Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts, Inc.

How to Help Your Child Succeed at School

By Sophia Sayigh

The title in the Smarter Living section of The New York Times caught my eye. Hmph. If schools are supposedly for the benefit of children, why do parents need to help their kids succeed?

And what is success in school anyway? According to the article: A successful experience in school is not only about report cards. [OK—so it IS about report cards…] Ideally your child will learn how to learn, retain information, think independently, ask questions and develop an increasing sense of competence. Ideally?? Obviously, children already know how to learn before they go to school. Children are also able to retain information before going to school, as well as think independently and ask questions, but apparently they are at risk of graduating without these skills and attributes if their school experience is less than ideal. Schools actually unteach how to learn and retaining information and so on—hence the need for parents to help the children succeed. That puts a lot of pressure on parents to wring something good out of the experience for their kids, and lays the responsibility for school success on the children and parents rather than the schools, but I digress.

The need for yardsticks to measure the accountability of public schools results in an institution that is not designed to benefit children. Schools need everyone to fit in the same shape hole, but children come in all different shapes. In school children are expected to sit still, obey authority, and perform tasks as directed to get good grades (aka to succeed). Whatever shape your child is, whether they fit nicely in the school shaped hole or not, the need for schools to adhere to certain set standards and evaluations sets up a zero sum game for kids. If your child isn’t one of the winners, they will be one of the losers. And even the winners might be losers, if becoming a winner means shaving off some of those individualistic rough edges to fit into the school shaped hole, or failing to encourage other parts of oneself to flourish because the school shape fit so nicely to begin with. School trains children to figure out how to succeed in school (or not), not in the world at large, all the while draining children’s natural abilities and desires to learn, retain information, ask questions, be creative, and pursue subjects and activities that interest them.

What does all this have to do with homeschooling? The article’s tips to circumvent the debilitating effects school has on children’s natural abilities, are easily woven into homeschooling life if you can resist trying to replicate school at home. Here’s why: By choosing to homeschool, you and your child get to define what success means to you. And the definition can be different for every single individual in a family. When you homeschool, you have at your disposal the whole wide world, from your backyard to international travel. Also, the ideal goals the article presents can be your actual goals when you homeschool. As a parent, one of your main goals is to do no harm to your child’s natural abilities, while contortions and strategizing are needed to lessen the harm school does so that children have a hope of retaining the skills they arrived with.

Here are some of the article’s suggested strategies for parents:

Modeling is a recurring theme in the article, mentioned as a way of teaching your kids a good work ethic, asking for help, asserting yourself, challenging yourself. Modeling is one of the most powerful tools in a homeschooling parent’s toolbox. In addition to the aforementioned, you can model pursuing your interests, reading, helping others, treating others with kindness, or whatever you value. Your kids are watching and listening and they want to learn from you.

While you’re living in rhythm with your children, you nurture your child’s strengths and discover who they are as people. My bet is, especially if you yourself went to school, you will learn more from your children than you ever teach them, and they will learn more than could ever be measured by a report card, or captured in a progress report for that matter!

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Sophia Sayigh serves on the board and is a co-founder of Advocates for Home Education in Massachusetts. She co-wrote Unschoolers, a fictional book about homeschooling. Her two children, now grown, didn't go to school until college. Home was and is filled with pets, music, books, computers, and conversation.