by Sandra Gordon
School is your child’s work, but like most jobs, there are good days and bad, great bosses (teachers) and not so great ones, and classes that are easier than others. For some of even the brightest kids, however, like my youngest daughter, every test can seem difficult, every teacher hard, and every assignment a major hurdle. Tutors can help, of course, but they’re expensive and can’t do everything without cheating your child out of the “I can do it” sense of self-efficacy that can serve her well throughout life. How can you help your aspiring scholar reach her potential? We asked educators and learning experts for their top tips. Here are five of their best answers.
Seek out testing early.
If your student gets extra help at school but isn’t making progress academically, seek out an evaluation at school and/or at a private neuropsychology assessment center. Studies suggest that 15 to 20 percent of the population has a learning disorder of some type, such as dyslexia, a specific reading or language comprehension issue, or a math disorder. “Learning disorders occur throughout the range of intelligence. Even very highly functioning students can have them,” says E. Mark Mahone PhD, ABPP, a pediatric neuropsychologist director of the Intellectual and Developmental Disabilities Research Center at the Kennedy Krieger Institute at Johns Hopkins University.
A learning disorder is when a child or anyone who has had adequate opportunity for instruction and has the adequate intelligence to be able to learn specific skills, isn’t learning those skills in a way that’s appropriate for his or her age. Learning disabilities are biological conditions that lead to a set of behaviors that can be challenging. They tend to run in families. “Kids can’t help it,” Dr. Mahone says.
If your child has a learning disorder, it’s important to diagnose it early, if possible, to prevent harmful repercussions. Continually tanking on tests and quizzes or not understanding the material can affect your child’s self-esteem and brain development. “The average child with a reading disability doesn’t get identified until the second or third grade. By then, that child has two, three or four years of failure before getting the appropriate intervention,” Dr. Mahone says. Intervention, which may include medication and behavioral treatment, can help the brain reorganize more efficiently so that academic skills build naturally over time, making school easier and less stressful.
It’s important to note that learning disabilities don’t typically occur in isolation. For example, 35 to 40 percent of students with attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) also have dyslexia and vice versa. Learning disabilities should be treated concurrently. “Whenever you find one learning disability, you should look for others,” Dr. Mahone says. “For the best outcome, everything should be treated concurrently.”
Teach kids to make oatmeal.
“Learning is like driving a car. You have to keep filling the gas tank,” says Sharon Rose Sugar, an academic interventionist and author of Smart Grades: Every Day an Easy A. “It takes tremendous energy to learn, but many kids are running on empty.” Cold cereal for breakfast doesn’t cut it. “What can make a big difference in the morning is just a bowl of oatmeal,” Sugar says, topped with nutritious add-ons like walnuts, blueberries, cinnamon, honey or maple syrup.
Kids should fuel homework sessions with wholesome study snacks too, such as an apple or rice cake with peanut butter or carrots and hummus and water. The brain is a power tool. To boost performance, “after every homework assignment, kids should eat something healthy,” Sugar says.
Preview homework, then take a brain break.
If your child is typically anxious about homework, teach her to go over her homework assignments when she gets home from school, including the questions she needs to answer, then to take a break before diving in. “Kids aren’t under any pressure to answer those questions right away. But their brain starts working. When they come back to their homework, it’s a lot easier for them to start their work because they’ve previewed it,” says Katherine Firestone, founder of the Fireborn Institute and “The Happy Student” podcast.
Turn reading into a workout.
Kids have so many facts coming at them in every class and homework assignment. To help them retain key ideas they’ll later need for the test, they need to be active readers. Before reading a chapter in their textbook, students should read the chapter title, all of the headings and subheadings and the questions at the end. “Reviewing chapters first helps kids understand the key ideas,” says Firestone. Then, while they’re reading, they should underline the main idea and jot down notes to review for the test. These techniques can make all the difference, as Firestone knows firsthand. (She was diagnosed with ADHD in high school.) Active reading takes more time and effort, but it helps the facts sink in. “It resulted in a huge transformation for me,” Firestone says.
Talk yourself into better grades.
“When you get As or Bs, school is more enjoyable, but some kids, especially those with learning disorders, have emotional roadblocks to getting good grades,” says Paul J. Hughes, a college professor and author of Change Your Grades. Change Your Life. Early on, kids can form negative self-perceptions, such as “I’m bad at taking tests,” which gets hardwired into their subconscious, programming them for failure. “Our thoughts affect outcomes,” Hughes says.
To help his struggling students talk themselves into doing well on tests, Hughes teaches them to write and recite “afformations,” which are questions that address their specific academic concern, but stated as a positive, such as: “Why am I so comfortable and confident taking an exam?” and “Why do I always perform up to my expectations on an exam?” “The why at the beginning is what the brain picks up and runs with, reprogramming the subconscious to believe what you’re telling it,” Hughes says. He advises his students to read their afformations every day. “I say to my students, ‘I know afformations are weird but they can change everything.’ The more you read them to yourself, the sooner they kick in.”