What You Need to Know About Your Child
An informational piece for parents about what they can do to help their child learn.
Greetings and welcome to the first ever Parents as Learners column.
I have been involved with education for the last 18 years, as teacher, a private tutor, a life-long learner, a mother of three school-aged children, a graduate school instructor for teachers—and am absolutely able to empathize with anyone who is balancing family and career.
While my life is already quite busy, when the opportunity to educate the community as a freelance writer for Hillsborough Patch presented itself, I felt it was important to take it on—as if I didn’t have enough to do.
Seriously though, as a teacher and a learner, often times I am asked by parents and friends what they can do to help their child in the classroom. So I pitched this idea of “Hey, why not write an article that shares that kind of information with all parents so that we can all help our students to become successful learners?" So here I am—ready to do just that.
First off, let me say that I am not a scientist, but someone who enjoys reading about the latest research. Some of what I write may be obvious and some of what I write may seem trivial, but there is a reason why it’s important, and I intend to share those reasons with you.
The children of the 21st century are a unique group where information is at their fingertips, networking is a must and collaboration is a key to their future. I am sure those of you who currently have children in school have noticed that what students are learning now in seventh grade was not what we learned in seventh grade, or sixth, or ninth or 10th. In this day, what our students are required to understand and are responsible for knowing is certainly not what many of us were expected to know or do in our school days.
I remember having the “letter people” visit our kindergarten class and we learned our letters and sounds in kindergarten. We learned our sight words in first grade, although I don’t think we called them that term.
The curriculum has, in a sense, been pushed down—what was once a topic in 10th grade, is now a topic in seventh grade. Children are expected to know how to read sight words in kindergarten. It is happening across the country, whether it be in the classrooms of New Jersey or the classrooms of California. Information is being delivered to our students at a quick rate, and many students are struggling to keep up.
I love it when I hear someone say “But I taught it.” My response always is “But how do you know if your students have learned it?” After that I ask, “What did the student do to learn it?”
Many times I hear students say they looked over their notes, read over their notes, maybe reread the chapter in a book—often times not very effective. As we start a new calendar year, understanding what our children need to do in order to learn is a key to helping them learn.
To launch my column, here is my top-10 list of important things a parent should know to help their child learn:
10. Sleep—According to David Sousa, an internationally known educational consultant and brain research expert, adequate sleep is vital to the memory. When we sleep, the brain reviews information learned during the day, storing the information more securely than when we originally processed the information. So how much sleep does a teenager need? Teenagers need about nine hours of sleep a night. Yes, you read that correctly...nine hours of sleep. And while this may seem like an impossible feat, trying to add any extra sleep to your teenagers’ night will be beneficial.
9. Reviewing Information BEFORE Falling Asleep—Because the brain reviews, processes, and stores information while sleeping, reviewing new information learned that day before falling asleep is a great way to prime the brain for this unconscious learning and storing of information. Many times, teachers tell students to look over their notes daily and review what was learned in class each night—now you know why teachers say this, so why not try it.
8. A Hungry Student—Hunger is a giant roadblock to a child’s learning. Often, I hear parents say that their child has a difficult time concentrating later in the day. My first thought usually is could the child be hungry, or what did the child eat for lunch? These are two very important questions. If a child is hungry, he can’t concentrate. If he can’t concentrate, then learning obviously becomes more difficult—if not impossible. The brain needs glucose for fuel. Fruit, whether fresh or dried, is an excellent source of glucose. Fruit drinks don’t count though— they contain fructose that doesn’t really provide much energy to cells, according to Sousa.
7. Drink Water—Drink plenty of water!! Water is the vehicle for that natural sugar from the fruit to get into the bloodstream faster, and it hydrates the brain.
6. Be the Learner—Next time your child has a test or quiz or new information, ask him or her to teach it to you. Because he or she is doing something with the information by teaching it to others, approximately 90 percent of that information is retained 24 hours later. Compare that to about 10 percent retention 24 hours later when the method used is just reading the information. As Sousa says, “whoever explains, learns." Be the audience and she will learn.
5. Why Homework?—Good question. Homework, meaningful homework, is meant to help the learner practice a skill over time. According to brain research, repeated practice causes the brain to assign extra neurons to a task. Assigning those extra neurons to a task helps reinforce the learning. Practice doesn’t make perfect, but it does make permanent. Think about the baseball player who practices for hours—perfecting his swing, his stance, his elbow position—just to increase his batting average by a few points. Homework requires the same type of dedication. It is the practice before the big game. If your child doesn’t understand how to do something and neither you're unsure too, please don’t fake it. If you teach your child the wrong thing, it will stay with them, and make the real learning even more difficult. My suggestion—if your child is old enough, have him send an email to the teacher explaining that he just didn’t know how to do the homework and could the teacher help them in class tomorrow. Remember, practice makes permanent. Doing something wrong over and over again only makes it more difficult to correct.
4. Emotions—What happens outside of the classroom DOES affect what happens inside the classroom. Having a positive start to the day will of course lead to a more positive learning experience. When a child feels good about something, there is a physical reaction that takes place in the body. The feel good endorphins are released into the blood and parts of the brain that are responsible for feeling good are stimulated. On the converse, negative emotions lead to cortisol being released, which raises the anxiety level and causes the brain to go back to its basic function: is it flight or fight? An argument with a best friend, a fight with a parent, cyber-bullying on social networks, things just not going as planned that day the night before, or even the class before can affect child’s learning, according to Sousa. Teaching a child how to respond to someone and confront in a non-confrontational, face-to-face way may be the lock that needs opening for learning to occur.
3. Why POP Quizzes Are Good—Pop quizzes are frowned upon by students, but they are truly an indicator of knowing if they've learned the information. If a student learned something and not just memorized it for a test, then a pop quiz should be no problem. If you encourage your child to review those notes regularly, even when there is no formal assignment, it will add to the true learning experience.
2. Learning Styles—Each of us learns in a different way, whether by seeing, hearing or doing. If your child learns best by seeing then creating posters and hanging them in obvious places is a great idea to reinforce new information. Maybe your child learns best by hearing. In that case, listening to the information a second or third time might be what she needs to learn. And if your child learns best by doing, perhaps creating a rhythm or a dance or a cartoon to represent the information is what is necessary.
1. Sense and Meaning—In order for a child to learn anything, it must make sense and have meaning. Let me share a personal example of this with you—my husband and I have been married for almost twelve years. Up until last spring, I had absolutely no idea what kind of soup he liked. Every time I was planning to buy soup, I would have to ask him what kind of soup he liked. I shared this story with a group of teachers at a graduate class and decided that I had to do something about this. So that night, before leaving for the grocery store, I asked him what kind of soup he liked. As I was shopping, in the soup aisle, I could not for the life of me remember what kind of soup he liked—I had to call him to find out. Then I realized, okay, his name is Art and he likes split pea soup—Art and pea both have three letters in them! That made sense to me. See, I do not like split pea soup, at all. I NEVER make split pea soup. So in my mind, I don’t eat it, I don’t like it and never will so I couldn’t understand how he liked it. It turns out that once I was able to trick my brain into remembering it, it was no problem. If something doesn’t make sense—why would anyone like split pea soup—and it has no meaning—I certainly do not like it—then why would I remember it? Our children need to know that what they are learning has some relevancy to their world and it is at a level that they can understand.
So I leave you now to ponder these thoughts and probably form some new questions. Stay tuned for next week’s column.