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Helping your children to be their best and do their best this school year

Parents often ask me what they can do to help their children to enjoy school more and to get the most out of school.

Here are ten top tips that many ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier’ parents have found useful. You can start putting these strategies into practice at any point during the school year, and they will make a significant difference.

1. Goals for the year

With your partner, if you have one, sit down and think about what you want for the coming school year. Parents tell me that their goals for their children go far beyond academic knowledge and skills.

As important as it is for children to master academic content, parents are often even more concerned that their children develop character: that they learn the habit of doing their best, that they become confident and self-reliant learners. The qualities that parents most often tell me they value are motivation, curiosity, resilience, impulse-control, teamwork and social skills.

Once you’re clear about what you want the coming school year to look like, not only for your children but also for yourselves as parents, you will be able more easily to focus your attention on what you can do to achieve your aims.

2. Being more organised - the ‘Think-Through’

Prioritise teaching and training your children to be more organised. Getting children into the habit of being organised achieves several goals:

  • helps them to be more successful at school
  • reduces anxiety (yours as well as theirs)
  • improves their self-esteem
  • helps them to become more mature

There are two main aspects of organisation: things and time. Organisation is usually about taking care of belongings and about doing the right thing at the right time. When children or teens regularly misplace things or are often late (or almost late), what doesn’t work to build good habits is reminding, lecturing or threatening dire consequences. And even if you are willing to keep reminding your child or if you are willing to tidy up after her, her teachers certainly won’t be willing.

If you’ve been trying for years to instil some degree of organisation, with very little to show for it, you may be wondering what magic wand I could possibly have. A very effective strategy for improving habits is a ‘think-through’. Instead of telling your child, yet again, what he should do, which often ends up feeling like a nag, ask your child to tell you what he should do and when and where and how.

This strategy is called a think-through because the parent has to think carefully about what questions to ask, and the child or teen has to think carefully about how she or he will answer:

‘What time do you need to finish breakfast in order to leave the house on time?’

‘Where would be a good place to put your pencil case after you’ve finished your homework?’

‘How can you make sure that you’ll remember your PE kit on Tuesdays?’

‘What can you do to keep your project from getting wrinkled when you bring it to school?’

The more often your child or teen tells you the answers to your think-through questions, the easier it is for him to visualise himself doing it right. Very soon you will see new, more mature habits of organisation starting to blossom. Remember to praise each little step in the right direction.

Each think-through should last only one minute, so that it doesn’t feel like an ordeal, either for you or for your child. And only ask the think-through questions during a calm moment, not when you’re exasperated because he forgot his exercise book yet again.

3. Calmer mornings

Keep school mornings as calm as possible. A peaceful morning sets children up for a more successful day; a rushed, stressed morning does the opposite. It’s a myth that school-day mornings need to be rushed and stressed. There are many strategies that can help children (and parents) to have a pleasant, positive start to the day. Here are a few:

Preparation

If your children are likely to complain or argue about any aspect of what to wear, establish the routine of them putting out their clothes the night before (maybe right before or right after putting on pyjamas), and stick to a rule that they are not allowed to change their minds in the morning.

Practise

If a young child is struggling with any aspect of getting dressed for school, or perhaps resisting, have him practise a bit every day, but not when you’re stressed or in a rush.

Rest

A well-rested child is a more cooperative and more cheerful child. Start putting your children to bed earlier - yes, they may complain at first, until they get used to the new routine. Within a week or two you will notice much less grumpiness, dawdling, distractibility and resistance in the mornings.

4. Healthy lunches

To avoid last-minute panic in the mornings, plan school lunches and after-school snacks in advance. Ask each child to choose their favourites from a list of healthy options, and shop together for the items.

Make the time for children to contribute to making their packed lunches and their snacks; children are much more likely to eat food that they have helped to prepare.

5. Homework habits

Often parents feel that during the summer holidays children should have a complete break from anything to do with school. Unfortunately, this can make for problems in the new term; homework may come as an unpleasant shock to the system.

If you detect any hint of resistance to homework, be willing to sit with your children for the first few weeks. Remember that complaining, arguing and refusing are often signs of anxiety and shaky confidence, and we all feel braver when we have someone to keep us company.

It’s quite possible that a lot of forgetting has taken place over the summer. If your child acts clueless about facts or skills or procedures that he used to know, resist the temptation to remind him. That would only reinforce his belief that he doesn’t remember and can’t remember.

Instead, ask him to tell you which bits he does remember. Don’t accept ‘I don’t know’, and don’t do his thinking for him! When he has to wrack his brains to remember or when he has to take a sensible guess, not only is this strengthening his brain’s ability to think and to remember, but it is also building his self-confidence and resilience.

To help children and teens to do their best with homework and schoolwork, put some focus every day on ‘micro-skills’, which are the smaller sub-skills that are components of larger skills. For example, multiplication facts are a micro-skill needed for fractions. Some of the micro-skills needed for writing stories and essays are neat handwriting, correct spelling and punctuation, vivid vocabulary, putting one’s ideas in a sensible sequence. Micro-skills typically get rusty over the six weeks of the summer holidays if you didn’t set aside regular time for practice.

You may already know which micro-skills your child could benefit from practising. Here’s what I recommend:

  • Choose three micro-skills that you would really like to see your child improve.
  • Have her spend five minutes a day practising each of these three micro-skills, for a total of fifteen minutes.
  • This should happen before homework, while your child’s brain is still fresh.

Expect your children and teens to complain about this new routine. They won’t want to spend any more time than they have to on anything resembling homework, especially if it hasn’t been set by the school. But persevere. Soon your children will get used to this new routine, and soon you will see a big improvement, both in the quality of their work and also in their pride and self-confidence.

6. Screen time

Many families have term-time rules about screen time: when, where, how much, what, etc. These rules and routines tend to be loosened or suspended altogether during the summer holidays. You may find that your children and teens resist going back to how it was before the summer.

Be strong. Have the courage of your convictions. Children can be very persuasive because they are experts at knowing what they want. We, the parents, need to be brave. We may not be experts, but we definitely know more than our children do about what is good for them.

7. School friendships

You can also use think-throughs to help children practise sensible ways to respond when faced with tricky friendship issues. This is much more effective than simply telling children what to do because often they’re not really listening, especially if they’ve heard it all before or if it sounds like a lecture. But when the child is the one who is saying what he should or could do, he is listening to himself:

‘What’s the school rule about what you should do if someone teases you or insults you?’

‘If your friend doesn’t want to play with you one day, what would be a good thing to do?’

‘At break time, how can you let your classmates know that you want to play with them?’

‘What if you want to play one game, and the others want to play a different game?’

8. Down-time

If parents aren’t careful, after-school clubs, homework, music practice, dinner and screen time can easily fill the whole afternoon and evening right up until bedtime. Let’s remember that children and teens (and parents as well) need a daily dose of unstructured and guilt-free down time. Without this daily safety valve, stress builds up, often leading to anxiety or a lack of cooperation.

As much as your children may enjoy their extra-curricular activities, or as important as it may be for them to revise French verb endings, nothing is more important than this daily free time. It’s a time when your child is not being entertained or distracted or told what to do. He’s thrown back on his own resources. This is both empowering and relaxing. Ring-fence this free time, at least a half-hour a day, and longer at the weekends.

9. Special time

Children want, need and thrive on regular one-on-one time with each parent, what I call Special Time. You were probably able to manage this during the summer holidays, when there were far fewer to-dos on the agenda. But it’s just as vital during term-time.

One very important plus about daily Special Time (even just ten minutes, if that’s all you can squeeze in on some days) is that it helps motivate children to want to please you and to make you proud. Even children and teens who don’t seem to care about spending one-on-one time with a parent will benefit hugely from Special Time as a consistent routine.

10. Defusing school-based anxieties

We know that some children are more anxious, whereas others are more laid-back or confident. A child with a tendency to worry is often a child with a tendency to hold things in. So parents may not recognise the signs of anxiety: reluctance to talk about school, complaining about stomach aches or sore throats, delaying tactics at bedtime, saying ‘I hate school’, complaining about not having any friends, making a fuss about anything and everything, even about things completely unrelated to school.

It’s easy to understand why a child might be worried if he’s starting at a new school. But even if your child is returning to the same school as last term, anxiety can flare up after the summer. He’s had the whole of the long summer holidays to forget that school is OK. You may find that he’s worried, all over again, about whether the teacher will like him, will the work be too hard, will he get in trouble if he forgets the new teacher’s way of doing things, will his friends from last year still be his friends this year, etc.

There are two things you can do to help set your child’s mind at rest so that he can face the new term with enthusiasm and confidence.

One is to find out as much as you possibly can about the specifics of the things he’s concerned about. Even if it turns out that the reality is not to his liking, he will cope better when he knows.

The other is to make a list with your child of all the things your child may be thinking about school but isn’t saying. Do plenty of ‘what if’ think-throughs with your child about all the unknowns. When your child can visualise himself handling tricky situations, this will go a long way towards reducing his anxiety.

Noël Janis-Norton © 2019

The more of these strategies that you put into practice, the sooner you’ll notice that family life is becoming calmer, easier and happier.

Keep practising and let us know how you get on.

You can share your experiences with us directly via email, or you can post your comments on our social media:

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You may like these ideas but be unsure how to put them into practice. Would you like some advice about how to make all this happen? To find out how the ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting and Teaching’ resources and services can help you and your family, please browse our website or email us: admin@calmerparenting.co.uk

We offer support materials - videos, podcasts, articles, books, CDs (MP3 downloads coming soon).

If you would like personalised advice that is specific to your family’s needs, we offer a parenting programme that includes private consultations (via Skype) and home visits.

For schools we offer parenting talks and teacher training.

Please get in touch for more information. Noël and her team welcome enquiries from parents and educators.

This content is the intellectual property of ‘Calmer, Easier, Happier Parenting and Teaching’. We are happy for you to forward or print this document as long as it is always reproduced in its entirety.

© Calmer Parenting and Teaching Skills Limited - All Rights Reserved

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