As a parent, you want to give your children every advantage in life. Fortunately, learning doesn’t only happen in the classroom and there’s plenty you can do at home to help them on the path to success.

Very few of us can afford to give our children the finest education money can buy, but the good news is that schooling is only part of the story. There is plenty of research to suggest that the secret to students’ achievement isn’t necessarily income or social status, but rather a spirit of learning, discipline and curiosity that is cultivated at home. Which means that you are in a good position to help your child thrive at school, without having to pay anything extra, purely by knowing how to encourage this.

A study by Duke University in the USA that reviewed more than 60 research studies on homework found that students who did their homework – especially from Grades 7 to 12 – were far more likely to be high achievers. It was found that with few exceptions, students who did their homework regularly and consistently achieved better long-term results than those who did not.

Here’s what you can do to help:
* Get your child to keep a homework diary. Organisational skills are critical for school performance, and a homework diary helps students manage their time as well as keep track of assignment deadlines and test dates. It also helps if parents keep track of their children’s academic obligations.

Failing to be organised can affect grades badly, so make sure your child understands the importance of recording homework or assignment dates as soon as they get them. US academic adviser Grace Fleming even advises students to give their diary a name, perhaps something goofy or sentimental. As strange as it sounds, ‘you’re less likely to neglect something with a name and a strong identity,’ she says.

“If you set aside 30 minutes a day for homework ‘sharing’, it will make a significant difference.

* Create a routine. ‘The key is to create a structured and predictable homework routine early on,’ says educational psychologist Catherine Radloff. ‘If not, homework can become a long and frustrating process.’ She recommends sticking to a particular time and place (as free from clutter and distraction as possible) for homework.

Allow short breaks, especially for younger children who are unlikely to be able to concentrate for more than 20 minutes at a time. Radloff adds that you can help children gain a better understanding of the passage of time by using a clock or timer to monitor homework, and give small rewards for finishing work on time. (But not financial or material rewards: see ‘Help your child self-motivate’ overleaf.)

* Revise. ‘There are two reasons that going over homework with your children is so effective,’ says Alexa le Chat, head of life orientation at Camps Bay High School in Cape Town. ‘It forces them to revise the work and it shows that you are interested in their schoolwork. Your child should complete all the homework first. When they’re done, go through their homework diary with them.’ Read each item and ask what they did and if they have any questions. They can show you the work and explain any new concepts they’ve learnt. This should only take about half an hour. It’s an empowering process because your child is able to ‘teach’ you what they have learnt.

* One area worth spending a little extra time on is test and exam revision. Use your child’s textbooks and workbooks to ask them simple content questions (not a million complex questions – simply do an overview of the work). If you set aside 30 minutes a day for home- work ‘sharing’, it will make a significant difference. You can even do it while you cook dinner.

‘Teachers are often quick to notice behavioural changes; they know which children associate with one another and they’re aware of your child’s strengths and weaknesses,’ says Le Chat. You can develop this relationship by attending meetings offered by the school, and fostering a relationship with the teacher.

* ‘Communication between school and home is an essential element of academic success,’ agrees Radloff. ‘It ensures that teachers have vital knowledge of any family-related issues that might be affecting your child’s behaviour. For example, if you’re going through a divorce, your child’s teacher should be informed so they can support your child emotionally and be sympathetic to any changes in behaviour or a sudden drop in results.’

This is where keeping in touch with your child’s teacher can make a huge difference. If their grades begin to fall, you’re more likely to be able to pinpoint the cause and come up with a plan to correct the problem.

If you can’t find a solution, Radloff advises consulting an educational psychologist for a full assessment. ‘This kind of assessment is mainly focused on diagnosing learning problems and/or determining the child’s emotional and academic strengths and weaknesses in order to design an effective intervention strategy or programme.’

The assessment starts with a cognitive (IQ) test that will provide a score you can use to compare your child’s intellectual abilities with those of other children. It also indicates whether these abilities are balanced within the child, or if he or she has marked strengths and weaknesses. The emotional part of the assessment examines the child’s history. Such an interview will include, among other things, a discussion about the child’s birth issues, if any, developmental milestones, health concerns, medications, vision, hearing, ability to pay attention, hyperactivity, emotional concerns, social development and role in the family.

That goes for you as well as your child – after all, you can’t expect your child to want to do something that you yourself do not. ‘I cannot stress how incredibly important it is that children read,’ says Le Chat. It improves spelling, vocabulary, general knowledge, fine motor coordination and understanding of concepts.

Devices are fine. ‘If children are happier reading books on their phone or tablet, that’s fine,’ says Le Chat. ‘However, there are research findings that suggest that reading for more than two hours on a backlit screen before bed can affect sleeping patterns.’

Comics are also fine. ‘As long as they are reading!’ says Radloff. If you have the time, read together with young children. If your kids are older and you can stomach teen literature (there is some good stuff out there!) try reading the same books and discussing them together.

It’s also a great idea to visit your local public library. Children, particularly younger ones, are often fascinated by libraries and this sparks an interest in learning. Enquire whether your library has free story times or a children’s corner. Some bookshops also offer story-time events.

You can also start a family blog. Any writing practice is helpful. Encourage your child to keep a journal or start a family blog where all members post once a week, suggests Le Chat.

‘Parents serve as role models for their children,’ says Radloff. ‘If you’re enthusiastic about learning, your child will be too. On the other hand, if you’re negative about a specific subject (say mathematics) your fears and anxieties are easily transferred to your children, so be very careful about what you say around them. Take care not to label an activity or subject as boring or difficult.’

There has been a lot of bad press about the evils of video and online games (Reduces creativity! Reduces attention span! Emotional stunting! Encourages violence!), so many parents assume they’re bad news for a child’s development and should be avoided.

‘Computers are the most import- ant tools of modern society,’ says researcher Peter Gray, author of Free to Learn in Psychology Today. ‘Why would we limit kids’ opportunities to play with them?’ A 10-year UK study of more than 11 000 children found no association between playing video games from as young as five, and behavioural problems in later life. In fact, many games can boost children’s development.

‘Many remedial schools use computer programmes to improve reading and arithmetic skills,’ says Radloff. ‘Most children love technology, so this is a good way to boost academic skills, as they have fun while learning. Moderation is key, though.’

“Any writing practice is helpful. Encourage your child to keep a journal, or start a family blog where all members post once a week”

‘Video games are good for strategy and coordination,’ adds Le Chat, ‘but you must censor all games as they can be very violent. Read online reviews or even play the game yourself before letting your child do so. Any technology can be very useful for children to learn more about the world around them.

Use it in limited amounts (an hour at a time) and with adult super- vision. It is also highly beneficial to encourage critical thought in your children. You could watch a YouTube clip or read the news on Twitter together and discuss it. Parental controls are vital, so check the history of all devices regularly.’

Most children benefit from developing their vocabulary, says Radloff. Why not introduce a ‘word of the day’, which can be discussed over dinner? ‘When introducing new words, give a child-friendly definition before using it in a sentence to illustrate the meaning. Then encourage your child to think of their own example.’

Set small, realistic, achievable goals for your children. ‘Unrealistic expectations set your child up for failure,’ says Radloff. Praise and reward your children when they reach these goals, but rewards should be along the lines of quality time spent as a family – not money or objects. Bribing your children is likely to have a negative effect on their ability to self-motivate: recognition and the feeling of achievement should be the reward.

So rather celebrate their successes by putting them in charge of the TV remote for the week, or letting them choose their favourite meal.

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