By Mari-Jane Williams
The Washington Post
— Thousands of students are heading back to school, and teachers are preparing to shape a fresh set of young minds.
They would like to politely influence some older minds, as well.
Parents can learn a lesson or two from teachers about what their kids' instructors want in the upcoming year. We asked teachers in several school systems what parents can do, beyond reading with their kids, to help their children be better students. Here's what they had to say.
1. Let your child see you making mistakes
Karen Stamp, a Virginia kindergarten teacher, said parents need to remember "that they are their child's first teacher and their lifetime teacher." Part of being a lifetime teacher, she said, is teaching your child how to deal with making mistakes.
"Make mistakes, and let them see that you can make mistakes and laugh at it so they will think it's not a big deal and you can move on easily," Stamp said.
2. Use e-mail to keep in touch
E-mail is a great way to reach your child's teacher without having to play phone tag, said Caitlin Liston, a sixth-grade science teacher in Maryland.
"E-mail is great for teachers because we can have a record of a conversation or print things out to put in a student's file as a reminder," Liston said. "If parents are hearing what their students are struggling in, they should feel comfortable talking to the teacher about it. We want to know that they need more help."
That communication shouldn't be limited to when there's a problem, said Tammie Ferguson, a first-grade teacher in Virginia.
"It's important that there's a lot of positive communication going back and forth . . . to say, 'Hey, your child did a great job today,' " Ferguson said. It's also "very refreshing for teachers to hear that their students are talking about what they've learned in school."
3. Don't tell your child that you weren't good at math
Parents might feel intimidated by the thought of helping children with their math homework, especially in the upper grades.
"I wish parents didn't tell their kids, 'It's okay, I've always been bad at math, too,' " said Kim Jackson, a math teacher in Virginia. "You would never say that about reading. . . . Math is here to serve you, not to trip you up. It's here to make life easier, and a lot of that can start at home with parents showing that they're not intimidated by numbers."
One way to make math more accessible, Jackson said, is to relate it to daily activities, whether it's tipping at a restaurant or calculating statistics at a sporting event. Rachel Gallagher, a fifth-grade teacher in Virginia, agreed.
"Capitalize on those day-to-day things where math comes up rather than drilling kids on math facts," Gallagher said. "That way you're really engaging kids and letting them see how what they're learning matters in life."
4. Get organized with a color-coded system
Older students are expected to be more independent and manage their assignments themselves, but as they transition from elementary school to middle school, they might find it hard to keep track of everything. Maryam Thomas, a resource teacher who coordinates services for low-income students at a middle school in Maryland, recommends using color-coordinated folders, notebooks and composition books to help kids keep their material for different subjects organized.
"They are coming from elementary school, where they have one homework folder, and in middle school they have five or six teachers," Thomas said. "It throws them into a tailspin."
5. Check their homework, and then have them explain it to you
It's not enough to just get the answers right. To make sure your child isn't guessing or spitting back memorized information, ask him to explain what he did and why, said Jesse Loznak, a science teacher at a middle school in Maryland.
"Even if the parents don't understand quite what the student has done, it lets you know that the child has completed the task," Loznak said. "For the child to actually explain what they're doing, it lets the parent know their child's level of understanding."
6. Don't compare your child with others
This applies to all children, but is especially important with kids who have learning disabilities or other special needs, said Andrea Demasi, a special education teacher at an elementary school in Virginia.
"It's important to understand the nature of the disability and don't compare them to their peers," Demasi said. "Don't put pressure on the child to be just like the kid down the street. There's no such thing as the kid that's like every other kid. Every kid is different. They all have strengths and weaknesses, they all have talents and challenges."
7. Help your child make connections to literature
To help your child get the most out of books, Susan Hsiung, a first-grade teacher in Maryland, suggests parents focus on problem-solving, social skills and life experience.
Take your child to the zoo (life experience). Teach her to ask an adult for help if she loses her jacket (problem-solving) or to hold the door for others (social skills), Hsiung said. With these skills in place, she will be able to relate her own life experiences to those of book characters, improving her comprehension.
"We're so focused on academics, which is very important, but what we forget is that some of these things fit in the curriculum as well," Hsiung said. "If they don't have these components and don't have these life experiences, and we ask them to make deeper connections to the material, it's hard for them."
8. Middle school and high school are not the time to take a more hands-off approach
Just because your child is getting older doesn't mean it's time to put her on autopilot.
"This is the point in their lives when they're trying to sort out who they are," Thomas, the middle school teacher, said. "Peer pressure comes in, and their connectedness to school wanes. We tend to lose a lot of children in middle school, when drugs, bullying, peer pressure and skipping become more rampant. . . . It's not the time to take your hands off of what they're doing."
The same goes for high school.
"High school students have this air about them that they don't need their parents anymore, but they really do," said Christie Ground, a ninth-grade English teacher in Maryland.
9. But don't do everything for your child
Sometimes it's faster to do things yourself than wait for your child to complete a task. But by doing everything for him, you're not preparing him to take care of himself.
Melanie Buckley, head of the English department at a high school in Virginia, said that if your child is having trouble with something, such as organizing his backpack, stand next to him and have him do it while you talk him through the process. Timothy Yorke, an advanced placement English teacher in Virginia, said this goes for time management as well.
"Parents have to empower their sons or daughters to think for themselves and be more responsible for themselves," Yorke said. "They need to figure out: How do I juggle all of the activities and classes but not have to rely on Mom and Dad to step in."
10. Ask about your child's day.
Stay involved in your child's education, beyond helping him with his homework, Liston, the sixth-grade science teacher, said. Even small things, like asking a child what he did in school, can be the difference between a child who unplugs at the end of the day and one who continues thinking about what he learned.
"If a student goes home and everyone says one thing they did that day, repeating it to anyone else in the house will help them remember it," Liston said. "If they say, 'I don't remember' or 'I don't know,' ask them something specific: 'What did you do in science today,' something that will get them talking about it."