Dr. Rachelle Theise, licensed clinical psychologist and assistant professor at the New York University Child Study Center, helps explain ways to develop a self-learner who will achieve long-term success.
To instill a love of learning, you can begin to stimulate your child's curiosity from a young age. During preschool, this might mean providing the child with enough free time to explore the outside world, play with new toys or encounter unfamiliar surroundings like the zoo. As children grow older, feed their curiosity by encouraging reading for pleasure or pursuing interests outside of school. Try to engage them in open-ended conversations by asking questions such as "Why did you like that book?" or "What did you do at school today?"
The demands of developing an independent learner will evolve as your child matures. When your child is young, Dr. Theise recommends a technique called "scaffolding," which involves building upon and extending your child's learning and cultivating his or her interests.
"While playing with your child, find ways to extend learning just enough to help him or her get to the next level. If your child says, 'It's a fish,' you could say, 'Yes, and fish live in the sea and like to swim,'" says Dr. Theise.
When your child reaches middle school, take on a support role by alleviating the stress of schoolwork and refraining from demanding good grades and high performance.
In teaching children to become independent learners, parents need to maintain the difficult balance between helping children with their homework and doing the work for them. Consider making a rule that the child must attempt to solve a problem independently two or three times before asking for help.
How do you know how much involvement is too much?
"If parents are so involved in the assignment that they become stressed or anxious, a boundary has been crossed in which the emphasis is on results instead of learning," says Dr. Theise.
The ability to build on concepts mastered earlier is essential to becoming a self-reliant learner. Try to encourage incremental learning — the ability to master a basic concept before moving on to the next. For example, if your child is having trouble with long division, suggest that he or she review the necessary basic skills like doing multiplication tables. When children begin to view learning as absorption of concepts rather than as memorization, they gain the confidence and the ability to tackle new academic challenges on their own.
Constant encouragement is essential to developing confidence in learning, but the key is to praise your child's effort rather than his or her personality or achievement.
"Rather than saying, 'You're a smart boy,' try saying, 'You worked so hard to figure out that problem,'" recommends Dr. Theise.
Remember that not all moments of achievement are clearly defined. Demonstrating consistent effort or an understanding of concepts is just as worthy of celebration as receiving a high test grade.
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