okay. I’m also poor in Math.” Instead they urge them to do their best.

What this means: Inculcate in your child the belief that he makes his own success (but be there to guide them necessary). Effort is more important than whatever innate ability he may possess. Encourage him to do his best. A mediocre performance is certainly not his best! Inspire him with real-life accounts of people who have done well because of perseverance and hard work.

7. Parents remain supportive of their child even when he gets low grades.

True, achievers seldom get very low marks, but when they do, families are still loving and supportive. No one is perfect, and a low grade or two is a fact of life. (Frequent low grades are another matter, of course.) Unconditional acceptance is the rule – however, acceptance is not enough. When their child gets low grades, parents do their best to help (by tutoring him themselves, researching reference materials, consulting the teacher or rethinking the balance of academics and extra-curricular activities.)

Parents also do not compare their child with others, and they do not put undue pressure on him. However, when their child does well, a majority of parents (more than 80 percent) say they frequently inform friends and family about their child’s successes! When based on fact and done with love and joy, this measure of family pride also bolsters the child’s and the family’s self-esteem.

What this means: We support our child even when (and especially when) he gets low grades and help him do better next time. Do not compare children with other siblings or peers, but when they do well, it doesn’t hurt to relay the news to friends and family!

8. Setting, negotiating and enforcing rules is an act of love and is the job of good parents.

Many parents confess that they had a “traditional” childhood, where their own parents were authoritarian, where spanking was the rule rather than the exception and where they were “seen not heard.” In reaction to these, many parents have vowed to be “friends rather than parents” with their children, pals rather than authority figures. However, such practices have backfired, with children losing respect for their parents, breaking school and community rules, and in fact, often losing direction in life.

Parents are meant to be parents, not peers. Discipline (which is inevitable) is the job of good parents. But the method of discipline varies with age, and even with the personality of the child. Time-outs may work best for young children, while withdrawal of privileges may be effective for teenagers. In the survey, for a majority of parents and children cutting TV or computer time is a popular strategy. They do not give in to their teenagers when he complains or make a fuss. They demand accountability.
Most parents in the survey also say they have high expectations for their children in school and what’s more – their children are aware of such expectations. Parents also impart the value of discipline and hard work through modeling it themselves, and through questioning and conversation. When children see parents living life in a “good” upright moral way, they have the best role model to follow. When our children are old enough, having a family discussion on what is right and wrong (even the gray areas) in politics, for instance, or in school (bullying, cheating) is essential. Parents also make their children face up to the consequences of their negative behavior (instead of making “salo” for them and interceding on their behalf all the time).

What this means: Children need discipline when they (inevitably) break non-negotiable rules agreed upon beforehand by the family. Ensure that the method of discipline is meted out with love and care and with the child’s best interest in mind. Ensure that children learn responsibility for themselves, and remember that we are our children’s best role models.

9. Together with their child, parents help him develop his personal goals.

Family discussions should not be just about the latest movies or fashion craze. When the child is old enough, discussion and guidance about personal goals (e.g. he wants to be on the basketball team but at the same time he also wants to do well academically) should be constantly done. If possible, career choices should also not be left at the last minute (but take heart: in college, when interests shifts, students can always switch career paths). In the survey, most parents also recognize and encourage their son’s talents (e.g. playing the guitar, acting in plays). Music, art, and sports lessons are some activities wise parents invest in. Parents also support and attend their son’s extracurricular activities in school.

What this means: Goal-setting is integral for growth and life path, and our children need our constant guidance. We also recognize and invest in our son’s interests (outside of academics), since they are another source of self-worth.

10. Time, affection, and communication are essential to success and family well-being.

In today’s harried world, with varied individual schedules, it is heartening to note that more than 85 percent of families in the study still have dinner together always or most of the time. Affection is openly demonstrated (and most parents say their teenagers do not mind giving them a hug or a peck on the cheek).

Parents encourage exchanging opinions with their children – even if they believe they are right and even if their children’s ideas conflict with theirs. They involve their children in family discussions, but interestingly, in line with their roles as parents, they believe that more often than not, they know what is best for their children. Many parents have invested time and effort to raise their families right, and half of them say they make themselves available to their children even if it means forgetting their own needs. (However, neglecting personal needs is not recommended, since love and care for others starts with love and care for the self.)

What this means: Investing time, demonstrating affection and ensuring open and honest communication with our children are invaluable. Little things count. Have dinner together as a family. Hug one another. Encourage a free but respectful exchange of differing ideas. Above all, we should be there for our children.

Published in the Philippine Daily Inquirer last March 14, 2004

Published with permission of the author.

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