Read an Excerpt
from the Introduction: How to Get the Most Out of This Book
Here is the most important test question you will ever have:
A parent's best strategy to promote school success is to:
a) Terrorize children by threatening them with failure and loss of promotion to the next grade.
b) Humiliate children by comparing them to other kids with better scores.
c) Exhaust children by engaging in frantic last-minute test preparation.
d) Build, nurture, and empower children by giving them the skills to be confident and capable learners.
If the last choice appeals to you more than the first three alternatives, then this book is written for you. You will learn not only how to help your child meet academic standards and succeed on tests, but more importantly, you win learn how to help your child become a confident, capable, and empowered learner.
How Can You Make a Difference in Just 20 Minutes a Day?
AIthough we have not met, I believe I have a good idea of who you are and why you selected this book. You are a busy parent. Whether you work at home, at an office, or on the road, you manage multiple priorities and face many demands on your time. You want to be more involved in your children's education, but some days it seems as if the time required by your other responsibilities leaves little time for a focus on your child's schoolwork. You read the report cards and newsletters and often look at your child's schoolwork, some of which may be on your refrigerator door. You attend parent meetings and school events whenever you can. You read with your child, though not as much as you did during the preschool years. You have heard about academic standards and know that some of the tests required by the state and school district are very important, and you have a nagging feeling that your child should be better prepared. But at the end of a long day, you really don't feel like adding the role of substitute teacher to your long and growing list of duties. Am I getting close to your reality?
Practical Advice for Busy Parents
Your busy lifestyle is the norm, not the exception. Less than a third of children attending school today come from a home of the 1950s' television stereotype with a stay-at-home mother whose principal role is the management of family and nurturing of children. Far more typical is a case in which both parents are working outside the home or there is only one parent in the household, and that person must work to support the family. Even the parents who have chosen to stay at home and make the raising of children their primary goal have a far different routine than Donna Reed and her television counterparts. The caricature of the stay-at-home parent has given way to parents who are active in political, cultural, and social causes and for whom school activities are one of many other pursuits. The fact that these parents earn no money outside the home does not indicate that they are not working. These parents are subject to the same exhaustion, burn-out, and frustration as parents who rise at 5:30 every morning, get children ready for school, work a fun day and more, and return home in the evening to potentially overwhelming demands for help from their children.
Here is the good news: If you can devote 20 minutes each day to helping your children succeed in school, you can make a profound difference in the intellectual development and emotional growth of your child. If you like the ideas put forth here, you may find that the amount of time you spend building confident, capable, and empowered children will be worth more than 20 minutes a day. But make no mistake: Twenty minutes a day, focused on the right questions and the most effective activities, can make a huge difference in the lives of your children and their success in school. We are not talking about aimless discussions and unproductive questions such as the exchange known to every parent:
"What did you do in school today?"
Rather, we offer practical advice for kids and parents. Throughout this book you will find checklists, activities, even letters to school officials that have been written for you. While no one, least of all authors, can take the place of parents, we can save you some time and make your role in supporting school success somewhat less stressful and time consuming.
The path to student success is not without some challenges. Therefore, we will address the requirements for making some reasonable trade-offs and minor changes in family routine. Fair warning: This will involve a little less television and a little more reading. It will involve moving a few chairs and creating the space and time for an effective home learning environment. But our goal is joyful learning, not joyless boot camp. Even as an exceptionally busy parent, you can make twenty minutes into a powerful learning experience if you will commit to three principles:
First, be yourself. Find activities that you genuinely enjoy and with which you can model the creative energy that comes from intellectual engagement with your child. This book contains a wonderful variety of activities that directly support essential knowledge and skills for your child. Although the activities are arranged in the same order as the state standards, you need not go through them in that sequence. Find activities that are engaging, exciting, interesting, and fun for both you and your child.
The second principle that wilt make your 20 minutes most valuable is that you are supportive. Remember the last time you learned a new skill? Perhaps it was a computer program, a foreign language, or a musical instrument. No matter how talented and brilliant you are, learning new things takes some time and patience. No matter how motivated you are, learning requires some perseverance and emotional resilience. Some of the academic requirements for children in school today are as challenging for them as they were for you when you were struggling with and eventually acquiring complex skills. if you can recall the need for patience, understanding, and clarity during your own difficult learning experiences, then assume that those needs apply in exponentially large proportions for your child. An important part of your support is the clarity of your expectations. Two of the most important intellectual skills you will build with your child are reflection and self-evaluation. You will build those skills by regularly asking your child to revise and improve work, whether it is a letter to a relative or a recipe for dinner. Performing these activities will be most valuable if you encourage your child to take a moment to reflect and ask, "What did I learn and how can I do this better next time?"
Third, it is important that you are consistent. Find a regular time, perhaps immediately before or after your evening meal, for your 20-Minute Learning Connection. During this time, the television is off and the telephone answering machine is on. You are giving your children the gift that they need, indeed crave, more than anything else in the world: your undivided attention. The focus that you provide during these 20-minute activities will model the concentration and diligence that you associate with learning.
What Are Standards and Will They Last?
Academic standards have been the single most important movement in education in the last fifty years. Standards simple statements of what students should know and be able to do will continue long after every other contemporary educational fad has expired. While teachers and parents are weary of the "flavor of the month" educational reforms that come and go with the phases of the moon, standards have two qualities that guarantee their success: fairness and effectiveness.
Because so many educational movements have come and gone, it is reasonable to wonder whether standards will follow "new math" into oblivion. The enduring nature of standards rests with the fact that standards are the key to fairness, and fairness is a value that is timeless. Lots of trends come and go in education, but the simple requirement that teachers, students, and parents should understand what students are expected to know and be able to do is an enduring element of education both in the US. and abroad. Every state, and virtually every industrialized nation in the world, has some form of academic standards. The actual content of the standards varies, with some sets of standards emphasizing certain academic areas more than others. But the central idea of standards is consistent from Peoria to Paris, from Florida to Florence, from Los Angeles to London: School should not be an impenetrable mystery, and students have a right to know what is expected of them. Fairness will not go out of style.
Rather than exposing children to a demoralizing environment in which lucky students understand what makes the teacher happy and the unlucky just "don't get it," standards-based schools offer a clear set of expectations. With standards, students, teachers, and parents have the opportunity to know and understand what is expected of every student. Children have an innate sense of fairness. They understand that clarity is better than ambiguity and that consistency is superior to uncertainty.
The second essential quality of standards is that they are effective. When they are properly implemented, school standards have an impact on test designers, curriculum creators, teachers, and school leaders, as well as students. Far from transforming schools into joyless boot camps, effective school leaders use academic standards to make connections to the arts, extracurricular activities, and every other element of school life. Thus standards are related not only to academic success but also to the emotional and intellectual welfare of children. Our desire is to help build confident, capable, and empowered learners. This means much more than drilling students in math and spelling facts (though that is still not a bad idea), and more than asking children to read aloud after dinner (though that is a wonderful family practice). Children become confident, capable, and empowered not only when they know the right answer on a test, but when they have the emotional resilience to persist in learning difficult concepts and when they persevere in the face of challenging, ambiguous, or seemingly impossible test items. Real student empowerment rests not in the futile effort to memorize the answer to every conceivable test question, but on the realistic prospect of developing strategies that can be used on every test in school, in college, and in the world of work and life beyond school.
Connections: Music, Art, Physical Education, and More
Although this book focuses on the most commonly tested academic standards mathematics, language arts, social studies, and science it is important to note that other areas of the school curriculum remain vitally important for your child's intellectual growth and development. Evidence from a number of research studies is consistent: Students who participate in the arts, physical education, and extracurricular activities consistently demonstrate superior academic and social skills. Thus, our focus on academic standards is not intended to diminish other athletic, artistic, and extracurricular activities that enrich the lives of children. In fact, many of the activities in this book combine academic and artistic, or academic and athletic skills.
Stress and Anxiety
Perhaps the most important message for parents is this: Stress and anxiety are communicable diseases. Children are not born with stress about school, homework, and tests; they learn that debilitating stress and anxiety are a part of school. Perhaps these destructive lessons are learned from schoolmates and teachers, but it is far more likely that such lessons are learned at home. No parent intentionally creates anxiety and stress for a child, but our conversations about school particularly our discussions of tests can have such an effect. This is very likely a reflection of the parents' own attitude toward school and testing. Take a few minutes to think about your own experiences and the stress and anxiety you experienced as a student. Most parents can objectively recognize that their school experiences had some good and bad elements. We are far more likely, however, to recall and transmit the parts of school that had the strongest emotional impact, and strong emotional impact in school is quite likely to be negative. The embarrassment over a failed exam, the humiliation as other students laughed, the feeling of despair and rejection when a teacher expressed disappointment -these memories linger far more than a hundred "smiley faces" that we routinely received on schoolwork. Thus, it is the parent, and no one but the parent, who adds balance and clarity to the school experience. The two essential ways in which effective parents add this balance include constructive and accurate discussions about school and the creation of learning opportunities that occur outside of school. The activities in this book are designed to support schoolwork and they will also develop students who are confident and capable. These activities have value not only because they are related to educational standards, but also because they will help to create a learning environment in your home. They will help you model the love of learning that every child must have and which every parent can nurture.
The Most Important Teacher: You
The enormity of the task ahead can be daunting. After all, a parent might ask, "Shouldn't schools be doing this?" it's a fair question. In some cases, the schools can and should do more. But there is one thing that even the best schools with unlimited resources and brilliant teachers cannot do: They cannot be parents. The parents are the most important teachers any child can ever have. This doesn't mean that parents must be experts in every subject or masters of teaching techniques. But only a parent can give a child the ability to say words such as:
"I know that my mom and dad are proud of me."
"I mess up sometimes, but it's okay, because I know I can learn from my mistakes."
"I didn't do as well as I wanted to, but I know how to get better next time."
Only a parent can provide the emotional security and strength of character that build a child who is confident, capable, and empowered. Unfortunately, some parents substitute their own academic expertise for emotional resilience. Every time there is the "nuclear-powered science fair project" obviously done by a parent, the emotional consequence is not pride, but the absolute conviction by the child that "I'm not good enough to do this on my own." The activities in this book will show you how to create a learning environment in which you and your child learn together, make mistakes together, laugh together, and maintain a love of learning amidst all the chaos of daily life, as your child develops independence and confidence.
Copyright © 2001 by Douglas B. Reeves, Ph.D.