How to Help Your Child to Learn

First, I have to include a disclaimer. This opinion is only my personal opinion as a veteran English teacher of thirteen years.  In my observations, this may help students to make the next step toward learning how to learn.

Some students try to claim that their “mom” or “dad” changed a word in their essays or told them to correct an answer on a grammar worksheet, and my reaction is always the same, “Is your mom or dad participating in my class?”  When they answer, “No,” I say, “Then why are they doing my assignments?”  It is entirely unethical for a parent to correct a student’s mistakes in his or her math homework, narrative essay, Social Studies project, etc.

A scenario:
#1: Johnny and Sally attend the same class with the same teacher at the same time, and they have an essay due tomorrow.  Both students go home to put the final touches on their work.
—Johnny’s dad insists upon reading the essay, finding all of the spelling mistakes, grammar problems, and punctuation errors with an angry red pen and then telling Johnny to make all the corrections.
—Sally’s mother does not have the same philosophy.  Sally’s mother says, “I noticed that you have an essay due tomorrow.  Is it finished?”  “Yes,” Sally replies.  “Mind if I have a look?” asks Sally’s mother.  While reading the essay, Sally’s mother notices some errors but avoids marking them specifically.  She uses a pencil to make a few question marks in the margin if any areas seem unclear.  Also, when she finishes, Sally’s mother writes a few things on a Post-It note: “Check for tense problems. Remember to stick to one tense. Also, you have at least seven spelling errors.”
—Johnny stays up late trying to understand his father’s markings.  Even after his revision, he must show his father again, and if it still doesn’t meet his father’s requirements, Johnny toils away.
—Sally gets a good night of sleep after working for a reasonable amount of time and searching for those seven spelling errors by herself.  The next day, both students submit their essays.  When the teacher grades them, he notices the unusual word choice and sentence structure in Johnny’s essay, but he is unable to confront it (other than his awareness that a parent has been giving too much help).
—Sally’s essay is quality work, and although she has a few errors, she shows progress since the last essay assignment.  Sally earns a B+ and unfortunately, the teacher must give Johnny an A because he is unable to find a way to force Johnny’s father to allow Johnny to become an independent learner. Johnny’s skills, when he works by himself in class, are equal to Sally’s skills, but the work that comes from home has been unfairly influenced.

This poses a problem for teachers, and it should be an ethical concern of all parents. We all know that Johnny’s A isn’t a fair grade in comparison to Sally’s B+ because the teacher had to give the grade to the combined work of Johnny and his father, but Sally worked all by herself.  Sally’s mother made a choice to point Sally in the right direction without doing the editing for Sally.  She understood that editing Sally’s paper is incredibly debilitating for a student because that student will never learn to find her own mistakes.  When they work in class, Sally is totally practiced when it comes to editing, using a dictionary, and scanning for logic problems.  She works independently with great focus.  Johnny is extremely needy, asking for help every three minutes and unable to see his own mistakes.  His self-esteem is weak, and he constantly asks, “Can I just work on this at home?”

Three years later, they both start a new class with a new teacher.  Sally meets each challenge with confidence, accepting any mistakes that she makes and learning from them.  Johnny is terrified because his father has a new job and works late every night.  The first few assignments go poorly for Johnny, and he begins to freeze in class.  He has never learned to focus in class because his father always “re-taught” the work at home, and now, with his self-esteem crashing, he develops a resentful attitude, blaming anyone but himself and choosing to wait for someone to help him rather than helping himself.

Imagine if parents stopped to tie a child’s shoe every time without ever telling the child, “You are old enough to do it yourself.”  Though it breaks our hearts to see them struggle with the loops and laces, we know that it is better to let them try by themselves, and in the long run, they will succeed.  The kids who drag their laces around all day are sometimes the kids whose parents were constantly tying their shoes for them, and now, at the age of twelve, those kids still consider laces to be “too hard” while everyone else has mastered that skill.

Dear Parents: Please let your child become an independent learner.  Of course, we want them to be able to collaborate with their peers as well, but independence is key in most situations.  Influence them in positive ways without damaging their ability to teach themselves.  Defer to teachers when it comes to your child’s progress.  Teachers know how much help is just enough, so they know what to mark and when to send the student off by himself to find his own mistakes.  If you feel that your children need extra help in a particular subject, send them to their teachers.  Help them learn the confidence to ask the right questions for help.  Require that they attend extra help sessions before school, at lunch, or after school if necessary.  Do not edit their papers.  Do not check to see that all of their answers are correct.  You are hurting more than you are helping (most of the time), and sometimes, you tell them the wrong answers (kids claim this every week of my career).  Also, at this age, they will fervently resent your micro-managing of their education, and this will damage your relationship with them.  They will learn to hate learning, and that is not something that I can accept.  I love learning, and it is my goal to teach that, more than anything else, more than commas or spelling or literary analysis, every day of my career.  Please help me, and thank you.

There are many articles like these online.
http://www.terrificparenting.com/parenting-problems/dependent-learners.htm
http://debrabell.com/2011/07/the-dependent-learner-what-can-i-do/

 

6 thoughts on “How to Help Your Child to Learn

  1. Xinyu Xing
    October 15, 2013 at 6:09 am

    Great article and great parenting strategy. It is very helpful to me. Thanks!
    My daughter is in your DRAMA6 class. She loves it. Thanks for motivating Her!

    1. October 20, 2013 at 10:44 pm

      Hello and Thank you! I hope it helps.

  2. Sreyanka Angajala
    October 17, 2013 at 11:32 pm

    Hey Mr.Oncay,
    This is Sreyanka Angajala from your 6th period class, I was wondering who won the Oncademy Awards.

    Thanks,
    Pd.6 Sreyanka Angajala 2016

    1. October 20, 2013 at 10:45 pm

      Hi Sreyanka,
      I can tell you next week. Just visit! :)

  3. Clarissa
    September 21, 2014 at 1:57 pm

    Yes, we do believe in this philosophy. We want our child to be an independent thinker and take action independently — but how do you motivate them to try harder?

    1. September 30, 2014 at 1:08 am

      That’s a great point. Believe me, after fifteen years in the classroom with students of all different levels of initiative, I still don’t have a magic trick. It’s a different method for every student. The most general answer that I might give would be “praise the small successes.” It sounds too simple, but I have found that being caring but firm, with a firm “line” allows students to make a choice to take initiative. They can choose A) try hard and earn praise or B) don’t try hard and earn a consequence (small). Whenever they stay on track or even surprise me with some extra initiative, I praise it highly. They grow to crave these opportunities for praise and try a little harder each time. Once they have a new skill nearly mastered, I lay off the praise so they can start working on the next skill. It’s a delicate balance to make sure that the praise is worth something to them, so I use it sparingly and authentically, and I avoid extrinsic rewards. For a parent, it has to be tough considering so many other responsibilities for the teen (like waking up on time and doing chores and such), but I’m a firm believer that having other responsibilities (chores) helps a young person learn to be motivated. Do them successfully? Happy parent. Ignore them or invest minimal effort? Small, immediate consequence (like no video games for a week). Their choice. The lesson tends to lend itself to school work over time. I think that most of the literature on this topic is not super helpful, but most of it supports the idea that that every student is a different puzzle, so we work each puzzle as it comes. I wish I had a better answer to that one!

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