This article appears in Make the Grade 2018.
Talking to a child about why it’s important to get good grades in school can be met with nods of agreement or rolled eyes. It doesn’t matter if kids know you want them to succeed, they have to have the motivation to do it for themselves.
“Motivation is one of the biggest challenges in education. Many factors combine to encourage us to work hard, pursue goals or aim for success, or to do the opposite,” said Joan M. Rooney, vice president for instructor management at The Princeton Review and Tutor.com.
External factors like income level, subjects being taught, the ability of the teacher and other social influences play a role but don’t make a big difference.
“The one factor that is most influential in helping us to succeed is confidence,” said Rooney, a former classroom teacher and parent of an adult son.
She’s not referring to an unrealistic sense of self-worth but rather a belief that if students work hard and do their best, they are capable of succeeding. A student needs to have the knowledge that he will not succeed at everything, but if he doesn’t try, how will he know what he is capable of, she said.
“I would advise parents to do whatever they can to foster in their children this perspective: that what is important is that I work hard and that I try,” Rooney said. “Foster this attitude toward their studies, school and life in general. In current terms, this is what is known as promoting a growth mindset and sense of self-efficacy.”
Fail until you succeed
“We need to help our kids understand that failure is a stepping stone on a journey and not an end result. Everybody fails, and not just once. What is great about failure (although it does not seem so at the time) is that we learn from it and we try again,” Rooney said.
Sharing past stories of failures in and out of school and failure stories of famous people helps children understand that failure can be a helpful part of life, Rooney said.
Avoid bad attitudes
What is not helpful for kids is if a parent says, “I was never good at math, either” or “I am terrible at foreign languages.”
These types of statements create “a fixed mindset, which sets us up for failure rather than success,” Rooney said.
Make it relevant
“Relevance is a critical part of successful learning. We achieve deeper learning when what we are learning has some meaning for us,” Rooney said.
Stay abreast of what your child is studying in class and find ways to incorporate what you can into everyday activities.
— In the car: How many miles to school? What is that in terms of kilometers? Are we getting good gas mileage?
— The grocery store provides lots of opportunities to discuss science, nutrition and math. Which of these soups has less salt, and why doesn’t it say “salt”? How much will this cost if it is 15 percent off? Should we buy the liter bottles or the ounces?
— Home-improvement projects offer opportunities to calculate perimeter and area for new rugs or paint; discuss chemicals in lawn or garden products.
— Vocabulary words can be a challenge for the whole family to use during dinner.
— Events in the news are sources of discussion on topics like voting rights or crime and punishment.
“Activities such as these help kids see that there is in fact a real-world connection to what they are learning, and they also make learning fun and often inspire a desire to learn more,” Rooney said.