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Grade-schoolers have a lot going on in the classroom: They have to learn new things quickly, navigate complex social relationships, and be more independent and responsible. Children learn all about their strengths and their shortcomings, too. That's a lot to shoulder emotionally, especially for such young people!
Here's what you can do to help your child build the resiliency she needs to foster a love of learning – in school and beyond.
Be active in your child's education.Get to know your child's teachers and the school staff – they know what's going well for your child and what's difficult. If you have time, volunteer in class, get involved in the parent-teacher organization, or chaperone field trips.
Give meaningful praise. Seeing your face light up when your child creates something or tries a new activity is wonderful encouragement. But try not to gush about how talented or smart he is, or focus too much on the end result. Instead, give praise that recognizes the effort: "You put so much detail into your drawing!" Be curious about the process to show you appreciate the work. Ask questions like "How did you choose the colors?" or "Was it hard to get the pieces to stay together?"
Have faith. Understand that your child is doing his best. He wants to learn, but it may not always be easy. If your child is struggling, and you think the problem could be a social or emotional issue, talk with his teacher about what's going on and come up with ways you can both encourage your child.
Don't scold your child by saying things like, "You must not be working hard enough!" Judgments like this trigger feelings of shame, which can cause lasting psychological harm.
Ask (and entertain) questions
Ask about your child's day. By recalling and sharing what she's learned at school, she'll reinforce her knowledge, practice speaking skills, and build her confidence and self-esteem. Ask specific questions to get insight into how your child is doing at school. Instead of asking, "How was school today?" try focused questions like, "Who did you sit with at lunch?" or "What was the hardest thing for you today?"
Welcome curiosity. You may be tired of constantly answering questions like, "What do spiders eat?" or "What color do you get if you mix green and purple?" But responding to your child's natural curiosity encourages her to seek answers as she pursues her interests throughout her life.
Talk about feelings. Encourage your child to talk about his school fears so you can ease his worries. Many grade-schoolers get anxious about tests, grades, speaking in class, or social situations. Anxiety can trigger physical symptoms, like stomachaches and headaches, and it can get worse over time if you don't address it.
If your child's anxiety persists or if it interferes with the ability to function at home or at school, talk to your child's doctor or a school counselor. Each can refer you to a licensed therapist who specializes in helping children.
Be positive. You may have bad memories about your school years – many people do. But your child will have his own experience, and it will be a more enjoyable one if you both keep an open mind and a positive attitude. (If you're having a hard time with this, try talking to a friend or consider seeing a therapist.)
Get support at school
Ask for help. If your child is struggling in the classroom, bring your concerns to her teacher, and ask what kind of support might help, like a tutor, practice at home, or extra reading to explain a complex subject. Make sure your child understands that everyone needs help sometimes – it doesn't mean that something is wrong with her.
Build relationships. Check with the teacher about opportunities for your child to work with classmates she gets along with. Doing school activities with a friend lets each child support the other.
Outside of school, arrange playdates with children in her class – the more fun she has with them, the more likely it is that she'll be enthusiastic about school.
Build support at home
Provide structure, rules, and routines. Consistency helps your child know what to expect and what is expected of him – which makes it easier for him to succeed. Be as consistent as possible with routines around meals, bedtime, and other daily activities. As homework becomes routine, sit down with your child to work out a general plan for managing assignments. For example, you could agree that homework needs to be done before screen time. If he has a say in the plan, he's more likely to cooperate with it.
Identify and promote values. Think about what values are important to your family – and not just the ones related to academic achievement. Make sure that your family values and expectations are clear, and that you reinforce them with your words and actions. For example, if you value empathy and kindness, praise your child for acts of caring and generosity as much as his academic achievements.
Make time to listen. When your child wants to talk about school, give him as much time and attention as you can. Being an active listener shows you respect his thoughts and feelings. This boosts his confidence and makes it more likely he'll keep talking to you as he gets older.
If he's not a big talker, encourage him to open up by listening attentively, mirroring what he says to show you understand, and responding with empathy rather than judgment. "It sounds like it was frustrating to have to wait so long for your turn," rather than "You need to be patient and wait your turn."
Model empathy. Showing your child how to be sensitive to the feelings of others lays the foundation for lifelong fulfillment and success. On the other hand, lack of empathy is linked to such problems as cheating and bullying as well as mental health issues like depression and anxiety. But research shows that kids who learn to share and help others in the early grades are more likely to graduate from high school and to be fully employed later in life.
Build independence. When your child is learning new skills, let him set the pace. This isn't always possible in school, but if you let him be more independent at home, he'll bring more confidence to the classroom.
Let him do it. Of course you can tie his shoes faster than he can, but give him a chance to try it first himself and ask for help if he needs it. Don't point out errors unless he wants you to. For example, if he's reading aloud and asks whether he pronounced a word correctly, let him know, but don't interrupt to correct him.
Learn from your child. Letting your child teach you what he's learning reinforces his own knowledge. Young children often love this kind of role-play, and it's a real confidence booster as well.
It's also a fun way for you to find out what your child is learning in school. Ask questions to help him build on what he already knows and increase his confidence at the same time.
Recognize that play is important. Play is the "work" of early childhood. It's the way your child learns to organize his thinking, solve problems, and practice new skills. Make sure he has plenty of unscheduled time outside of school to deal with these new challenges through free play.
Limit screen time. Studies show that children who spend a lot of time in front of screens are more likely to get lower grades. Screen time takes away from activities that are critical for healthy social and emotional development, such as exercise, reading, and spending quality time with family and friends. Be thoughtful about how your child uses electronic media: Choose high-quality programs, games, and apps that are appropriate for kids, watch with him whenever possible, and set consistent limits on screen time.
Appreciate individuality. Some children focus better when they're quiet and still, while others need to move around. Some like lots of help and feedback, while others prefer to work independently. Pay attention to what works for your child and do what you can at home to support this, like setting up a desk in a quiet corner of the house or letting him to listen to music while he works.
Push the limits. Whether he's learning to ride a bike or getting ready to sing in the school play, teach him that learning is about stepping out of his comfort zone and trying new things. Whenever possible, let him choose activities driven by his own curiosity, creativity, and interests.
Learn from mistakes. Instead of correcting mistakes, encourage your child to keep trying – and cheer him on until he until he gets it right. Mistakes are an important part of learning, and the process of trial and error builds on itself.
Susan LaCroix is a writer, editor, and psychotherapist with a private practice in Berkeley, California. She specializes in providing support to individuals and couples during pregnancy, postpartum adjustment, and the transition to parenthood.