|Creating a spark: How to Help Your Children Love their Schoolwork!
By Erika Tyner Allen, JD, PhD
What do your kids say when someone asks if they like school? Do they shrug with an apathetic, “It’s all right, I guess?” Does it sting to hear another parents say that their children just love school?
Parents spend a lot of time thinking about how to help their kids get better grades, maintain good friendships, and avoid well-identified hurdles like peer-pressure and bullying. But what about something as basic as “spark?” What does it take for a child to go from feeing ho-hum to feeling electrified? Before you chalk it all up to inborn personality or feel the need to bring in a team of coaches and tutors, consider what you might do yourself. A whole lot of “spark-lighting” is within your reach.
Success generates spark. In other articles on this site, I have argued that passion does not create excellence. Rather, I believe just the opposite; people feel passionate about the things they can do well. This means that creating “passionate-kids-with-a-spark” requires that they can be successful in their schoolwork. Do they have the background learning they need? The basic resources and skills? The time? No amount of other strategies will create engagement without the possibility of success. To reiterate, your child will never have a spark unless he or she has what’s needed to do the task well.
Mother knows best. When I grew up, the refrigerator door showcased my artwork and good grades went right on it. Every time I reached for a snack, I was face-to-face with my successes! I grew up thinking I was a good student and an amazing artist. That sense of anticipated accomplishment created a certain delight in my schoolwork.
Nowadays, it is still worthwhile to display success. At my house, we have a bulletin board where all the successful work goes. As it gets filled, we make sure that you can still read any comments from the teacher (“This was your best work this term”) and see the good grade. The goal is not to set a standard, public recognition, or even a rewards system. Rather, the goal is to have my children see themselves as successful. Why? As with the first point, capability creates passion and not the other way around.
Positive attributes. As I have previously written, research demonstrates that people believe what they say out loud. For example, when couples say, “I love you” more often, they feel affection more strongly. Thus, the more positive statements you can encourage from your kids about their schoolwork, the better they will feel about it.
The more public these statements are, the stronger the change in affect seems to be. At dinner or other times the family gets together, get your kids talking about what is good in the schoolwork that they are doing: What is fun? Why is that useful to learn? Why is it important? Remember, the key is that your kids articulate these things. It is not beneficial if you are telling your kids how fun their work is!
Understand the value. Too often, a child doesn’t have the first clue where a project fits in or why it is important or useful. Help your kids understand where their school tasks fit, in both practical education and in their everyday life. Say things like, “Today, when I was creating a family budget for the month, I had to use several of the equations you have been learning in math,” or “Reading Shakespeare will help you understand a lot of modern movies because the devices he invented are still used.” Sometimes, I comment in a more generic way by remarking to my boys that their homework is really worth learning.
Treat with care. Part of helping kids recognize the value of their work is treating it with care when it is completed. Make sure that you help kids advocate for prompt and thoughtful feedback from teachers. If a teacher or other person gives you feedback, make sure to pass it along to your child. And, of course, when your child does something for you, make sure you are responsive. Check to make sure that the bed is really made or read the thank you note you asked them to write.
Helping your kids maintain enthusiasm—a spark—for their schoolwork is not as hard as you might think. It is not entirely a matter of innate personality or solely in the school’s hands. A lot of enthusiasm can be engendered through small steps made by you, the parent, to help your kids feel successful, positive, and valued. Perhaps this short list can get you started.
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