When we think of school, the first thing that probably comes to mind is academics.
Is my child learning how to read? The principles of mathematics? The basics of science so that she may one day become a biologist?
Schools are heavily focused on these kinds of subjects, but there’s more to school than just academics. Academics are important, but there are behavioral components of success that, when learned, can make children much better students.
For example, does your child know how to motivate himself to get started on homework right after school instead of first spending hours on video games?
Does he know the right way to think about challenging assignments and situations so that he’ll learn more?
Does he know how to regulate his emotions so that he’s mentally healthy and sociable at school?
Let’s take a look at several key skills that parents and instructors should consider teaching their kids in order to build happy and high-achieving students.
1. How to keep procrastination at bay
Dr. Carl Pickhardt writes for Psychology Today that
“By the end of high school, one common behavior that leads teenagers into a lot of stress is procrastination — the act of putting off schoolwork, college or job applications, or other demands as long as possible.”
We already know that it’s difficult for students to learn when they’re stressed. There are lot of stressors that may add pressure on students. Some of these stressors can’t be controlled, but some — like procrastination — can be.
Just like it’s advisable to start children early on healthy eating habits, it’s also a good idea to teach them good habits in averting procrastination.
Break it up
Children often see a homework assignment or project as one long task. This can make assignments (especially long ones) seem arduous.
Show them how to break up assignments into logical pieces so that they have easily reachable milestones to attain. Each time they hit a mini-goal, they’ll feel more enthusiastic about continuing.
As James Clear says: tiny milestones, more momentum.
Show them how to reward themselves
One problem students have is homework always seems like pure drudgery. But it doesn’t have to be.
Piers Steel, PhD, a renowned researcher on motivation and procrastination, writes in The Procrastination Equation:
“A principal problem with procrastinators is that they tend not to reward themselves after completing a task, often failing to appreciate their own hard work.”
There’s no reason homework has to seem completely unrewarding. Short of showing them how to appreciate homework in its own right, perhaps we can show them how to pair work with praise.
Teach your child to never discount the power of self-talk: According to Dr. Steel, a silent catchphrase (like “Atta girl!”) can go a long way in pushing your student toward the end goal.
Your child can also administer her own reward. A little bit of chocolate after finishing homework, for example, might do the trick.
As Dr. Steel says:
“The technique is called learned industriousness: people can learn to love their work. You see, the enjoyable emotions generated by self-praise and other rewards tend to creep backward into the effort itself.”
For mission success: Keep distractions out of sight
If you want to stick to a diet, it’s far easier to do it when you keep the M&Ms out of reach.
In the same vein, it’s easier to avoid the urge to procrastinate when distractions are kept out of sight.
Did you know that new research suggests that just by having their phone out, a student might be distracting himself from accurately completing complex problems?
To avoid the temptation to avert focus from schoolwork, your child may want to put away anything distracting and avoid working in distracting areas. That way, it’s more likely that he’ll avoid common student horror stories of watching “just one YouTube video”… and then going on a video-watching spree for hours.
2. Encourage a growth mindset over a fixed mindset
Can our words affect how hard our children try? The answer: Yes, they can.
Dr. Carol Dweck is a psychologist who has studied motivation for 30 years. In studies published in 1998, Dweck and a colleague gave test questions to several hundred fifth graders.
Once the students had finished 10 questions, the researchers offered praise.
However, they gave students two different types of praise:
- For some of the kids, the researchers praised them based on intelligence: “Wow… that’s a really good score. You must be smart at this.”
- For other kids, the researchers praised them based on their effort (which Dweck refers to in some respects as “process”). “Wow… that’s a really good score. You must have worked really hard.”
What happened afterward?
“Those congratulated for their intelligence … shied away from a challenging assignment — they wanted an easy one instead — far more often than the kids applauded for their process. (Most of those lauded for their hard work wanted the difficult problem set from which they could learn.)”
And what happened when the researchers gave the students difficult problems anyway?
The kids who received praise for being smart got discouraged faster and lost confidence in their abilities, and their scores went down even on problems of comparable difficulty to ones they had solved before.
On the other hand, the kids who received praise for their effort retained their confidence throughout the tougher problems. The cherry on top? They scored even higher on the same sort of easier problems they had solved earlier.
Fixed vs. growth mindset
What’s the difference-maker in the example above? It’s mindset.
Dweck makes two distinctions between a fixed and growth mindset as applied to intelligence:
- People with a fixed mindset think that intelligence is something you’re born with: You get a certain amount and no more.
- People with a growth mindset believe that you can grow your intelligence.
The problem, Dweck says, is that when students see “being smart” as a fixed trait, they do everything they can to keep looking smart, even at the expense of taking risks to learn new things.
Better, Dweck says, is a growth mindset. Students with a growth mindset view hard work as a welcome challenge; they don’t see it as a threat to their intelligence. The offshoot is that they pursue new, difficult problems with enthusiasm — and they learn more in the process.
Teacher Larry Ferlazzo writes for Education Week that we can use Dweck’s research to guide our interactions with our children:
- “Establish high expectations (not just high standards).” This shows that you expect your kids to reach for stretch goals instead of sitting on their laurels and playing it safe to look smart. When you set high expectations, you make it clear that you want your kids to grow and that you believe in them.
- “Create a risk-tolerant learning zone.” Kids learn from mistakes, and they’ll learn more if they’re given the space to make mistakes safely and grow from them. Instead of stifling the opportunity to make mistakes, embrace and welcome it. Your home or classroom will be a more vibrant place because of it.
- “Give feedback that focused on process.” Ferlazzo writes that it’s best to focus on “things students can control, like their effort, challenge-seeking, persistence, and good strategies — not on their personal traits or abilities.”
- “Introduce students to the concept of the malleable mind.” You may want to introduce your students to the Dweck’s research on fixed vs. growth mindsets. Instill in them a sense that success is not just attainable for “the smart kids,” but that every child has the potential to be successful and grow by bounds and leaps as a student.
3. Build social and emotional skills
With tremendous focus placed on academics, it’s easy to lose sight of an important idea: School isn’t entirely about academics.
If your child attends a school with other kids, she’s going through considerable social development every day. She’s learning how to interact with her peers, how to play nice, how to make friends, how to deal with bullying, and so much more.
When kids are taught how to succeed in terms of social and emotional development, they become happier, healthier students. One way students can achieve this sort of growth is through social and emotional learning (SEL) programming.
In her book 8 Keys to End Bullying, social worker and school counselor Signe Whitson writes:
“Studies by the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL, 2011) clearly show that effective SEL programming drives important social outcomes such as positive peer relationships, higher levels of caring and empathy, increased social engagement, and reduction in problem behaviors such as bullying.”
There’s an academic benefit to SEL programming as well:
“What’s more, students who receive SEL programming academically outperform their peers and graduate at higher rates.”
One reason for this is because learning is also a social activity. For examples, students learn through hands-on instruction from their teachers as well as interactions with their peers.
Here are a few areas of SEL programming Whitson notes about bullying that can also be applied to kids’ social development in general.
As Whitson writes, “All kids have feelings.” It’s a natural part of being a kid, but parents and educators can equip their children with the tools to deal with emotions in a healthy and productive way.
Here are a few helpful tips from Childhood 101 on how children can manage their emotions:
- Take three deep breaths or count slowly to 10.
- Use my words to say how I feel and what I wish would happen.
- Ask for help to solve the problem.
According to Dr. Laura Markham, it’s helpful to let your child know it’s okay to seek help, and among the best ways to do that is by soothing them and letting them feel connecting to you.
You may also want to teach your child the basics of mindfulness, a practice that will help your child notice what they’re feeling. Mindfulness can help your child regulate his emotions when he’s upset.
In an individualistic world, it’s easy for us to think only about ourselves sometimes. But being able to see things from someone else’s perspective is an important skill for everyone, and especially children.
Empathy is one of the most powerful tools to prevent bullying, and it’s also important for “pro-social” behavior, a term psychologists use for actions that help individuals make friends and keep strong bonds. When children can walk a mile in another’s shoes, they’ll be better suited to connect with their peers.
Here are a few ways you can develop empathy in your children:
- One of Whitson’s suggestions is to create role-play scenarios in which a child pretends she is one character with a set of views and then “flips” character to one with an opposing set of views. Ask the child to express how she felt playing each of the roles and ask her how she better understood each character’s viewpoint.
- Richard Weissbourd and Stephanie Jones of the Harvard Graduate School of Education suggest discussing ethical dilemmas with your children. For example, “Should I invite a new neighbor to my birthday party when my best friend doesn’t like her?” or “Should I tell my friend if I know her boyfriend, who is also my friend, cheated on her?” This helps teach your child how to consider other perspectives and understanding others’ feelings.
Problem solving and conflict resolution
Parents with more than one child are probably no strangers to conflicts between kids. Maybe there’s only one candy bar left, or more than one child wants to use the home computer.
But disagreements are a natural part not only of growing up, but of being human. And the better equipped children are to deal with conflict, the better equipped they will be to handle the bumps life throws their way.
Here are a few things we can do to teach our kids how to solve problems among themselves:
- According to Beth Kimberly of Playworks, using “I” statements — such as “I feel unhappy when you don’t let me use the computer” — teaches children how to “identify their emotion instead of blaming others.” “I” statements are effective in allowing children to express how they feel while steadily coming to a resolution to a conflict. Using “I” statements is a staple topic of instruction in training camps around the world, and for good reason: it works. It can work too for your children.
- Teaching children how to focus on the win-win resolution can work wonders. Not every situation has to have a loser, and kids can learn how to come up with amicable agreements with guidance from adults. For example, if two children want to use a computer, a win-lose situation would be if one child gets to use the computer for the whole day. But a win-win solution would aim to let each child share screen time equally.
Whitson mentions in her book that assertiveness is a key skill in allowing children to deter bullying.
Through assertive communication, bullies learn that a student does not intend to be a victim. Bullies are adept at sniffing out when a potential victim is emotionally vulnerable — such as when the victim is angry or fearful.
But assertiveness radiates confidence — a daunting roadblock for any would-be bully.
According to Margarita Tartakovsky, M.S., assertiveness “helps kids have healthy relationships and a solid self-esteem.”
At its core, assertiveness means sticking up for your rights while remaining respectful of the rights of others. Kids can be assertive at all times and to different types of people.
Here’s one of Tartakovsky’s examples of a child being assertive:
“A child is waiting in line for the water fountain and a classmate pushes her out of the line. She responds by going back to her place in line and talking to the person who pushed her … She might say calmly and confidently, ‘I think you wanted to get in line ahead of me, but I was waiting here and was ready to take my drink. You can get in line right after me if you want, but now it’s my turn.’”
Raising an assertive child or teaching students to be assertive means your children will speak up for themselves and tell you what they want.
Contrast that with a passive approach (not speaking up about their needs at all) or an aggressive approach (possibly throwing a tantrum about what they want), and it’s clear what’s more effective.
Try these methods for teaching assertiveness:
- Katie Hurley for All Parenting writes that it’s a good idea to talk to your children about their rights. She suggests sitting down with your child and creating a list: “Start with the basics: You have the right to say no and you have the right to feel and express anger. (These are a great place to start.)” Going over their rights helps your children know that you’ll always support them if they want to stand up for themselves.
- Liza Blau for Livestrong writes that you should teach your child that his opinions are valuable. Asking for his input on daily matters, no matter how small, is a great way to teach this. Blau writes, “You might ask, ‘Which would you prefer for dinner — chicken or meatloaf?’ or ‘What color do you think I should paint the living room?’” Asking for your child’s opinion will show him that he shouldn’t be afraid to speak his mind.
Last but not least, making friends is always incredibly important for kids.
According to Millie Ferrer and Anne Fugate of the University of Florida, “Research has found that children who lack friends can suffer emotional and mental difficulties later in life.”
Not only do friends make getting through school much easier for kids, but they’re also essential for their social and emotional development.
That said, the more we can give kids tools to build vital friendships, the better.
- Ferrer and Fugate recommend giving your child opportunities to interact with other children. Inviting playmates over or placing your child in classes or sport teams give your kid the opportunity to practice social skills with a diverse array of peers.
- Dr. Eileen Kennedy-Moore for Psychology Today writes that kindness is an excellent way for children to start friendships. Kindness works: According to Kennedy-Moore, children who are kind are “usually well-liked by their peers.” (Kennedy-Moore cautions, however, that kids shouldn’t confuse kindness with buying friends purely through gifts.) Show your child the building blocks of kindness, including respecting others, being open, and demonstrating reciprocity.
- Jessica Efird for PBS Parents suggests helping your child “understand how to build and maintain a conversation.” Barbara Boroson, an autism spectrum educator, adds: “Remind kids to look for connections between what was just said and what they will say next.” Like many other things, conversation is a skill that can be improved. The more you talk with your children, the better they’ll get.
All in all, implementing SEL programming education for your children may be one of the best ways you can help your child succeed socially in school. The benefits are wide and varied, from standing up to bullies to making friends.
Wrap-up: The skillset to succeed
We’ve just looked at three skills that are generally not taught in school but which can be crucial to a child’s development:
- How to stop procrastination in its tracks
- Learning more through a growth mindset over a fixed mindset
- Tools for healthy social development and interaction with peers
These are all great skills that can boost students’ performance in school. And they can excel in those skills with the help of the nurturing adults in their lives.
With patience and an eye for guidance, teachers and parents can help their students succeed in more ways than one. And our children will be much better off because of their efforts.