Elementary school begins with eagerness and nerves, jam-kissed sendoffs and maybe a couple of tears (likely yours) as your “big” girl or boy marches into the classroom for the first time. The six years from kindergarten through fifth grade are marked by rapid social, emotional and intellectual growth. Pants and coats are outgrown (or lost) at breakneck speed and habits — good and bad — are formed.
Any parent who’s ever volunteered at a school library or book fair can recall the joy and indecision of a kindergartener picking out a single book. By fifth grade, kids race in and grab books like they’re being timed; they’ve honed their decision-making skills and learned what they like to read and some of the shine has worn off the whole experience. One group is just beginning to learn the structure and rules of school while the other is probably a little cocky in their comfort — all of which will change as they move into middle school.
These first years of school set the stage for many years of learning. Your children will begin spending six to eight hours a day in a classroom in the company of other adults and children. It’s a world that, as a parent, you will largely only be part of through your child’s stories and teacher updates and conferences.
What if there was a way to “get real” with your child’s teacher — to ask what he or she really thinks is important for you to do at home to reinforce learning and build your child’s character?
Make It Better reached out to elementary school teachers from 10 different North Shore communities and asked them one simple question:
What would you want parents of elementary school kids to know?
Their responses, with names and school affiliations removed to encourage frank honesty, were remarkably consistent. Here are their top seven tips.
1. Read Early and Read Often
Read books to your children, with your children and in front of your children. The benefits of reading are numerous and well-documented: increased vocabulary, improved memory, stronger analytical thinking skills, improved focus and concentration, and more.
One teacher notes, “The best thing you can do at home to help in school is READ with your child.” Another says, “Parents need to create a culture of literacy in the home. Talk to children about the books you read and why you read them. Model how you think about the themes and characters. Show them how to make inferences and see the book from other perspectives. Help them make connections to their own lives and ask how it makes them feel. Get them to ask questions, promote inquiry and creativity.” And, “My colleagues and I do everything we can to promote literacy in the classroom, but it will always be an uphill battle if it is not promoted in the home as well.”
2. Don’t Solve Problems for Your Child
Yes, yes, you know the answer and it’s easier and faster at the end of a long day to just explain it to your child, but teachers say don’t. Learning to identify solutions increases your child’s creative and critical-thinking skills.
One teacher reminds us, “Resist the urge to solve the problem … it does not teach your children to become problem solvers.” Another says, “It’s okay if a child struggles a bit. We should teach children to persevere and work through their struggles. When they do this, they will find that learning has taken place.”
Several teachers identified a connection between problem solving and the development of resilience — a quality that will serve them well throughout their lifetime.
3. Give Children Responsibility for Their Own Belongings
Don’t do things for your children that they can do for themselves. Cut a carrot with a sharp knife? No. Pack daily snack, backpack, instruments and/or sporting equipment? Yes, yes and yes. Even young children can handle responsibility for their own things — after all, they do it all day at school when they sign and hand in their work, store things in their lockers and keep their desks clean. Then they come home and we often take over.
“Giving children this responsibility empowers them to believe that they can succeed in many things,” says one teacher. “They learn accountability.” Another adds, “Also, we hear many students blame their parents for not putting their homework or lunch in their backpacks. It’s never too early for a child to learn to be responsible for their belongings.”
4. Trust the Teacher to Give Appropriate Assignments
In high-achieving communities like those on the North Shore, it’s more common for parents to ask for more homework than it is for them to complain about too much. This is where trust comes in — trust that the school has hired strong teachers and made appropriate student/teacher matches, and trust that the teacher knows your child’s academic capability.
“Your child’s teacher knows how smart your child is, so there’s no need to question him or her on everything … give the teacher a chance to challenge your child without hearing from you about it,” says one teacher. And, “Please stop asking us for extra-hard homework! The purpose of homework is to reinforce what the children are learning in school and to help them develop good study skills.”
5. Develop Consistent Homework Habits
Creating a dedicated homework space is an important first step to that end of helping your children “develop good study skills.” As one teacher says, “A consistent workspace provides the child with a mindset that they are to do their work when they enter that designated space.”
The trick is finding a space that is private enough to allow concentration but public enough to monitor and keep children focused. “Do not let [children] retreat to their room to complete their homework. If that’s the only space to do work, check on them to make sure they are staying on task and completing their work in a reasonable amount of time.”
In addition to a place, set a consistent homework time — like right after school or dinner. Some children like to get it all done right away so they can relax; others need a break after school. Help your child figure out the best arrangement for him or her.
6. Limit Technology
With all of the good that technology has brought in the form of creating a global community for commerce and learning, it’s also shortened attention spans and blurred the lines between private and public lives. Teachers recommend that parents limit where and how their children engage with their devices.
“I wish parents knew that it is not a good idea to let their child go to bed with technology,” says one teacher. “Parents need to keep track of electronic devices and the unfiltered world that their children are connected to.”
Another noted, “It is a fast-paced world that these young people are a part of and with that comes the challenge of thinking that they always have to be busy doing something.” Yet another teacher added, “Accessible technology means that kids never have to be bored, yet ‘bored’ is where the most creative things happen.” Let your child complain and whine and in general get annoyed about how there’s “nothing to do” and eventually they’ll make up something that even you wouldn’t have thought of.
7. Sports Are Not the Only Activity
“I would like parents to know that it’s okay if you have a child that doesn’t play sports,” says one teacher. “Children have so many diverse talents that we should celebrate. We need to rally behind the children who play an instrument or sing, dance, draw, write poetry, etc.”
It’s important to remember that different activities bring joy to different children. Allow them to develop their own unique interests and perspectives.
Other teacher tips include: Make sure your children get a good night’s sleep and a nutritious breakfast; play board games with your child; let teachers know of any major changes at home; consider multiple sides to every story before dashing off an email; and don’t forget that teachers are people too.
For all that teachers give our children day in and day out, one teacher reminds us, “Any genuine words of encouragement or thanks are always welcome and so appreciated. Take the time to write your child’s teacher a note or send a thoughtful email, not just during teacher appreciation week or at the end of the school year, but at random times.”
After all, as the saying goes: If you can read this, thank a teacher.