Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Making This The Best School Year Yet

Twenty-six years ago, I wrote the cover story of Family Circle's back-to-school issue. It was called something like, "Making This the Best School Year Yet."

If I were writing such an article now, here would be its main points:
  • No parental action can improve a child's school year more than ensuring s/he's in a well-suited teacher's class. If your child is unhappy with the teacher, visit the class. If you agree there's a problem you think the teacher could address, tactfully ask.  If not, visit the other classes in the same grade. If one seems a better fit for your child, ask the principal for a transfer. Don't criticize the teacher. Just say s/he's very unhappy and having visited another class, you sense s/ he'd fit better in that class. 
  • Ritualize homework: It's non-negotiable, to occur at a fixed time each day, and you can be called on to help only when s/he's really stuck. 
  • If your child's social life is poor, play diagnostician. Watch him on the playground and/or when you invite (good) kids to your home for play dates. Offer feedback.
  • For most kids, school is boring. Your child is not wrong in asking, "Why do I need to learn (geometric theorems, the causes of the Peloponnesian Wars, etc.) The right answer is, 
"You're right to wonder about that. The question is whether, in exchange for studying less, you're willing to pay the price: a lower grade. Plenty people with not-great grades succeed in life, but it's a bit harder. I can support your decision to accept lower grades but only if you spend the time you would have spent studying on something constructive: learning something you care more about, starting a business, tutoring a child, but not watching TV, playing video games, or hanging out with your friends."
  • If most of the kids at your child's school are functioning at too low (or even perhaps too high) a level, consider changing schools. Peers may have more influence on your child's development even than you. 
  • A word about students in college and graduate school. My best tip here is that you usually needn't accept the education provided as-is. Adapt it to fit your interests and strengths: Choose your courses and instructors carefully: read reviews on websites such as or ratings published on your campus newpaper's or student government's website. Ask permission to do papers and projects of interest to you instead of the regular assignment. If there's a topic you'd love to learn about that isn't available in a course, ask a wonderful instructor if you could do an independent study with him or her on that topic. 
School and college can be so much more or less valuable depending on whether you make the most of it. Hopefully, these tips will indeed help make this the best school year yet.

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