Parenting Parenting Tips

Four Tips for Being Your Kid’s Cheerleader at School

by Sarah Berthiaume

Navigating the sometimes rocky road of learning

I tried to do it right.

We started right in reading books together and letting him watching all those “early learning” shows that used to be called cartoons back when the rest of us were little. Today’s shows aren’t for dummies. In between all the fun, my little guy was learning his numbers, colors and how to be a good friend — big important stuff.

Then, some of the nicest nursery school teachers around reinforced all these lessons, snuggled him when he was homesick and let him haul his favorite stuffed bear along to school every day.

But as Pre-K, Kindergarten and First Grade stacked up, the work got successively tougher for him. We had been very careful in choosing a school, checking out different sites like to make sure we found the right fit for him. Even so, it somehow seemed like the harder I worked to make school exciting, the gloomier he got.

When people asked him what his favorite part of school was, he always said recess and my bookish heart would break a little.

Teachers passed him along each grade, saying his grades were fine, completely middle-of-the-road, average. But my instincts, and all the homework drama, told a different story.

Finally, a couple months into second grade, my son hit a wall with his reading struggles. And finally, a teacher saw it, too. But her recommendation — coast through that year and repeat it again. Meanwhile, Second Grade homework was causing excessive drama every night, taking more than an hour to slog through. Tests were coming back with 40s because he couldn’t read them. Reading a book required bribes. And finally, threads of bullying seemed to be seeping into the stories I heard coming back from school.

Our whole family was exhausted.

As a mom, I had cheered. I had pushed. I had even tried positive discipline to help my son learn. I had talked to the teachers when we had concerns, and at the end of the day, I had trusted the professionals.

That’s not a bad thing. But I learned, it’s not always the right thing.

Here are four things I learned from our school quandary.

Listen to your kid’s heart

What was really going on behind that homework drama?

This is what I struggled with most. Is it just a bad day? Is it just that they don’t want to sit still and do homework? That they’d rather do anything but read?

I messed up so badly by not listening to my son’s heart. Granted, he does have a natural flair for drama (that he may or may not have inherited from me), but if I had done a better job of listening over time, I would have heard the truth: it wasn’t really about his dislike for school.

The real story was closer to this: he didn’t like school because he needed extra reading help. He’d needed help for a long time and he hadn’t been getting it. That frustration piled up and spilled out in other areas.

He didn’t know how to tell me all this and I didn’t listen closely enough. The end result: a giant pile of frustration that had been building for years.

The good news is: there are resources and help out there. Most of the time, you just have to ask for it and not give up until you get it.

Maybe your resources include talking to someone you trust for advice or finally going to the teacher and asking for a better learning plan. Or maybe it’s just giving you and your child extra space together — space that includes more donuts and chocolate milk and fewer assignment books and homework papers.

After breaking into my secret stash of chocolate, my resources included teary hugs and walking around the big mall with just the two of us. And then, finally, taking action.

Listen to your instincts

Not all kids learn the same way. Some of us are happier tallying up a pile of numbers; some like spinning stories. No matter what our natural bent, every road will have bumps.

As parents, we have to assure our kids that school work is part of life and so is not understanding how to do that school work is sometimes. It’s OK to ask for help. What’s not OK: getting overlooked and not getting the help that’s needed.

Sometimes, even parents need extra help figuring out how to help our children. It’s not always easy to know when to hover close, when step back, when to demand change and when to wait a little longer for things to work themselves out.

In this article for Great, Psychologist Richard Selznick said parents shouldn’t buy into the common line that says students will just “grow out” of their struggles at school and eventually settle into the routine. These early struggles, if not addressed, can set them back academically, he said.

Teachers have plenty of parents telling them exactly what they should be doing. But if your instincts are telling you your child needs more help, make that appointment. It’s OK to pull a (polite) Mama Bear move and be more insistent with teachers. Be honest. Tell them you’re worried. Ask them for what you think your student needs.

Know when to hang on

If you’ve asked for help at school and don’t hear back or don’t get answers right away, don’t give up.

It’s too important.

I was raised to be polite and respectful. I felt like the professionals always knew what they were doing. In my case, all that happened was I ended up with a son who had all but given up on school by the end of first grade and homework nights that reduced us both to tears.

The moral of my story: there is a happy medium between respect and demanding your way.

And the truth is: most teachers want to work with you. They want your student to succeed and be happy in school. They want you both to be on the same team.

It’s important to recognize that teaching today is a tough job, says Janet Lehman, in this parenting article. And in most cases, they’re supportive of parents who are trying to work with them, she added.

Even if the situation is academically hard right now and you’ve had it up to here with all the homework drama, be respectful when you tackle the issues at school. (Trust me on this one.) The situation isn’t going to change overnight, but making an ally in the classroom is your best chance of getting there over time. Plus, it never hurts to be the teacher’s favorite.

Know when to quit

Elementary school is so much more serious than it was back in the day and maybe that’s for the better, but all the added school standards and testing can add a lot of pressure for students.

Some fit into this bookish schedule without a kerfuffle. Some rock the gym class routine like nobody’s business. Either way, give your kid credit for who they are. Not all kids are the same. All that really matters is that they’re doing their best.

And then, when they’ve done their best all day, give them a break. Stick up for your kid when homework gets overwhelming. (Find out the limits for homework time in your state.) Encourage them to work hard, but don’t be afraid to pull the plug if they’ve worked long enough.

I come from a long line of non-quitters. We hang in there to the bitter end. But this experience taught me that it’s OK to quit sometimes.

After years at the same school, we ended up requesting a special waiver for our son to attend public school outside our home district. It was a scary decision. He had been going to a school that I’d gone to as a kid with teachers I’d known my whole life. We were leaving everything familiar behind; he’d be a new kid on the block.

But we did it all in hopes of something better.

The end result: one of the most gut-wrenching decisions we’d ever made has turned into the best so far. And the reading issues? Well, he hasn’t started War and Peace, yet. But there’s always Third Grade, right? 😉


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Sarah Berthiaume
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Sarah Berthiaume, a freelance writer who lives in the Maine woods, spent close to 10 years covering community news for a local paper before she became a full-time mom. Now, she divides her time between scribbling stories, finding new family adventures and snuggling her persnickety Schnauzer.

About the author

Sarah Berthiaume

Sarah Berthiaume, a freelance writer who lives in the Maine woods, spent close to 10 years covering community news for a local paper before she became a full-time mom. Now, she divides her time between scribbling stories, finding new family adventures and snuggling her persnickety Schnauzer.

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