Helping Children Reach Full Potential as Students
"Do your best!"
Many of us probably heard some variation of these words as children, especially regarding schoolwork. Parents naturally want their children to do their best in school, but finding the most effective way to encourage academic investment depends on each child's individual needs. In some cases, a child's difficulty with academic tasks stems from emotional struggles, and words of encouragement are simply not enough. In this month's column, we examine aspects of early emotional development that support later academic success.
What makes a 'good' student?
Some children are able to pull themselves together and produce their best work, while others struggle helplessly. Many attributes of "good" students begin to form long before children enter kindergarten, developing over time and taking shape over the course of a child's school career. Good students are comfortable with their independence, are able and willing to solve problems, can manage and tolerate feelings of frustration when solutions are not immediate, and are intrinsically motivated and invested in their learning.
Academic success in early childhood
Children who develop a healthy separation from parents in which they are comfortable with their emerging autonomy, while parents encourage and admire their growth along the way, tend to grow into independent students who invest in and enjoy their academic development. As children become more independent, they learn to work through various feelings in their play and social interactions as well as in their development of self-care skills (such as cleaning up or getting dressed). As simple as it may seem, a young child's ability to play independently or cope with frustration can indicate how well she will adjust to the demands of being an independent student.
What can parents of young children do?
Parents can support their child's emotional development and emerging sense of autonomy by paying attention to the emotional tasks and challenges their children face. Offering admiration and praise specific to the emotional task at hand, rather than focusing on the actual task, is one way to esteem the development of qualities of a good student. For example, "I'm impressed with how you didn't give up on that tricky zipper!" has a more lasting effect than a simple "Good job!"
Also watch for signs of emotional difficulties in a variety of settings. Is your 5-year-old comfortable with playing independently, or does he turn to you every time he encounters a challenging situation? How independent is your child in her preschool setting? Does she give up easily or persist through challenging tasks?
For parents of school-aged children
If encouragement doesn't cut it, consider addressing the underlying emotional reasons for your child's difficulties in school. Look beyond the surface to determine just what type of help will be most effective. Has there been a sudden change in how your child invests herself in her schoolwork or has she been struggling for some time? If you are able to pinpoint a more recent environmental cause, such as a move or the birth of a sibling, talking openly about the apparent causes may help.
In some cases, struggles may stem from a longstanding emotional pattern. When you reflect on your child's earlier years, was he comfortable persisting with that zipper, or did he often turn to you when faced with a challenge? In such cases, the usual types of encouragement may not be enough. Parents can work on this with their children by addressing emotional issues in a broader way as they manifest outside of school. When necessary, qualified professionals can provide help as well.
The Lucy Daniels Center is a nonprofit agency in Cary that promotes the emotional health and well-being of children and families.