Education report: Parents can help children retain enthusiasm for learning

Parents need to help their children stay focused on how important their education is.

A funny thing happens to our children on the way to becoming educated: they may lose their zest for learning.

I listened in awe this summer as my 5-year-old great niece told me how excited she was about starting kindergarten this fall. She is intelligent and enjoys learning, as do most kids her age. Thanks to her parents, she already knows her ABCs, can count to 100, spell her name and read and write a few words and simple sentences.

If she is lucky, she will be identified as developmentally advanced and placed in a class with students of similar ability. If she is unlucky, she will identified as brighter than normal by her teacher, who will then set about constraining her natural enthusiasm for learning to fit the teacher’s classroom structure.

Instruction in a classroom where several dozen students are vying for attention has to be structured. This structure, however, tends to dampen the free-ranging enthusiasm young children have for learning.

Children like my niece must learn to sit quietly while others in the class learn what the rest already know. Teachers, of course, make every attempt to accommodate the different learning styles and readiness levels of children. Nevertheless, slow-to-grasp children may still fall behind while their classmates become bored.

Growing challenges

As children age and mature, their interests and attention change. Children learn many new and exciting things during the primary grades (1-3) and then, gradually, some begin to find the subject matter or demands of the teacher challenging. School work begins to test their personal work-reward ratio.

The basic concepts of reading, writing and arithmetic give way to more advanced concepts. Advanced reading requires learning new, often strange, words and paying more attention to nuances of punctuation. Writing makes similar demands on children’s skill level. Mathematics now involves more than addition or multiplication tables. Students are asked to learn formulas and solve equations.

Not only is the level of everything ratcheted up, but so is the speed of instruction. And the teachers now seem less willing to repeat or re-teach material. Pay attention, take notes, learn it now or fall behind.

Some parents may notice learning problems in the upper elementary grades, but many won’t see learning problems or lack of enthusiasm in their children until middle school. It is here that students experience a new teacher for each subject, one who has more subject-matter expertise and, perhaps, less patience for laggards.

Around this time, parents complain to teachers and counselors, “My child was doing just fine until this year!” The implication is that something is wrong with the school or the teacher because their child was an A student until this year.

The problem is focus. Sports seem important. Members of the opposite sex seem important. Getting a job seems important. Getting a car seems important. Making the cheerleading squad seems important. Purchasing a cellphone seems important. And to a teenager, these things are important! But parents need to help their children stay focused on how important their education is.

Money for grades

Parents do this in part by constant reminder. (Kids call it nagging.) Parents have to look for every opportunity to relate education to what children want. For example, iPods cost money. Earning money requires a job. Getting a job requires training, an education. In lieu of a job, offer your kids money for grades. School is their job right now; let them earn more by doing more.

I know some people are opposed to paying for grades, but you have to remember that grades are one of the few things children have to barter with, at least for the time being. Besides, what’s the difference between awarding cash for grades and awarding praise for grades? You are still giving your child something you have for something he or she wants.

Regardless of the approach you use, stay involved in your child’s education and stay alert for signs that he or she is becoming disenchanted with some aspect of school. That’s the time for you to become proactive. Move aggressively to let your child know how you feel about education and then do whatever it takes to get your child focused and back on track.

Use your parental influence to help your child maintain the excitement for school and learning my great niece now has.

Charles Cummins, Ed.D., is a retired school administrator. Send questions to him at: [email protected]

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