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How to be Your Child's Best Academic Coach

Parents juggle a multitude of diverse responsibilities. As children get older and scholastic demands intensify, parents are increasingly pulled into acting as their child's tutor, coach and cheerleader - often a challenging and frustrating role. As a practicing psychologist working with students who struggle academically, I am often struck by how frequently young people are afflicted by inefficient studying and homework completion. Although students are highly motivated to perform well and exert a great deal of effort studying and completing assignments, the long, tough hours they spend working still do not translate into good grades.

I recently tested a bright, verbal ninth grader who had a history of spending hours studying for math tests but still received poor grades. Testing revealed he was an auditory learner who would get overwhelmed with visual information and instead felt most comfortable, and ultimately successful, when words were used to explain math concepts. He felt lost and confused because like most math educators, his teacher used visual cues, in this case, numbers, to explain concepts. Once I shared his learning style with his parents and tutor, they began putting math concepts into words and finding mnemonics for the math operations he needed to perform. For example, before starting an assignment, he developed a written checklist of the steps required to complete algebra problems. He began writing his notes and procedures in words instead of numbers and "talking his assignments out", essentially, discussing his assignments with his parents and reviewing his notes aloud. Once these strategies were implemented, his grades improved. This story of success is not unique to this student. All parents who know their child's learning style can create study habits to build confidence and accomplishment.

Different Kinds of Learners

Auditory Learners

If your child is an auditory learner, he or she is often highly verbal, enjoys reading and excels at creative writing. Auditory learners benefit from being read to or reading the material aloud in order to facilitate retention. They gravitate to words to explain ideas, and benefit from highlighting key concepts, annotating paragraphs and summarizing information on flashcards.

Helpful tools to organize writing include using a detailed outline and talking ideas through. Taping lectures can also improve the student's performance as it gives these learners the opportunity to hear the material over and over again, so that the information can be fully integrated into existing conceptual information.

Visual Learners

If your child is a visual learner, he or she may enjoy subjects such as math and science and shy away from English and history. Typically facile with maps and diagrams, they may get lost when presented with complex auditory instructions. It may not be easy for them to keep up with long lectures. Comprehension as well as note taking will be best when they are presented with visual material such as pictures, graphs and multimedia representations. To facilitate recall, visual learners benefit from putting facts to music and using keywords on flashcards in different colors. To organize writing, these learners find it extremely helpful to use a visual web to fill out a pictorial representation of ideas- which uses arrows, dashes and other visual symbols to connect ideas and organize information. To further improve study skills, use of a computer program that creates flash cards and short quizzes after each section, such as Quizlet, can help the student retain information. Also, many textbooks have on-line learning aides that provide diagrams, graphs and interactive material for these kinds of students.

What Parents Can Do

Improve Reading Comprehension

Students with different learning styles experience significant frustration when reading and completing homework assignments. They often work slowly, laboriously and inefficiently. Parents can help children become active readers, who are able to extract the information they need from passages in order to achieve full comprehension. Importantly, parents can also ease feelings of frustration by reading along and suggesting more efficient reading techniques. If your child misses salient details, you may try and stop after each paragraph or so, highlight the supporting details in the paragraph and create a pictorial representation of the story. This technique is especially useful when reading history where parents can create a timeline or a tree of events to show how they link together. Computer programs such as audible.com can also be used to read aloud to the student. These programs bypass the demands of reading and allow for greater comprehension and ease.

Preparing the student for topics of discussion in school is another useful tool that improves performance and speed. When a student is learning about a particular topic, parents can have their child watch a film about it, go to a related museum or exhibition, or take a related trip. With the seeds of the topic planted, parents can engage children in a relevant discussion, speaking about key concepts, which greatly improve the child's comprehension of the subject matter. Previewing an article and discussing key concepts before actual reading will create comfort and context. Parents can help their child summarize and annotate, by focusing on the main idea, which also improves comprehension of the topic.

Improve Writing Skills

Writing skills, or the lack thereof, are another area that often leads to anxiety and frustration. Many children have excellent ideas but struggle to organize and express their thoughts clearly and concisely. Students can often go off on tangents and engage in lengthy asides. Parents can help in this area by creating structured outlines that clearly sequences content. Creating an outline helps clarify and organize ideas. Use of computer programs that create an outline for the student such as Inspiration, may help alleviate frustration. This is particularly beneficial for those students who write too succinctly, leaving out important details. A comprehensive outline can also help elaborate ideas and encourage inclusion of supporting information.

Help Follow Directions

Following directions can be very challenging for children with diverse learning styles particularly if the directions are complicated. Parents can help children by reminding them to read directions three times, to underline or circle tricky or confusing parts of the question, and by discussing the directions with an adult.. Practicing these techniques with a child during homework assignments can save valuable time on the assignment as well as on tests.

Encourage Sitting Still

Focusing and paying attention are key to successful learning and performing. However, after a long day, students often are not able to focus for long periods of time. If your child has trouble sitting still, try and take frequent activity breaks, which can be helpful. Physical exercise before sitting down to do work also improves concentration. Parents may also want to want to set a timer with an agreed upon time per task. This can facilitate energy and enthusiasm as there's a metaphorical students' light at the end of the tunnel. Finally, figuring out the most conducive environment for work is key. Some children do well in their room with minimal stimulation, others really benefit from working close to the action in the kitchen or dining room.

How to Reduce Stress

Helping your child academically can become a battleground for many families. Parents tend to feel frustrated, irritable and confused about why the child doesn't "understand" the material. Children experience distress, anxiety and feel they are a "disappointment" or a "failure." Understanding your child's challenges and particular learning style are key to building a good working relationship and ensuring smooth collaboration.

Not all parents are up to the job of being their child's academic coach. My best advice to parents is to let them know it is ok if you feel you can't accomplish this. But do hire a tutor or homework helper as your relationship is more important than homework! That being said, if you can work successfully with your child, it can be a rewarding experience for both of you.

SIDEBAR

Here are some common myths and the truths about children and learning that may help you better understand your child.

Myth: My child is lazy and just needs to work harder
Truth: Children are often avoidant and reluctant to apply themselves academically due to neurocognitive and/or psychiatric challenges. A child who has difficulty working is communicating their awareness of their issues and would benefit from support.

Myth: My child is poorly motivated and just needs to have a better attitude
Truth: Most children are motivated to do well and gain their parents and teachers approval. A child who appears sullen, uncooperative and "unmotivated" is presenting red flags about their academic skills and/or attention that requires further investigation and intervention.

Myth: My child is just stressed out, let's treat the anxiety and his academic issues will dissipate
Truth: While many children who have academic challenges suffer from anxiety and low self esteem, these symptoms are not the root of the problem. It's quite common for a child to have experienced academic difficulties initially and then developed anxiety as a reaction to his awareness of impaired performance.


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