A new year can mean a fresh start for many people, including kids. Students who might have had a rough start to the school year in September may be ready to adopt a new mindset — or be open to starting new habits — and parents can take advantage of this time to help their little scholars live up to their full potential. 

Parents often underestimate how much influence they have on their child’s attitude towards school. Dr. Anthony J. Oliver founder of Empower Community School in Bessemer Alabama  suggests that parents try to have consistent low-stakes conversations about school with their kids to stay involved. 

“You can be surprised how much you can learn about your child’s school experience by simply asking, ‘What did you learn at school today?,’” he says. 

In addition to these daily conversations, experts suggest that focusing on executive functioning, allowing certain types of  technology, encouraging playtime, promoting self-testing, and allowing kids to be involved in parent-teacher conferences can all contribute to a student’s future success. 

Executive function underpins school success

When kids are anxious about school, they might tell you they’re anxious about school. Or they might procrastinate; refuse to read, write, or do math; spend all night studying just to bomb their tests. In response, parents typically take away privileges, implement stricter schedules, or hire a tutor. And while these may temporarily alleviate some of these symptoms, they don’t lead to meaningful or lasting change.

Instead, when kids are struggling with school, parents should focus on helping them improve their executive functioning skills so that they can better manage their time and energy, regulate the emotions that might be preventing them from doing their work or performing at their best, according to Laura Fragomeni, a Harvard-educated master academic coach and the founder of School Without Suffering, an academic coaching practice. 

Executive function and self-regulation skills are the mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. The brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses. 

Only then will kids be able to achieve their potential academically while developing the skills they’ll also need to achieve their potential as adults.

Parents shouldn’t feel guilty about embracing technology

While it is important that parents are mindful about screen time, if a child is going to be using technology, it’s helpful if it is something educational, says Dr. Oliver. 

One digital tool that he likes for young learners is ABC Mouse. The interactive platform teaches kids ages 2-8 reading, math, and phonics. ABC Mouse is a tool that can keep them engaged while they learn. 

Isabel Krause, a former teacher at Metro Nashville Public Schools as a Teach for America corps member and a media reviewer at Common Sense Networks agrees that sourcing EdTech apps and other media (YouTube shows, network TV, music, podcasts, etc.) while teaching can get kids excited to learn.

“I have seen first hand that some students with high academic potential underperform in school because they are not being stimulated in the right ways. Having teachers simply teaching them a lesson without giving them the opportunity to have tactile experiences or using multi-modal strategies can be very disengaging,” notes Krause. 

One of her favorite (and unconventional but effective) ways to do this was to use a new, award-winning educational animated series and open source learning platform that provides excellent supplemental material for learning at home. The series is called The Paper Girls Show

The ultimate goal of the series and channel is to prepare children for life in the 21st century by promoting “making” things instead of “consuming” things. Each episode is tied to Common Core, Next Generation Science Standards, and the supplemental learning programs and activities are designed for at-home learning, the classroom, and after-school programs. Here’s a link to the learning platform. 

The show is produced by a relatively new studio called Global Tinker (founded by ex-Sesame execs) and FableVision Studios, which is one of the most respected animation studios in the country. A world class group of academic advisers and top writers have been involved including Dr. Christina Hinton of Harvard who wrote The 3Ms of The Paper Girls Show, Dr. Natascha Crandall of Columbia who is the show’s academic advisor and Dr.  Angela Eckhoff who wrote the classroom guides which connect each episode to Common Core and/or Next Generation Science Standards.

Another tool is the app “Forest” which encourages children to stay focused by planting a virtual tree and watching it grow as they complete their work, says Mo Mulla, a father and Founder of Parental Questions. He also likes the “Evernote” application, which allows children to take notes, record lectures, and set reminders for themselves.

Products like Narbis neurofeedback smart glasses can also help kids focus while doing tasks like reading and homework. They work by detecting how and when the wearer is paying attention and losing focus. 

The dry sensors on the glasses measure and analyze brain activity, then uses this data in an algorithm used to train NASA pilots. If the system detects brainwave patterns indicative of paying attention, the lenses in the glasses stay clear. If the system detects that the wearer is growing distracted, the lenses gently darken, reminding that it’s time to return to the task at hand. Over time, regular wearing of Narbis’ smart glasses can train the brain to remain focused.

Empowering kids to take ownership of their role as students

One strategy to boost academic performance, which has been gaining momentum in the education world, is to have student-led conferences, says Dr. Oliver.  

“During these conferences, it is the student, not the parents and teachers, who lead (with appropriate assistance) the conversation about what they have learned and what they need to improve on,” says Oliver. “The goal of the conference is for the student to have ownership of their learning. As these students become older, they are better able to communicate their needs and advocate for themselves.” 

Playtime is crucial for early learning

For younger children, Heather Welch, brand manager of the award-winning children’s educational brand Edx Education, believes that a highly effective but most definitely underutilized method for boosting a child’s academic potential is playtime. 

“Through exploration, play is one of the most important ways to allow children to learn in the early years. Play, when unstructured and free, allows children to develop many key skills from gross and fine motor skills, cognitive development, social and emotional development, even self-regulation,” says Welch. “Children will excel academically with the right support through play-based learning.”

She believes that many adults don’t realize how much is going on when children play, but hands-on learning activities in the early years are a great way for children to start to focus. 

Self-testing exercises our brains

Active recall, also known as self-testing, is the formal term for testing yourself and forcing your brain to remember what you have learned. Decades of research have shown it to be the most effective study technique by far, and it works for all ages, from young children to older adults, according to Anna Moss, founder of Mind the Test Tutoring

“Active recall works by forcing our brains to work hard, thereby strengthening the neural connections associated with that memory or fact. Essentially, self-testing with active recall is to the brain what working out at the gym is to the body. If our brains work hard to recall information, that memory gets stronger. If our brains just laze around passively reading our notes, the memory stagnates,” says Moss. 

One study found that even rereading a passage four times was far less effective than just taking one short quiz after reading it only once. 

How can we make sure we are using active recall? We use active recall when we take a practice test, use flashcards, and play review games like Kahoot. Whenever we feel our brains working hard to reach for the answer, that is when the memory is getting stronger. 

“So, if you are using flashcards, make sure you stop and think about the answer before flipping over the card to check,” says Moss. “If you are doing practice problems, even if you are confused, try to solve the problem first before reading the answer explanation. The harder your brain works during study time, the easier it will be to remember on the test.”

How to help kids with high academic potential get the grades they’re capable of

When a high-potential student underperforms in school, it’s most often because they’re intelligent and ingenious enough that they don’t need good habits to perform adequately.   

“From where they stand, there’s little incentive to do anything differently.  They are living the 80-20 rule.  If they can get decent results by just showing up, the idea that they should apply a ton more effort for marginally better results seems ludicrous,” says Justin M. Menda, a tutor with Rocket-Prep.com. 

For these kids, he suggests you focus on the process.  

“Far more important than grades and test scores is how those were achieved.  It’s that ‘how’ that leads to success in the future.  Homework and studying should be done during scheduled times, in circumstances engineered to prevent distraction,” says Menda who has been a tutor and academic coach for over 10 years, and holds a B.A. in Psychology and an M.S.Ed in Secondary Education from the University of Pennsylvania, as well as an M.S. in Biomedical Science from Drexel University. 

Menda suggests you can begin to move the needle by casting new habits in terms of helping them in other ways — for example, framing homework scheduling not in terms of improving productivity, but as a way to ensure that homework doesn’t interfere with other activities.

Create a plan for the new year

Whatever this next year brings, parents need to make it clear to their kids — and everyone else — what they should be striving for and how hard they’ll need to work, says Mo Mulla of Parental Questions

In addition to instilling good habits like reading before bed each night, and providing a designated place for studying (that is free from distractions), parents can help their children take advantage of games and technology designed with learning and improving executive functioning in mind. 

For their part, students should start thinking of themselves as CEOs of their own learning, and take advantage of tried-and-true techniques like self-testing to improve their grades and study habits for the long-term. 

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