When our children are little, we’re very conscious of our job as “first teachers.” Yet once they enter school, we tend to abdicate this role. But the fact is, home life encourages school success. What time your child goes to bed, whether she eats a good breakfast, how well she gets along with her siblings, and even how easy it is for her to find her backpack when she needs it affect every aspect of her well-being, including academic performance. What can you do at home to help make your child ready to learn?
One thing’s for certain: kids don’t do well with chaos. They also don’t do well with a structure so rigid that there is no room for their own quirks, personalities and preferences. The challenge we face as parents is to create an environment in our homes somewhere between the two.
Think this is an easy task? Think again. A specific routine or rule that works for one family doesn’t always work for another. And what helps one child might be counterproductive for a brother or sister. Most parents do find, however, that a predictable daily framework benefits all the kids in their family. Just like adults, they usually work better when they feel organized and on top of things instead of confused. An added benefit is that settled rules and routines eliminate the on-the-spot decisions and arguments that wear parents — and kids — down. When they whine, “Can’t I stay up a little later?” it’s easier to respond, “The rule is eight o’clock bedtime on school nights,” than to argue.
Get Set the Night Before
Being prepared for the next day before going to bed gives parents and children alike a settled feeling. For one thing, it’s more relaxing for kids to go to sleep knowing that they’ve taken care of business. And it makes mornings more pleasant. Here’s the routine that works for us.
What my kids do: They check assignment sheets to make sure they haven’t forgotten anything, then pack their schoolbags and leave them by the back door. When they were younger, I packed their lunches and left them bagged in the fridge. Now they do that. They choose what to wear the next day and lay it out.
What we do together: We take a look at the calendar for the coming day, which reminds us of any appointments, lessons, assignments that are due, sports practices, after-school activities or field trips, so we can gather equipment or make driving plans. A paste-it note placed on the front door the night before is a great way to remember to bring in your clarinet or field-trip permission slip. We also listen to the weather report. If it’s going to be raining, we get out umbrellas and slickers. If it’s going to be cold, we dig out the mittens.
What we do at bedtime: Everything goes more smoothly when we keep to a regular bedtime routine on school nights. The time and routine will depend on children’s ages. Regularity is the important thing. When children are little, the routine might include reading a story, hearing a special lullaby and turning on a night light. Older kids might choose to read in bed on their own for half an hour. Some children take baths or showers; others, especially older ones, wait until the morning. But if that means four people will be competing for one shower, work out a rotation in advance.
We all want our children to go to school rested, awake, and enthusiastic about and equipped for their day. But without careful organization and enough time between the alarm clock and the school bus, you can end up with a manic morning that gets everyone off on the wrong foot. Try these get-it-together strategies instead.
Rise and shine: After many experiences of yelling up the stairs for children to wake up, we gave each of our boys an alarm clock. You’ll find, as we did, that the sooner kids get used to being responsible for waking themselves, the better your morning will be. Some parents start this in third grade; others wait as late as fifth. If your children like to lie in bed awhile, set alarm clocks half an hour ahead.
Allot enough time: Cramming down a piece of toast on the way out the door to the bus is not a great way to start the day. Not all kids like a big breakfast, but they’re likely to eat more if they have time to dawdle a little. Many busy parents also try to have enough time in the morning to do a pleasurable activity with their children: reading a book, starting a puzzle, even just chatting over a bowl of cereal. This is especially helpful to younger kids who are feeling reluctant about leaving.
Create a calm atmosphere: One friend of mine, a mother of two, always plays CDs of classical music while she and her family are having breakfast. “I read somewhere that children who listen to Mozart while they’re studying do better on tests,” she says. “I don’t know if it’s true, but in the morning it sure beats television.” In fact, many parents ban morning television watching altogether.
Make Plans as a Family
Even if your child takes a break before beginning homework, it’s a good idea to establish certain habits the minute he or she walks through the door. Always putting your backpack and papers in the same place — in your room, by the garage door or on a designated hook — avoids those “I-can’t-find-it” wails when kids are ready to do their work.
Older children need to check their assignment books to remind themselves what their workload is for the day and whether they have any long-term projects to start or continue. This way, they can decide if there’s time to go out and shoot a few hoops or ride their bikes before buckling down again.
Keep a Family Calendar
All parents know how hard it is to manage schedules for more than one person. Many families post a month-by-month calendar in the kitchen or family room along with school and team announcements to help them keep track of where every child has to be and when. One family I know with three children uses a different color marker for each family member. Music lessons, soccer games, a big report on monkeys due in three weeks: all should go on the calendar, and everyone should check it regularly. Review the week ahead on Sunday evenings.
When children are young, home and school are the two most important parts of their lives. What happens at one usually affects the other. On the home-to-school route, our children carry both family problems that worry them and family values about learning. Kids are barometers of their environment, and when things are good, it’s easier for them to do better in school.