Gentle Learning: Back to School Tips for Parents

Amanda slumped further down in the dining room chair, staring at the spelling words. Through clenched teeth, her Dad repeated: "Come on, Amanda. You can do it. Let's go over these words one more time. You wan is in the morning." Amanda bolted for the steps and the safety of her bed. She needed no further encouragement to end this day. Her Dad moved to his favorite chair in the living room, and collapsed. "I think you better tuck her in," he sighed in resignation to his wife who had intentionally stayed out of homework time. "She's heard enough from me for today." As school begins again, the challenge of encouraging without badgering begins for parents. Rapid change and the growing complexity of our society lis in the morning." Amanda bolted for the steps and the safety of her bed. She needed no further encouragement to end this day. Her Dad moved to his favorite chair in the living room, and collapsed. "I think you better tuck her in," he sighed in resignation to his wife who had intentionally stayed out of homework time. "She's heard enough from me for today." As school begins again, the challenge of encouraging without badgering begins for parents. Rapid change and the growing complexity of our society leave no doubt about the importance of learning. Management literature has embraced the notion of "life-time learning" as the only way for companies to stay profitable and for employees to keep up and in some cases hold on to their jobs. Every day conversations with friends makes it clear there are a wide range of approaches to supporting our children as learners. Some of us recall our own experience as children and how our parent(s) were involved in our learning. If our parents were passive and non-involved, we might become overly zealous, a bit like Amanda's Dad. If our parents were on our case all the time, perhaps we become more hands-off about homework and accepting of less than best effort from our children. If we went to a "Big Name" college or university or know someone who did, perhaps our goal is to make certain our child has that opportunity. Perhaps when we are honest, we admit that some of our zeal for success in education comes from our own needs. A friend I supervised for a number of years regularly reminded me: " People don't care how much you know until they know how much you care." Children can sense when our passion for their excellence comes from our need to "look good" through their success. Like most parenting, our hearts are a better compass than our minds. Here are some principles I've found helpful in supporting learning for myself and my children:1) Build from strengths (bold) We each have innate abilities and talents. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to help them recognize their unique strengths. Gentle exploring and loving observation and listening provide us a lot of clues when we make time to pay attention. Activities that capture a child's time and bring joy are great clues to interests and abilities. Encourage and support the development of these interests and abilities.2) Avoid torture (bold) It's great when learning is fun. Skillful parents, like great teachers, actively use their creativity and imaginations to make learning as much fun as possible. A friend whose daughter likes to draw makes cue cards for spelling each week. Sometimes learning is work. Gentle firmness with attention to positive and negative consequences to getting the work done go a lot further than angry words and screams of frustration.3) Rest before you get tired (bold) Self-help writer and educator Dale Carnegie made this a central tenet of his internationally acclaimed training program. My most awkward and regrettable interpersonal moments have occurred when I tried to communicate something important or difficult at a time when I was too tired to do it well. Learning takes energy. We all work better when we are rested. If you have a lot of struggles with homework, try a new time when you and your child are more rested.4) Respect differences in learning (bold) There's a whole body of knowledge about how children and adults learn. We don't all do it at the same pace or in the same ways. Some children appear to be a year or two behind other children their age when it comes to taking new risks or trying simple things such as sledding down a little steeper hill. With patience and acceptance, most kids make it to the bigger hill, usually faster than if we badger them. Pay attention to how and at what pace your child seems to learn best. Accept, encourage and celebrate that way of learning.5) Encourage, encourage, encourage! (bold) A few years ago I took a leadership course that involved giving and receiving feedback. I noticed I was much more tuned in to what wasn't right and to helpful suggestions on how others could improve. One day the instructor asked me which I preferred -- positive or negative feedback? A big light bulb went off. I prefer praise and encouragement and recognition, like most humans. So do our children. Give them large liberal doses of praise and encouragement. It's the best fertilizer in the world for learning.6) Teach a "no-lose" approach to learning (bold) Avoiding failure at all costs is a hard way to learn. While its easy to repeat the old saw that we learn the most from our mistakes, it's not always easy to look for the lesson in our setbacks or disappointing scores or grades. Yet a philosophy that allows us to look for the good and the lesson in all experiences is more apt to lead us to our real gifts and talents than a win/lose or pass/fail belief system. A great way to teach "no lose" is to quickly admit our mistakes and share the lessons we learned with our children.7) Be open to taking a new road! (bold) It's easy to lay out broad principles that make common sense to most of us. It's a lot harder to be at the kitchen or dining room table at homework time night after night and try to put them in practice. If no matter what we try, homework time remains difficult and painful, then something needs to change. Perhaps there's a need for an honest look at why we are pushing so hard. Or perhaps some professional testing or guidance might help you and your child identify her or his learning style and pace and get better results. Listen to your intuition and let it guide you to the help that is right for you.Fear is a big obstacle to learning. It comes in a lot of forms -- fear of failure, fear of success, fear of being different, and many others. As adults, we bring our past and current fears about learning to how we guide the learning of our children. One of the greatest gifts we can give our children is to be open ourselves to talking about our fears and barriers to learning and to role model openness and a desire to be a life-time learner.Our time with our children is precious and fleeting. Learning and growing together is at the heart of our relationship with and responsibility to our children. Consistent, gentle learning allows our hearts to help us give our children the greatest gift of all -- a recognition of their unique talents and interests. Enjoy the journey!Sidebar Resources on Homework and Learning"Parents as Tutors: Helping with Homework", by Carl B. Smith A short video and booklet available at some libraries or through EDINFO Press at 1-800-925-7853."Smart Start for Parents" A video about learning and creating a positive environment for learning available through 1-800-LETS-LEARN (1-800-538-7532)."First Steps", "How to Help Your Child with Homework" and other publications A video, book and booklets available through Educational Productions at 1-800-950-4949.United States Department of Education publications -- 1-800-USA-LEARN"Surviving Homework: Tips form Teens" by Amy Nathan, The Millbrook Press"A New Generation of Evidence: The Family is Critical to Student Achievement", Anne T. Henderson and Nancy Berla, editors. This and other education related publications available through the Center for Law and Education. Call 202-462-7688 for a free catalogue.Frank Thomas, MSW (pen name) writes on topics of personal growth and organizational management and leadership.

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