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Help Your Child Do Better in School

"American children must be ready to learn from the first day of school. And of course, preparing children for school is a historic responsibility of parents."

Former President George Bush

Some children do well in school. They learn quickly and remember facts. They "catch on."

Some don't do so well. They have trouble paying attention. Their grades are poor. Yet they may be as smart-or smarter-than their successful classmates.

Why the difference in performance?

It may not be a question of I.Q. but of behavior and attitude. Research has shown that these qualities affect success in the classroom.

Successful students behave in certain ways. They have the "right" attitude. They're motivated. . . they pay attention. . . they've relaxed. . . they ignore distractions that might interfere with learning. And, when they need help with schoolwork, they know how to get it.

None of those things are inborn, but they can be learned. And you, as a parent, can help a child learn them.

Office of Educational Research and Improvement (OERI)   offers four steps children can take to become better students. They are for children of all grades. They will sound simple, because they are. But they can make a world of difference to your youngsters.

You can teach your children strategies for the four steps:

  • Paying attention
  • Keeping interested in schoolwork
  • Learning and remembering
  • Studying

Paying Attention

Children can learn the knack of paying attention. Never threaten or order them to "pay attention" in school as it won't work! Some simple techniques will. They are:

  • Using self-talk and positive images. Children can use words or phrases to help control attention. For example, they can tell themselves to keep their eyes on the blackboard while the teacher is writing on it to explain a problem. You can help them practice positive self-talk at home in various situations: when playing a game, helping around the house, or working at a hobby.
  • Help them stop negative self-talk ("It's hopeless" ), and to be positive about themselves, to say, "I can do it." Positive self-talk might include the slogan: "Quitters don't win and winners don't quit."
  • No more negative images, either! Children can and must learn to see themselves doing well in school. Tell them to picture themselves answering questions correctly in class and feeling good about knowing the answers. Spend time talking with them about their successes (as well as their difficulties).
  • Asking questions. This helps children focus their attention while studying. When reading about World War II, students might ask themselves "Which countries were our friends and allies? Which were Germany's? Which countries did Germany occupy?"
  • You can suggest general questions to a child, such as: "What is this paragraph about? Who did what and why? Is the main point true or false?" Asking questions can grab wandering attention.
  • Setting specific study goals. Your children can set goals that will help improve attention. Ask them to study a lesson until they can tell you the main point of the paragraph. . . or solve a specific math problem. . . or know specific names, dates, and places mentioned in the text. Discuss each goal. Remember that many small goals, one after another, are better than a single large one.

Keeping Interested

Learning is a joint effort. Everyone must help if students are to learn. Teachers are responsible for teaching and parents for parenting, but students must realize that no one else can do their learning for them.

Children must believe that the hours they spend studying and the effort they put into it make the difference between success and failure. Some youngsters believe other things control success/failure-teachers, basic intelligence, or luck. They ignore their own responsibility.

You can help your children accept the fact that their efforts do make a difference. The next time they bring home test results, written comments, or report cards, discuss the reasons why they did well or poorly. Help them relate their efforts to the result.

Do reward a child for improvement. Your praise is music to your child's ears. You might consider treats or trips or privileges for special achievements. Do stress the benefits of doing well in school. Some benefits are immediate, such as having more free time, and some are long-term, such as getting a scholarship or an interesting job.


OERI research has shown that a child's success in school is determined not just by intelligence but by the strategies he or she uses to master many facts and ideas.

Understanding a subject doesn't just happen. It takes work. It requires taking an interest in the subject, and relating new information to familiar information.

Besides teaching the strategies for paying attention, you can help you child use various strategies to remember. You can decide how best to adapt a particular strategy.

Here are the strategies:

  • Making inferences. Encourage your children to try to draw conclusions from the material they are studying. When they are reading about an invention-perhaps the telephone-they could consider what people would do without telephones.
  • Building bridges. It helps children to build a bridge between the new and the old-between new information and things they already know. They should look for similarities between the new and the familiar. For example, a child studying our court system could relate the judge's role in settling disputes to his or her own experience with arguments and disagreements.
  • Finding the main ideas. As students listen or read, they must frequently ask themselves, "What's the point being made here?" By constantly looking for the main idea, they concentrate on learning the important material. This also helps to keep them actively engaged in studying.
  • Categorizing information. Many school activities involve learning and remembering large amounts of information. Sometimes there are long lists of names and dates. When there are many items of information to learn, students should group them in categories. Students in beginning music classes don't try to remember the names and characteristics of every musical instrument, but group them: percussion, woodwinds, strings, and brass. Your children should try this technique in subjects ranging from geography to English to math.


Your children need a place to study. Whether you live in a one-bedroom apartment or a sprawling ranchhouse, you can set aside a study area. It can be a desk in a bedroom or kitchen table. But it must be fairly quiet with good light.

Children also need a time for studying. Help your children create schedules. If they set aside time for chores, work, fun, and study on a weekly basis, they can make better use of their time. These schedules should be flexible enough to allow trade-offs and shifts when necessary.

  • Previewing material. Encourage children to begin an assignment by previewing the material-for example, by reading the introduction to a chapter, the headings, and summary. This is like looking at a road map. Here they create a mental "map" of what is ahead. They complete the "map's" details when they read the chapter.
  • Reading and thinking. When reading the chapter, they should try to fit details into their mental "map." This is the time to use the attention-grabbing strategies-self-talk, positive images, and questions. It helps if they pause before each new section to "test" their understanding. Using the strategies for learning and remembering, they can ask: "What conclusions can I draw from this? How should I categorize the information? Do I see analogies? What are the main ideas?"
  • Taking notes. Children can't remember everything they read. It will help them, though, to take notes of the main points. These notes serve as a summary of the most important points. The act of taking them and reviewing them will help the student to categorize the material, understand, and remember it. And the notes will help in preparing for tests.
  • Self-Testing. Children should test themselves to see what they know and don't know. They can then apply their study time more efficiently to the sections on which they are weakest. You can help by making up test questions, for example, "What are the chief food products of the country being studied? Why? Do we use these in our home?"
  • Preparing for Tests. Encourage your children to prepare for tests by spacing studying over days or weeks. They should make sure they understand the material and relate it to what they already know. They should review it more than once. "Cramming" the night before is not a good idea, and it is important to get a good night's sleep.

OERI's steps to success can help all students-from grade-school to high school. They can help poor students improve. They can help good students get better. We hope they will help your children!


Prepared by:
Office of Educational Research and Improvement
U.S. Department of Education
Washington, DC 20208.

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