Parents as Study Partners: Building an Academic Partnership with Your Child

By: Alexandra Mayzler and Ana McGann

Tutor in a Book

Excerpt from "Parents as Study Partners" in Tutor in a Book

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Middle and high-schoolers face increasing pressure to succeed academically and socially. We recognize that as a parent, you care significantly about how well your child copes with being in such a dynamic academic environment. Understanding your child's attitude toward school and life, and creating a steady environment and routine for a home or school setting strengthens your ability to "partner-up" with your child in encouraging and supporting her academic pursuits. We certainly do not claim to be the next Dr. Spocks of the educational arena—we offer our observations here as suggestions, based on our experiences working with students and their families, which we hope you find helpful in building a strong academic partnership with your child.

Remember when? Taking a mental trip back to school

Although it may seem like your tween or teen wants to do everything with friends and may be slamming her bedroom door shut more often than she is keeping it open, she does still need your guidance and support. Often when starting to work with a new student, we've found it helpful to remember our own emotional and personal state during the teen and tween years. We also recommend this as an effective approach to the parents we work with. Put yourself in your child's shoes and remember how you felt at your child's age about school, yourself, and your life (from a social and extra-curricular context). While some people look back on these years fondly, many of us would prefer not to re-live the awkward years of middle or high school. However, reengaging your own past experiences (especially the ways in which you may have tried to push the envelope academically, socially, and otherwise) will help you related to your child and will make you appear more relatable in the eyes of your child. By remembering and even sharing your own experiences, you can establish a fundamental understanding that you do know that he is going through a tough time and that you are willing to listen or discuss any difficulties he might be going through, and make it an option for him to turn to you if and when he is ready.

Family time: creating reasonable structure, limits, and expectations

At times, it's difficult to know if or where to set boundaries, particularly when it comes to your child's homework and schooling. When you suggest to your child when or how to schedule or do work, you're likely to be met with such comments like, "Don't worry, I'll do it later," or, "Stop telling me what to do. You're not the boss of me!" With our students, we try to underscore the idea that we are working together as a team. If you approach your child with this team-minded tone, he is more likely to respond positively to your suggestions.

Along with daily and weekly schedules, a few family rules will help your teenager explore his freedom while learning to grow within guidelines. It is important to have the whole family create mutually agreeable expectations, and to communicate these expectations to your teen. For example, everyone is expected to sit down to dinner at the table at 6:30pm with cell phones off, no exceptions. It is important that these expectations are consistently reinforced so that your teen can develop a steady routine, despite the chaos of middle school or high school. These guidelines extend to academic goals, behavioral expectations, and social boundaries. Consistency in your rules will ensure that your teen knows what is expected of him, and what consequences there are if expectations are met. He will appreciate being informed and knowing your give him responsibility and accountability, and will be able to establish personal expectations for himself and the world around him. We're sorry to say that the thought, "Maybe Dad was right," doesn't occur until much later.

Begin by creating a structured family routine. Your teen can learn to wisely plan his time and find comfort in knowing that even though each day brings its own challenges, his family and certain routines will always be there. Setting firm, enforced ground rules regarding dinner time, regular homework time, and consistent bed time will create a solid framework upon which you and your child can build. An established structure that your child can easily adapt and work around will allow him to feel some control over his day, instead of feeling that he has been left out of the loop or that his feelings were not considered. A wall calendar to plan out and inform the family of upcoming events and appointments can also be helpful in keeping everyone in the loop.

Hello, is anyone there? Establishing open communication

Within the established general schedule, it's also helpful to set aside "check-in" days and ask that your child come to you regularly with updates on school and extracurricular activities. For example, schedule to sit down for a snack and just chat about what's going on at school. Rather than just questioning her at every meal, setting aside a designated, agreed time and asking her to come to you will encourage her to communicate with your. If your child is reluctant to talk about himself, doing a neutral activity together on a weekly basis, such as walking the dog, can help stimulate conversation. Encourage your child to discuss homework, classes, upcoming tests, friends, and activities. If she has mentioned a particularly difficult class or assignment, then make sure to follow up. It is also important that these "check-ins" are judgment-free. If your daughter feels you are being critical, she will be less likely to come to you when she is struggling. This can also help avoid the emotionally charged reaction of, "Mom, you just don't get it!"

Allowing her to test her independence doesn't mean that she won't appreciate having you as a safety net, even though it is likely that she will deny that she still needs her mom or dad. As your child matures, it becomes increasingly important that she take on a part of the responsibility in the decision-making process for her academic career. In order for her to learn and continue to grow, she must be allowed to make mistakes and do things in what might possibly not be the most efficient way.

While it's hard to keep from instinctually catching her from each stumble she makes, it is important to keep in mind that you made it through the various trials of middle and high school, and so will your child. We've found in our own teaching and mentoring experiences that the best way to establish a mutually trusting and respectful relationship (particularly with regard to academic decisions" is to make recommendations based on your knowledge and experiences. Discuss your suggestions in depth with her, and allow her the opportunity to and encourage her to come up with some solutions on her own. In doing so, you show confidence in her intellectual abilities, potential for growth, and capacity to make the right choices for herself, and by extension, enhance her self-confidence.

While emphasizing an approach to learning based on mutual respect for one another, it is also necessary to be realistic about how much your child is willing to share with you. While he might appreciate your asking how he feels about his work in science class, or which teacher or class he enjoys most, it's important to recognize the fact that he may leave out certain facts that have to do with his own behavior and circumstances. For example, you might find out that he dislikes a particular teacher because "she is always picking on me," but fail to mention that this "picking on" is a direct result of his being seated next to his best friend and talking in the middle of lectures or presentations. Keep in mind that you're likely only getting a fraction of the whole story, and refrain from prematurely judging a situation. This also extends to a child's opinions and comments on how she is being graded "unfairly" by a "really touch teacher." Your child is likely to volunteer certain portions of information freely, while knowingly leaving out pieces that complete the whole picture, such as the fact that she forgets to write down the homework assignment for the tough teacher's class.

Conference calls: your child in a greater academic context

The incredible emphasis on good grades is a very heavy burden for any student to carry, and students can be quite sensitive to receiving lower-than-expected marks. Talk to your child about what and how she can improve in classes, rather than focusing on blame for what has already happened.

As the school year progresses, be aware of the challenges your child may be facing. Does she seem to struggling with math class? Is she having trouble with a particular teacher? Is she constantly arguing with a group of friends? If your child's behavior has changed or you start to see dips in her confidence or performance, make sure to recognize and work toward a solution that the whole family has a part in. Let her know that you aren't only interested in hearing about the good, but that you're also available to help her or find others who can provide support. Many times, arguments and miscommunication occur over poor grades because of frustration and fear.

A productive conversation with your child focuses on asking how she feels about receiving the grade, how or why she might have received it (with your filtering out the opinionated statements regarding "harsh graders"), what and how she wants to improve, and finally concluding with how you might be able to help. Avoid questions about how your child ended up with such a low grade and defensive responses. If you would like to establish a relationship with your child's teachers, it is important to talk to your child about it. Though you certainly do not need the permission of your son or daughter to speak with his or her teachers, informing your child of your intentions is helpful so it doesn't feel like you are going "behind his back" or "spying on her" just to make sure that he or she is staying on track. He will be more likely to open the lines of communication if he knows that he is part of the dialogue.

Your child also needs to understand the importance of self-advocacy and seeking help. For example, if she is having trouble with a class, point out that she can get help by working with a teacher, tutor, or friend, and is she is struggling with social problems that she can chat with the school guidance counselor, a family friend, or cousin. Let her know that feeling overwhelmed is normal for everyone and that she doesn't have to handle stress alone. Consider the boundaries of your relationship and acknowledge that you may not be able to fix all of your child's problems, but that you can help her seek out support.

Study buddies: helping with schoolwork

Some students are comfortable with asking for help while others are reluctant, as it can be difficult for students to admit to a parent that they are struggling. Encourage a mutual learning environment. For example, consider setting up a study space where you do your work or reading while your child does his homework. That way, if he has a question, he will be more inclined to ask. When your child does come to you with questions, be flexible and patient in your explanation. It is important to keep in mind that there are different methods of introducing material, especially if your child tells you that you're teaching him the wrong way. Remind your child that just because you learned it a different way, doesn't that that it is wrong, and ask your child to teach it to you his way. Use the resources provided by his teacher and together look through examples. Rather than just teaching or reviewing a concept, discuss with your child how he could find the answer or where he could look to review.

As we'll discuss in detail in the following chapter, each student learns in an individual way depending on his or her strengths and weaknesses. You may find yourself surprised that what you thought was easy in school, your child struggles with, while other topics that you still find difficult to wrap your head around make perfect sense to your child. The way that we learn and the speed at which we are able to learn varies greatly from person to person. An awareness of your own learning tendencies, as well as those of your child, will allow you to recognize when she is overwhelmed or struggling and help you in being a helpful study partner for our child.

From Tutor in a Book, Copyright © 2010 by Alexandra Mayzler & Ana McGann. Used by permission of Adams Media, an F+W Media, Inc. Co. All rights reserved.