Photo credit: Ariel Skelley, Digital Vision/Getty Images
My aim in writing my new book, You, Your Child, and School, was to help parents make sense of the issues and challenges they face in educating their children, and to identify the practical options and strategies they have for dealing with them. Here are eight takeaways to get you started on the road to the best education for you child:
1. You have more power than you may know in educating your children.
Many parents are anxious about the strains and stresses their children face in education these days. They worry about the pressures of testing and homework, about cuts in programs, the risks of bullying, and the costs of college and student debt. More than that, parents often feel powerless to do anything about these things. You, Your Child, and School will help you in two ways: by showing the sort of education your children really need these days and by setting out the four practical options you have to help them get that education. You can accept your child’s school as it is; you can work with the school to make changes; you can look for an alternative school; or you can educate your children outside the current system.
2. Great schools are about much more than chasing high test scores.
Great schools are a dynamic balance between six “elements of excellence”: a broad, balanced curriculum; high quality teaching; informative assessment; flexible schedules; a stimulating environment; and an inclusive culture that engages all students and their families. The quality of education is in how these elements work together and as a parent you have essential roles and significant power in making sure they do.
3. Many young people are often much more stressed than their parents realize.
High levels of constant stress can have long-term implications for children’s physical and mental health. Stress can show itself in anger, irritability, depression, disturbed sleep, and eating behavior. There are many ways to reduce the causes of stress at home. If school is part of the problem, you should discuss your concerns with the school, expect the school to take them seriously, and take practical steps to address them. For example, some schools are introducing programs to alleviate stress and promote relaxation and mindfulness in students.
4. “Real” play has vital roles in the development of all school age children.
Sadly, many schools have been cutting back on recess and free play to focus more time on testing and “core academics.” At home, children are often spending much less time on “real” outdoor play — because of pressures at school, the impact of indoor video games, and parents’ fears for their safety. Losing time for “real” play is counterproductive for children, families, and schools. Real play is unsupervised and self-initiated. It is hands‑on activity, which involves a range of senses — smelling, touching, listening — and being physically active. It includes playing with sand, painting, climbing trees, chasing games, role-play, juggling, and hiding games. Real Play facilitates creativity, curiosity, teamwork, and collaboration and promotes physical health and wellbeing. There are practical ways in which you can work with the school to reinstate time for, and the benefits, of real play.
5. The quality of teaching has a crucial bearing on young people’s achievement.
Great teachers do more than instruct. They inspire, motivate, mentor, and empower. They use a variety of methods and techniques and they adapt them to the strengths, weaknesses, interests, and enthusiasms of the students they work with. Different children respond differently to different teachers and vice versa. Wherever possible, and in the right ways, you should work in partnership with your children’s teachers. If there are genuine problems, a proportionate response is best, starting with the teacher but going to higher levels as necessary.
6. Young people need time to relax and decompress after school.
Homework is becoming an increasingly stressful burden on students and their families. The recommended amount of homework is 10 minutes each day for each grade reached: 10 minutes in first grade, rising to 120 minutes in twelfth grade. The amount of homework given by schools is often much more and the effects can be damaging for students’ development and achievement. If you are worried about the burden of homework, you should discuss the issue with the school and the PTA and press for changes. Some schools are now reducing, and even eliminating, homework altogether.
7. Parents and schools should never stand for bullying.
About a third of American students say they have been bullied at school. Often, they find the experience too painful to talk about. The signs include irritability, depression, excuses to avoid school, missing items, or requests for extra pocket or lunch money. If you suspect your child is being bullied — or is a bully — you should talk first with your child and then with school. The school should have a clear policy and set of strategies for dealing with bullying without stigmatizing the children involved. If not, you and other parents should collectively press for changes in the school’s approach.
8. Parents and schools should limit children’s time online.
Digital technologies offer unprecedented tools and resources for research, creative work, and collaboration. Even so, the excessive time that some young people spend on social media can be isolating, increase peer-pressure, and damage their self-confidence and in face-to-face relationships. Time offline is essential to allow for other forms of work, play, and relaxation. You should agree to a protocol with your child and with the school, which is likely to be strongly supportive.
There is room for change in education, and many schools are changing. Parents’ voices are one of the reasons for that. The key is to develop positive, constructive partnerships between the home, school, and the wider community. Education can be different, and as a parent you have more power than you may know in making that happen.