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Helping Kids Work Smarter for School Success

If your child brings home a test paper with a failing grade, do you ask him why he failed? Asking a child why he failed can lead to responses like, "The teacher's too tough," or "I'm not smart enough." The issue is not that your child needs to be smarter; it's that he or she may have to work smarter.

A better question to ask your child is, "How did you take the test?" You may learn that your child was watching two boys in class pushing each other, and as a result, didn't have time to finish the test. Or he got stuck on one problem and left five undone. Once you know the problem, you can suggest a better strategy or method for dealing with it next time.

In addition to teaching subject‑area knowledge and skills, the more important goal right now in education is to teach kids to operate independently. Students need to regulate themselves to achieve their desired goals.

Self‑regulation is the ability to exercise some degree of control over the learning process. That means controlling the environment, behavior, thoughts and emotions so that the student can be successful. While they can never control everything, students can decide in what areas they can make a difference and control. For example, when a teacher assigns a 10-page term paper on a certain author, there are not a lot of choices. But a student could make a difference by asking to write specifically about one of the author's books.

Students also can take control of a project by coming up with their own strategy for accomplishing the task. Students should ask themselves, 'What's my plan? How am I going to get this done in time? What materials do I work best with? Whom can I ask for help?" Students often underestimate the number of choices and amount of control they actually have.

A student's beliefs about his or her ability to learn are also critical to educational success. Students who attribute success to factors over which they have little control ‑ such as luck or ease of task ‑ may not be motivated to learn on their own. On the other hand, those who believe that success comes from a combination of factors, such as ability, effort and the use of a strategy, may be more motivated to work on learning.

Parents can help their children become successful, self‑regulated learners in these ways:

  1. Help your child set up a home environment that is conducive to study. Make sure she has the materials she needs to do the work. Remove distractions and time-wasters like television and video games from the study environment.
  2. Teach your child how to follow directions. Students should read all directions and review the assignment before actually beginning the assignment.
  3. Make sure your child knows the correct methods and procedures for doing the assignment. Review the steps to ensure that your child knows how to do the work.
  4. Help your child learn to manage his time. Students can estimate the amount of time it will take to complete an assignment and monitor how long assignments take. They can also use time-saving tools like to-do lists, weekly and monthly planners, and an organized work space.
  5. Build confidence in your child. Students who feel they can do well will try even when the work is difficult. Using encouragement and appropriate praise can help stimulate your child's "can-do" attitude.
  6. Teach them to control their emotions and not to panic if test questions are hard. Remind them to stay calm and maintain concentration and focus.
  7. Show them the progress they are making. Point out that they are doing more complicated work now than they were six weeks ago.
  8. Help them learn to ask for help when they are struggling with a particular subject, project or assignment. Some students may need the more active involvement of parents or specialized help like tutoring.

Parents and teachers often fall into the trap of telling students to work harder. But many children already work very hard and still do not succeed. What they need are the skills and strategies to work smarter, not harder.

Source: Dale H. Schunk, Department of Educational Studies, Purdue University. Parent Pages was developed by Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. HD 94


Michelle Leveski
Nutrition Educator II
518-234-4303 x115

Last updated July 10, 2020