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The Informed Parent

Taking Stock: The Mid-Year Check

by Carolyn Warnemuende, M.S.
Published on Jan. 10, 2000
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A new year and a new millennium. I don't know about you, but with each new year I hold the childish notion that on January 1 something will be different. A new year seems like a clean slate. I look ahead at the emptiness and think that if I do life just right, make the right decisions that the year will turn out nice and tidy.

Of course, January 1 is like any other day, and usually by its end I see that a tidy life is not for me! Fortunately, I am learning that each day or portion of a day can be looked at as a time to begin again. That living in the process is what keeps life enjoyable and interesting. But process can be messy, and it isn't always fun.

The process of raising children holds numerous challenges. A major one is their education. Many school districts complete the end of the first semester of school at the end of January. One parenting challenge is taking stock of how your child is succeeding at this point in the school year.

By now most children are well-adapted to the school routine. They get up and out the door on school mornings with little or no distress. They complete the school day successfully. They do their homework with relative ease.

If this is not the case in your family, now is the time to investigate what keeps your child from succeeding There is still time to work with any concerns so that the child completes the school year positively. Here are some questions to focus on.

  1. What does my child complain about regarding school?
  2. What words does my child use to describe the school experience?
  3. In what subjects is my child's academic success in line with his or her abilities? Not in line with his or her abilities?
  4. Does my child usually interact successfully with peers? How? If not, how?
  5. Does my child successfully complete homework with little or no prodding? How does he/she avoid homework?

How The Child Talks About School

How children talk about school gives clues about what they don't like. Sometimes children just generally complain. "School is dumb," "I hate school and everything about it," and "My teacher's so stupid," are typical of general complaints. Children utter these kinds of statements to get your attention.

Most kids know that parents will take an adversarial stand to remarks like these. That's what they want. When you respond with a comment like, "Oh, I know you don't REALLY hate school," the fight is on. The real issue of what is bothering the child gets lost in the shuffle. When your child makes a general complaint, a wise response is, "I wonder what you hate so much about school?" Specifics are what you want. Only when you glean definite complaints can you assist the child. You don't need to push for information. When a child knows you are listening without judgment, usually the verbal floodgates open.

Unhappy children mutter to themselves. Listen to what they say. You will hear words that further enlighten you about what hinders success. Listen for words and phrases like HARD, DON'T GET IT, DOESN'T MAKE SENSE, DON'T SEE IT, and DON'T UNDERSTAND. Pay attention to what the child is talking about. Words and phrases like these may be couched in the general complaints. They are keys, though, to unlocking the problem.

Academic Functioning

Even children who have serious difficulties in school do better in some subjects than in others. Begin by looking at where your child does well. You will feel less discouraged than if you only focus on the problem areas. Not only that, recognizing strengths provides the opportunity to acknowledge your child and build on the strengths.

When apprising where your child is not successful academically, learn to look for specifics. For example, to say, "Jason just can't read," is not very helpful information. If you can begin to notice that he reads words backwards or skips words or lines or substitutes one word for another you have mined useful information. Some parents feel this is a teacher's job. It is. It is also the job of the parent to recognize problem areas.

While attending parent conferences with school personnel or when seeking outside professional help your specific observations make the meetings more valuable. Sometimes children perform differently at home than at school. Knowing this gives everyone who interacts with the child knowledge to work with. Knowing specific academic patterns your child exhibits allows you to ask more meaningful questions than when you only have a global picture. No question is a wrong or silly question. Well thought out questions based on specific observations, however, usually result in more satisfying answers.

The goal of parents and those working with a child is the same: to meet the child's needs. Needs are met by working with specifics. Strong learning programs cannot be built on generalities.

Peer Interactions

Friendships and positive peer interactions play a big role in how children feel about school. Children who suffer friendship problems complain about school, may resist going to school, and may experience academic backslides.

In attuning yourself to the words a child uses to talk about school, listen for words that relate to peers. Often children want to tell you about who they play with or about who said what. When the social life is not working, children do not talk about friends, or they only tell you who is mean to them or who won't play with them.

Middle school girls often experience a myriad of friendship concerns. Fourth, fifth and sixth grade girls can be very mean to each other. They are fickle in their friendships. Though not uncommon in this age group, the behavior is hurtful. Girls in the middle grades can experience headaches, stomachaches and other mild physical symptoms when they are the one being left out or talked about. Being aware of a child's social interactions can assist in understanding these kinds of complaints.

In watching your children interact with peers, note their appropriate social skills. Pay attention to behaviors that isolate them from peers. I recently met with a parent who was concerned about her daughter's social life. In discussing the situation, she told me that her daughter often brags to her friends. She seems to need to "be better" than they are. On the other hand, she shows generosity and caring. Having information about how this girl may be interfering with what she wants socially and also what her strengths are helped in my working with the child.

Knowing children's social strengths allows parents, school personnel and others to build on them. If a child complains that no one will let him play, for example, you can remind him that in the past when he's wanted to join a game and asked, it has often worked.

When children feel in a social pit, they need to be guided to use the skills they have. When it is known what social skills are not known or used, they can be taught.

Homework

Finally, when gathering information about children's functioning at this point in the school year, it is important to address homework. Few children like homework. Most do it, even if reluctantly. When homework is a continual struggle in your home begin to mine for specifics. Is homework always a problem? Does your child start, then quit or never start? Does your child look like he is working but is not accomplishing anything? Will you child do homework if you assist?

By looking for answers to questions like these, you gather information that shows a clear picture of your offspring. Just as important as knowing how a child approaches homework is knowing how homework is avoided. Some children ignore the issue. Others "forget" what the assignment is or do not have their materials. Some children create power struggles with their parents which pulls everyone away from completing the necessary work. Some children act helpless and engage the parent in the homework process inappropriately. By knowing how a child avoids what needs to be done, finding a solution to the problem becomes easier.

Now What?

Now you have a clear idea about the successes and difficulties your child is experiencing at the half-way mark in the school year. If in taking stock you've discovered that all is going as well as you had hoped or imagined, be sure to acknowledge the fine progress. If you've discovered areas of concern, plan a meeting with the classroom teacher to discuss them. Share your concerns with the child's pediatrician and other professionals involved. Acknowledge the successes your child has accomplished.

Students, parents, and teachers have half a school year left to build on strengths and address weaknesses. By focusing on specifics and developing a plan to work on problem areas, each child has the opportunity to complete the year as successfully as he or she is capable.




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