6 Ingredients to Set Your Child Up for School Success

 Child feeling successful in school   With a new school year approaching, it’s time to start thinking about helping your children be as successful in school as they can be.

That includes resisting the temptation either to push children beyond their means so they fear never meeting up to your expectations or to neglect staying involved so they feel unimportant. In other words it means meeting your child where he is — be it deep in anxiety and school resistance or excited for new challenges.

Meeting our children in the present can be the toughest challenge of parenting. Fears keep us setting expectations for the child we want rather than the child we have. School success becomes unlikely. Fully accepting your child — right now — puts you in a more influential place.

In my book, Confident Parents, Remarkable Kids: 8 Principles for Raising Kids You’ll Love to Live With, one principle states, “Behavior is your clue”. Behavior is what we have to tell us how our children are doing — whether or not they feel in balance with themselves and with their world. When a child feels balanced, her internal needs are met and her behavior reflects that balance. When a child is behaving unacceptably, it signals an unmet need. In other words, the child is having a problem not being a problem.

When we use external motivators like sticker charts and prizes or withdrawing privileges and isolation to try to motivate “good” behavior, we ignore the cause of the behavior, the underlying motive. We simply manipulate behavior. So unless a child is already in balance or will do what you want to get the prize, the behavior management trick will not work; at least not for long.

Another principle in my book is, “All children want to be successful”. This means all children are born intrinsically motivated to please the most important people in their lives and to do the right thing—no matter what. Rewards and punishments ask them to ignore their natural, intrinsic motivation and shift focus to external motivators because we don’t have the patience for or the understanding of their developmental and temperamental needs. We simply ask the child to ignore his needs to meet ours. Hence we set them up to be unsuccessful.

6 ways to help your child this school year:
  1. Be considerate of the match between your child and the school environment—don’t force square pegs into round holes. Sometimes changing the environment and its expectations can strongly affect your child’s behavior. Different schools for different temperaments. Set expectations considerate of your child’s temperamental, neurological, and developmental needs. Do not assume you can change your child’s innate biology to suit you or the school.
  2. If you have no school choice, become your child’s best advocate. let your child’s teacher know what works best for you at home. Educate them about your child. Discuss your child’s temperamental qualities. “Whenever I use time out, my child’s behavior escalates. I have learned that when I stay calm and give him choices and acknowledge what is difficult for him, he calms.”
  3. Remember that children do well when they can. Don’t get stuck in the traditional perception that disruptive behavior is on purpose, disrespectful, and oppositional. Acting out behavior and school resistance needs to be taken seriously and not punitively. It can indicate boredom in school, feeling lost and behind, or bullying. If your child is not doing well, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t want to do well. It means she can’t right now. Her behavior will tell you.
  4. Do not let homework interfere with your relationship with your child. The foundation of family relationships is more important than fighting over homework. Be interested in what your children are studying and allow many conversations to spin off from that. But avoid homework battles by letting your children know that homework is their job. If they want your help, you are there to for the asking, but if they don’t want to do it, that will be between the teacher and your child (a special needs child requires a lot more help and motivation to be successful). They will much more readily take responsibility for their homework when you stay out of the nagging, pushing and threatening that so often becomes the evening norm.
  5. Do not use or endorse external motivators. Manipulating behavior encourages children to answer to extrinsic cues—you may get behavior you want but only as long as the cue is present and either feared or desired. Punishment increases internal, unmet needs, and rewards work only as long as the external cue is desirable. After awhile the child loses trust in her own internal cues. Your school may use these methods. They have a classroom of kids to manage. No reason for you to use them at home. (Some special needs children can create good habits with behavioral charts and motivators).
  6. Ask your child how he would like to do this coming year. What grades would he like at the end of the year. If he were to overhear his teacher talking about him in the hallway, what would he like to hear the teacher saying. Ask him to think about what he needs to do over the year to make that happen.

School behavior problems often stem from conflict between the child’s own intrinsic regulators and the expectations of the environment of the school. A physical, impulsive child needing activity and stimulation does not do well where he is expected to sit still for periods of time. A sensitive introvert who likes quiet and calm may have a difficult time in a roomful of rambunctious children. Not to mention the expectations of a child who learns differently from 90% of his class.

Nothing makes a child happier than to perform well and meet expectations. Make sure those expectations are set for success and are not a setup for failure.



4 thoughts on “6 Ingredients to Set Your Child Up for School Success

  1. Bonnie, I so enjoy your newsletter and happened upon this essay, even though it was posted a year ago.

    My 11 yr old son is a lot like the stereotypical “absent-minded professor”—he’s quite brilliant but forgets basic things. Does his homework and receives an F because he never turned it in. I just read your most recent post that said not to sweat the small stuff, but this small stuff adds up and causes him a great deal of frustration.

    I’ve read so much that says to steer away from external motivators, but I wonder what you thoughts are on using a chart just to help him remember things. I remember my own mom struggling with how my head was “always in the clouds” and I would have appreciated learning tools to help my dreamy self stay organized and successful.

    Reread this, I’m basically asking for permission to create a chart. I guess to untie it from reward and punishment is the key—I don’t know if he’ll use it without some incitement but I suppose that is up to him. I’ll have him help me make it, so he can list the things he wishes he wouldn’t forget…I’d like to hear your thoughts on this. Thanks!

  2. Deirdre – I think charts can be very useful when they are done WITH the child and focus on what HE wants to learn or what habit SHE wants to break. The struggles come when the chart is all about the parent’s agenda to get the child to do what the parent thinks should be done. I think your ideas on how to do this are right on. Just make sure you follow his lead and that you are helping him with what frustrations he would like to get rid of.

  3. Bonnie, Although this post is a few years old, it couldn’t have come at a more perfect time for me. I am learning so much about my 10 year old son by just opening my eyes a little differently these days. The battles that have surrounded homework have been so discouraging and disappointing as we believed he was having them intentionally. His comment to a teacher the other day of “why should I?” when asked to pick something up spoke volumes to me about what is going on in him. I finally heard and listened to his words. I have now realized it is my job as his parent and the job of his teachers to show and teach him “why he should” do his schoolwork and get him to buy into this concept and reap the benefits and the pride he’ll have of himself when he does. Until now, he has felt his efforts are futile. I have always known that it’s the “intrinsic” motivation that is going to guide him, I hadn’t realized how much the extrinsic motivation would stifle that. I know in my heart and my gut that he can do the work, his pride hasn’t lasted long enough when he does to carry him on to the next task. My son has given me a remarkable gift, the gift of looking at him (and others) through different eyes. Why shouldn’t I? Thank You once again!

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