Dear Dr. T.,
School’s starting and I am more determined than ever to help my children – Grades 2 through 10 – do the very best they can. But, is that really possible? How can I help my children when they are out of my home? I remember that my parents felt it was all between the teachers and me, but I am thinking that I want to take a more active role.
Yes, there is much that we parents can – and should – do in order to have a positive effect on our children’s school experience. The parenting factor crucial to a child’s success in school, particularly in the early years. Our input, actions, attitudes, and expectations can affect our children’s performance a great deal. Your decision to be part of the picture – a proactive parent – is a wise one.
So, let’s start with the basics:
Children (and adults) who feel well, perform well. A well-regulated child – who has enough rest, food, drink, and exercise – is in the best position to fulfill his potential. Conversely, a child who is tired or hungry finds it hard to concentrate, sit in his seat, learn, and/or behave. It is we, the parents, not the teachers, who bear responsibility for these basic physiological functions. This seems simplistic and self-evident, but let’s look at how these regulatory functions play out in the home.
Though it is probably safe to say that most children in our yeshiva system have enough food, it is equally true that some eat the wrong type of food. To grow – physically and mentally – children need to eat from all the food groups. We all know this, yet sometimes providing proper nutrition is problematic.
There are many reasons why this is so. Sometimes a dieting parent may decide to forego any carbohydrates or fats, yet a growing child needs some of each in order to develop properly. Many a family relies on an assortment of fast-food meals (check out Pico Boulevard!) that do not have the balance required. And some children beg and pester their parents for lots of junk food – which they then rely on to get them though the day. But, as responsible, knowledgeable adults we know that to maximize our children’s doing well, they need to eat a hearty breakfast, bring a protein-filled lunch, and consume a complete dinner, replete with all the food groups. Providing proper nutrition 24/7 for 365 days a year is not an easy task, but one well worth the effort involved.
A second regulatory function in the parents’ domain is sleep. Unfortunately, this is oft-cited as the most challenging task of our day – getting the kids to bed – and many a parent just throws up his hands in despair. The sequel to the delayed bedtime is the inevitable failure of the children to wake up in a timely fashion, and a vicious cycle sets in. How much sleep our children need varies from child to child, but here is a convenient rule of thumb: A child needs to go to sleep at a time that allows him to wake up comfortably – by himself – in the morning, well-rested and able to work. If you have to haul your child out of bed more often than you’d like, consider that he just needs more sleep.
Though bedtime can often be a real struggle, as in most parenting issues, consistency is the key. Barring an occasional family simchah or community event, our children do best with a well-established, pre-determined bedtime that is known to them. Establishing bedtime routines that include hygiene regimens, downtime activities, and individual parent time is an excellent way to help our children navigate the passage from wakefulness to sleep.
Adequate exercise is a third requirement for a healthy body and mind. Regrettably, our dual-curriculum schools leave precious little time for this, and our oft-overcrowded facilities compound the problem. However, because exercise is a legitimate health need, not simply a recreational want, we need to make exercise a priority. Encourage group walking as opposed to carpooling, enroll your child in after-school physical activities (dance, not art), and seek ways to partner with your child’s school to increase the amount of exercise in the school day.
As parents we can do even more. We can also teach our children to be proactive and organized for a day of success. After our children have had time to decompress from school with some down-time, it’s time to begin thinking about the next day. What homework assignments are due? What special requests are there – money for a trip, nosh for the lucky shabbos ima or abba? What supplies need replenishing? We want to encourage our children to develop the habit of planning. What clothing does he need/want for the next day? What would he like to prepare for his lunch? Not only does this kind of preparation insure a well-organized experience, but it also prevents that nightmarish early morning rush.
By attending to our children’s basic needs, we send them off to school ready and able to do the very best that they can do. In a later column, I will write about our attitudes and expectations, and how they impact on our children’s performance, as well.
The Book Nook: How Children Succeed: Grit, Curiosity, and the Hidden Power of Character by Paul Tough is a must-read for both parents and teachers. In this book, the author argues that developing character – skills like perseverance, curiosity, optimism, and self-control – is far more important than intelligence for school success..
Sara Teichman, Psy D. is a psychotherapist in private practice in Los Angeles and Clinical Director of ETTA, L.A.’s largest Jewish agency for adults with special needs. To submit a question or comment, email DrT@jewishhomela.com