Have your children ever complained to you saying, "Mom (or Dad), you don't understand. School is a LOT harder than it used to be when you were a kid."? Maybe you've wanted to roll your eyes and say, "Oh, yeah!"
Well, this time the kids are right. School is harder than it was even a decade ago. Kids learn more and at a younger age than ever before. Pre-algebra and pre-geometry concepts are taught in the lower elementary grades. Many science concepts, such as DNA, that used to be taught in high school are now taught in seventh and eighth grades. Higher level thinking skills that do not fully develop until the early teen years are required to get through the curriculums of upper elementary and middle school.
Developmentally many children are not intellectually equipped to handle the advanced subject matter taught at earlier grade levels. This does not mean that these children are not smart. It means that when one looks at brain development, thinking functions mature at different times. For example, the brain may not be ready to fully grasp the concepts of reading until age seven. The development necessary for the understanding of algebra usually clarifies around age 14. Students may be able to learn subject matter presented before the developmentally optimal time. Learning, however, may not occur as quickly, concepts grasped as fully, or integration of the material accomplished as completely.
There are a number of things that you as parents can do to assist in both understanding your children and in guiding them with the thinking skills required for school success.
When your children communicate their concerns, listen. Sometimes children talk. Sometimes they complain. There is a difference. When children talk about a problem, their voice indicates concern. Their tone tells you that they want to do something about it. Complaining, on the other hand, is done in a voice that says, "I am a victim, and I want you to rescue me."
Regardless of whether a child wants to problem solve or be rescued, the first step is listening. The next step is entering into proactive conversation with the problem solver. Addressing the complainer, it is important to say, "I hear that you are upset. When you are ready to discuss how you might handle this problem, I'll be happy to talk with you. I cannot help you when you are complaining."
When your children want to tell you about what they are learning, ask questions and seek more information. Do not assume you know all the answers. Statements like "Tell me more about that. That's not something I learned in school," elicit conversation and give children an opportunity to show you what they know. Questions like "I've never heard about that--what is it, how does it work, or where is it?" give you an opportunity to learn something new and validate your children for teaching you.
When a problem arises, brainstorm together how it might be solved. Take everyone's input as long as it is given seriously. Sometimes children get silly when they feel incompetent or uncomfortable. If a child makes a silly or rude statement, just ignore it.
Let's say that your family has planned to go on a picnic. Picnic day arrives and it is raining. Instead of canceling the outing, talk together about alternatives. Be creative. Some families might solve the problem by changing to a different activity. Another family might decide to have the picnic on the living room floor or under the dining room table. Still another might use the fireplace for a cookout. The important thing is to not avoid a problem. Teach children to work it through toward an adequate solution.
Look at your children's textbooks. Watch the movies they select for viewing with friends. Pay attention to what they do on the computer. When you know what your children are learning through the media, you know what is suitable and what is inappropriate. It gives you a repertoire of subjects to discuss. Most children are pleased when their parents pay attention, in a non-invasive way, to what they are interested in.
Sometimes adults feel out of control if they don't know the answers to the questions their children ask. When this happens, be honest. Say, "I really don't know the answer to that. How about looking it up together. How do you think we should start?" Finding information together gives positive attention to children, helps you see the skills they have, and can be fun for all of you.
Academic competition puts stress on children. Comparing a child to someone in his class or to a sibling ignores his individual progress and growth. Competition and comparison can make a child dislike school. If he comes out on the bottom side of a comparison, he feels bad about himself and his skills. If he comes out on top, he may feel puffed up and may have an inflated impression of his skills. Wise parents help children see their strengths and assist them in working with and accepting their weaknesses. These parents help children see where they have shown improvement and growth as well as where more work is needed.
Be a volunteer in your children's school or in one of their extracurricular activities. Young and elementary school children enjoy having their parents participate in their activities. Older children may resist. Offer them options about where they would like you to give of your time. You learn a lot by watching how your children interact with adults and peers in an environment other than the home. When you volunteer in the classroom, you learn how your children approach academic tasks, some of which may be challenging.
As you learn more about the curriculum being taught today, the kinds of materials your children know how to use and the knowledge they possess, you may just agree that school REALLY IS harder than it used to be.