What can you do to encourage a classic underachieving child who has the potential but just isn’t all that motivated?
There’s plenty you can do, said Sandy Sincek, the elementary mathematics coordinator for the San Diego County Office of Education who spent many years in the classroom.
Sincek and I spoke recently about ways parents can motivate a child, especially in math. But the advice applies across all subject areas.
Talk about the school day
When your child gets home from school or when you get home from work, ask your child with enthusiasm about her day.
Ask what she worked on in class and then ask follow up questions that will allow her to tell you more. Avoid questions that invite yes or no answers.
If she worked on fractions, ask her to explain or better yet show you what she learned. This will help reinforce the lesson.
If she said the work was hard, tell her that’s OK; sometimes we all have trouble with some school work. Offer to help her, but don’t hover and do the work for her.
“You are acknowledging that they are struggling and then finding a solution together,” Sincek said.
When going over a concept, break the lesson into bite-size pieces. First you do this, second you do this and so on. Kids need an orderly process. This is part of learning how to study.
“Once you teach them how to study, let them study. Give them the skills and let them go,” she said.
Work closely with your child’s teacher
Stay in weekly contact with your child’s teacher. It may be helpful to have a homework contract between the teacher, your child and you. Of you may prefer a contract just between you and your child. The contract can include agreements on how long and when your child will work on homework. You can include details like how many math problems he’ll do or how many pages in a book he’ll read.
Avoid harsh punishment
Repeatedly banishing a child to her room or taking away all her toys or TV privileges is not advisable. Sincek’s advice: Make the consequences fit.
In her 13 years as a classroom teacher, Sincek said she used a progressive scale of consequences. She used a series of colored cards that carried a set penalty. A green card was a warning to behave. The consequences became more severe and included a a missed recess, a phone call to parents or a trip to the principal’s office. Usually, the lesser consequences were enough, she said.
To apply this approach at home. Sincek suggested that you and your child agree on a set of appropriate consequences. When a problem occurs, put the consequences into action. Stick to the order of progression.
“Kids respond to that really, really well,” she said.
Keep in mind your school experience
If you struggled in school, Sincek said to acknowledge that to yourself. “We need to be aware of our own anxiety and ask, ‘Why do I feel that way?’” she said. You can take your history of struggle and turn it into a positive for your child.
And here are a few things you should avoid:
“What you don’t want to do is say ‘I was never good at math,’” Sincek said.
And you should also avoid saying, “I bet you can’t wait until summer and school is out.”
Comments like these, Sincek said, “send a message that even adults don’t like school and don’t like math, so it’s OK if you don’t like it.”
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