As parents, we want to do everything we can to support our kids, to ensure their school experience is a positive one, but it can be hard to know where to start, or what to do to make this year better than the last.
Looking to the brain and neuroscience for insights can provide some great strategies to be applied at nearly every age.
Setting Up for Success : Great Strategies To Help Your Child Thrive This School Year
Beyond consistency and patience (which is key), here are a few additional suggestions based on neuroscience and experience, to help support your child this year in school!
Ensure good rest and fuel to provide optimal support!
A tired or stressed brain is a negative brain. A good bedtime/ wake-up routine ensures plenty of sleep.
Create a healthy morning routine
To minimize stress and prepare for optimal attention and focus, prep everything the night before - lunches, backpacks, and outfits. Allow your child time to wake up. Avoid access to phones or tablets to minimize distractions. Eat a healthy breakfast, and get your child moving! Even just 1-3 minutes of engaging large muscles and spiking the heart rate can help wake the brain up to activate memory and attention.
Healthy snacks can make a big difference!
Check their schedule for snack and lunch times. Focus on providing protein and healthy fats, and minimize sugars and food dyes that can spike and crash energy and disrupt attention.
To hear all about your child’s day, wait until after they’ve had a snack!
Don’t ask right away, unless they want to share!
Attention: Utilize your child’s attentional window to help support homework
It’s crucial to set homework expectations based on your child’s current attention span, and not based on the amount of homework assigned that day, or based on their age or grade level. Don’t assume that because they are 10 years old, they have a 20-minute attentional window of focus. Each child varies in their development, which directly impacts their ability to sustain focus. Encouraging your child to work as independently as they can, within their window of attention, then providing extra support once the time has surpassed that window, will help set you both up for tremendous success!
To determine your child’s attentional window, subtly observe and time them while they are working. Pick a day they are well-rested and fed. Don’t start the timer the first time you say, “Time to sit down for homework,” but when they actually begin to work. Then, note how long they can stay on task without re-direction or support. There is no wrong answer here. This is simply providing you with realistic information about your child’s current abilities! Whether it is one minute or 20, you can use this as a guide to know when, and how much additional support they will need from you, as they work.
If your child can focus for 10 minutes at a time, but homework requires half an hour, plan for it! This will require you to either join your child in supporting their attention and work beyond the first 10 minutes, or break the homework up into multiple 10-minute chunks.
Reduce Stress: Help your child identify and reduce stress before homework or studying
For many kids knowing they have an upcoming test to study for, or a long list of homework assignments, can trigger feelings of stress, which can make it even harder to do the needed work. Simply put, stress hijacks the brain. Stress can make it harder to utilize the higher-level functions needed for homework such as, sustained attention, and memory, and depletes the brain’s energy resources.
While we can’t always influence all sources of stress, when it comes to stress related to schoolwork, letting our kids know we are there to help, can go a long way.
Start by acknowledging how your child is feeling, and share with them what action, words, or body language you noticed, that led you to believe they were stressed. (This can help to bring awareness to feelings and actions.) Don’t downplay or minimize their feelings. Instead, validate those feelings by letting them know you feel that way sometimes too. Offer your help and support, so they know they’re not alone. You can ask how you can help, or tell them your plan to help get the work done. For example: “I can tell by your facial expression and tone of voice right now, that you are feeling stressed. I feel that way sometimes too. How can I help right now? Let’s start by making a list of what needs to get done, so we don’t forget anything. Then we’ll review your study guide together!”
Over time you can pull back on how much you are helping, allowing your kids to be more independent in their work, but when stress is high, knowing they’re not alone can help!
Build Confidence: Celebrate the effort not the outcome
Whether your child is a straight A student, or works hard at their individual level, celebrating the effort, not the outcome can be helpful. With a focus on effort, and mastering something new, you can help support what is considered a growth mindset.
Carol Dweck, a Stanford psychology professor, spent 40 years studying growth mindset and motivation.1 Her work helped teach us that telling kids they were intelligent could result in kids who were less comfortable taking risks, and may shut down more quickly when something became challenging. Dweck describes this as having more of a fixed mindset. When we combine that mindset with our own parenting expectations of what a child “should” be able to accomplish, we’re setting our kids up to shut down when faced with a challenge and fall short of expectations. Kids who were praised for effort were found to try harder, and persist longer at tasks. These kids tended to be more resilient and considered to have a growth mindset. Be careful in praising the effort, it needs to be genuine, and there is more to simply saying “good job working hard” to tap into a growth mindset. It’s also giving kids the message that the brain can be changed and improved. It’s helping kids understand that if something is hard, it just means they haven’t mastered it - yet.
Next time your child is struggling with school work, acknowledge how hard you see them working, and talk about what you can do next to continue to support this area of learning. Then, point out something else that had been hard for them, that through hard work they did eventually master. “I appreciate how hard you are working on math tonight, and can see that you’re starting to catch on. Let’s review these flash cards again tomorrow morning during breakfast, so you feel ready for the day. Remember when memorizing your math facts was hard? Now you’ve got it down! Keep working hard and we’ll get there. You’re brain is getting stronger through this practice.”
Set Goals: Ask your child what their goals are for the year
The brain loves goals. When you set a goal that excites you, the brain releases dopamine, a feel-good neurotransmitter, which can boost your mood and energy. But dopamine doesn’t stay present in the brain for long, making it harder to remain consistent in doing the work required to achieve the goal. To help, break a big goal down into smaller steps. This creates mini-goals. Checking off the mini-goals while working towards bigger goals can re-engage motivation and excitement, increasing the odds of achieving the goal. It is also an outstanding executive function practice for planning and follow-through.
Have a conversation with your child about something (or things) they’d like to accomplish this year. Help them think about how they would feel when they accomplish that goal. Maybe it’s making new friends, trying a new sport, or getting a good grade in a hard class. Help your kids identify a goal that is personal and exciting to them, and remember, this needs to be their goal, not yours!
Next, map out a plan of the mini goals, or steps and timeline needed along the way. Write out the goal and steps and keep it out and visible, as a constant reminder. A note taped on the bathroom mirror, or at their desk with a big smiley face, as a reminder of how good they’ll feel when they achieve their goal!
School Portals: Create a routine of structure and support
Parents have more visibility and information than ever at their fingertips, thanks to school portals. While the portals can be a helpful way to keep track of work, grades, and even behaviors, they can be overwhelming, and confusing at times. Not all teachers update the portals with the same consistency or information, which can create more questions than answers.
Start the year by finding out how each teacher uses the portal, and how frequently they recommend checking it for their class. If they only update grades bi-weekly, then checking weekly to review completed work, won’t be helpful, and may make it look as though your child hasn’t completed an assignment.
Choose a night to sit down and review the school portal together with your child. Review what has been completed, as well as what is coming up. Focus on keeping the interaction positive and supportive (replace “why didn’t you turn that in?” with “let’s find out more about this assignment”). Work together to create a plan for the upcoming week. Ask questions to understand what work has been completed and graded, and what is coming up. This will benefit you, as well as ensure your child has a good grasp on the status of their assignments and tests. Anytime the information is unclear, encourage your child to email their teacher, and CC you on the communication. This will help to provide a direct answer, as well as teach your kids that it’s okay to speak up and ask questions.
Next help support the plan with gentle reminders and guidance, where needed, to help keep your child’s work on track.
Learning isn’t just for kids! As parents, we are continuing to learn and grow as well. If you learned something new and helpful in this article, share that information with your kids. Talk about what you learned, and how you are going to work to incorporate it into this school year to help set them up for success in school.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Dr. Rebecca Jackson is an industry leader in brain health and optimizing the brain to enhance how you feel and function. She brings 15 years of Brain Balance experience as Chief Programs Officer. In this role, she leads research on improving cognition, development, and well-being, drives programmatic enhancements, and creates new programs to meet the growing demands of people wanting to achieve more -for themselves and their children. Dr. Jackson is the author of the book Back on Track (https://mcpress.mayoclinic.org/product/back-on-track), and is a frequent media guest as an expert on improving brain health, development, and cognition. Dr. Jackson's work has been featured in Mayo Clinic Press, Forbes, Psych Central, Business Insider, and more. She has appeared on local and national news and shows such as The Doctor’s Show, and NBC’s Nightly News. Visit http://brainbalancecenters.com
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