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How to Raise a Motivated Student

All parents want their kids to get good grades at school.  But why does being a good student matter?  Most important, quality of life. People who can do enough math to handle mortgages and taxes, who understand the financial and political forces that affect their personal lives, who know something about the natural and scientific worlds, who can use the human legacy of great art and literature to make sense of life -- research shows these people have richer, happier lives, make better decisions, and are more responsible citizens. 

Photo: MMarsolaisDoes that mean a child who doesn't go to college can't lead a fulfilling life? Of course not.  But in the past forty years America has effectively segregated itself into two societies; those with college degrees ultimately earn 60% more than those without. Besides, most blue-collar jobs with decent earning potential demand more than a traditional high school education nowadays.  Preparation for a career in auto repair requires more time with a computer than a wrench.  A carpenter who aspires to become a contractor needs enough math to juggle estimates, purchasing, subcontractors and payroll in addition to construction skills.

In short, helping our kids develop their intellect to the best of their ability is certainly not everything, but it is undoubtedly a gift to our children.

But school success isn't possible without a love of learning.  How can you encourage both?

1. Intellectual exploration begins with physical exploration.  A baby who is told "No" as he explores his world learns not to question.  A toddler who is constantly curtailed from climbing higher (rather than simply being spotted for safety) won't become an explorer, either physically or mentally. The more you say "no" to a baby, the more her inner world will be filled with limitations, and the lower her IQ will be.

(Think she needs to learn limits, develop inner controls? She does. Just as she needs to develop inner controls over her bladder. And on approximately the same timetable.)

2. Select age appropriate toys.   Don't waste your money on educational toys.  Most have been proven to be counter-productive.  Think toys that can be used creatively in many ways,  rather than preset games. The classics are still the best:  Blocks, paints, clay, puppets, dolls, stuffed animals, vehicles.  Instead of structured play with specific characters or story lines, encourage free play, which exercises the mind and imagination, letting him lay down new neural pathways.  (Studies show that kids who watch TV are more prone to adopt "scripts" of what they have seen, kids who don't engage in more flexible, creative play.)

3. Encourage experimentation.  Children are natural scientists, and they learn by doing.  They experiment just to see what happens.  You know that the egg will break if you drop it on the floor, but what self-respecting toddler doesn't want to try it for herself?  Be patient.  Tolerate a certain amount of mess. (And of course you'll also have to tolerate their efforts to help clean it up, which can make things worse but are an important beginning to competence and responsibility).  For more on encouraging creativity in your child see Nurturing Your Child's Creativity.)

Photo: Autumn Sproles4. Emotional development and excitement about learning is more important than academics for young children. In the end, your child's ability to do well in school will depend less on when she memorizes her ABCs and more on emotional development, such as her ability to manage frustration in order to tackle new challenges.  Your child's primary work in the toddler and preschool years is to develop a healthy emotional life and an excited curiosity about the world, not to learn to read.  If she loves being read to by the time she begins first grade, she'll be a reader halfway through the year.

5. Don't test your youngster, and don't let Grandma do it. It doesn't matter if you're quizzing a toddler about what color the cars are, or a preschooler on what the stop sign says; if they don't know the answer they'll feel like they should.  Quizzing tends to escalate through all the right answers (“Wow, he knows all the primary colors at the age of 18 months!”) until the child is stumped (“No, that’s TURQUOISE!”), and then even the smartest child will feel dumb. That self-doubt can last for the rest of his life, no matter how smart he is.

6. Inspire questions rather than overloading them with facts.  It's true that every interaction with your child is a teachable moment, but think twice about what you're teaching.  For instance, on a nature walk, marvel together at the mysteries of nature, but resist the temptation to label every living thing and reduce your walk to a science lesson. Inspire wonder about the joy and beauty of nature; help them voice their own questions and theories.  Notice the patterns of frost on the car, the changes in the moon, the way the hummingbird hovers. Facts are secondary at best, at worst they're a complete distraction from the magic of life.  That magic is what will inspire her to want to learn more facts.

7. Once your child starts school, set up a place and time for her to do her homework, in the same room with you.  If she develops the habit of working at a desk with all her books and supplies handy, she'll be much more focused. And this gives her a structure to master the developmental task of sitting herself down to tackle an unpleasant task.

 8. Care about the details of his schoolwork.  The single most important factor in school success (as long as your child has intelligence within the normal range and no learning disabilities) is whether there is a parent at home who is interested in the child's schoolwork. Someone who knows basically what is happening in all his subjects, and what he is working on, every night, for homework.  Being interested in the report card isn't good enough -- kids need help to stay focused during the game itself, not punishment when they get the scorecard.

9. Help him manage his homework, don't do it for him.  It's not true that you don't need to be involved in homework; you do.  But the parent's job is to provide structure, not answers. You're not the teacher, so you aren't evaluating the work.  But you are helping her to manage getting it done. Your goal is to help your child to internalize good study habits. How should he go about learning spelling words?  How should she write a rough draft and revise it?  How does one manage a project that needs to be worked on over a period of time?

In first grade your role might be to actually help him figure out the answers to his math problems, by fourth grade you may find that all you need to do is quiz him on his times tables before the test.

The more interest you show, the better. But don't get into power struggles, you won't win. Stay in touch with the teacher and let her be the heavy as necessary.

10. Make sure your child's peers value academics.  By the time kids are in fourth grade, their attitudes toward schoolwork are influenced greatly by their peers. How much effort they put into schoolwork and how well they do in school will be very similar to their immediate peer group.  If you want your child to do well academically, be sure he or she is in a peer situation with kids who value learning.

11. Encourage reading.  Reading to your child is the single most important thing you can do to raise her IQ.  That means reading to her even once she can read to herself, because you'll be reading her more interesting stories than she can decipher.  Read to your child until she makes you stop. (I read to my kids until they were teenagers, just as a way to connect and discuss certain books.) For more on how to encourage reading, see Raise a Child Who Loves to Read. 

12. Have great discussions at your house.  Children develop curiosity about the world when they grow up with adults who are curious and interested in it.  When you're with your child, ask questions about what the two of you are encountering:  "Do you think people look like their dogs?...Do you think that dentists have to have a certain kind of personality to cope with people being afraid of dental work?"  When your child asks you a question, counter with a question: "Hmm...that's a great question.  I don't really know what those little particles in that shaft of light are.  Dust motes?  Why can we only see them in the light, do you think?  Are they all over the room but we can't see them?"   When you hear an interesting news report, turn off the radio and talk with your child about it.  At dinner, if it's a famous person's birthday, have a conversation about them. If you want some ideas on what to ask your child to get good discussions going, see 150 Questions to Ask Your Child to Start a Great Conversation.

13.  Help your child learn how to look things up.  It's more important for him to know how to find and evaluate answers than to know lots of facts.  If you're teaching your child to look things up, the web is usually at hand more easily than the library, so it becomes important to give early lessons in web literacy.  In addition to basic web safety, children need to know that some web sites are not reliable sources of facts, and how to evaluate a source. For more on teaching kids Web literacy, including how to stay safe online, click here.