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Kids who thrive in school have parents who support learning at home.
Kids who thrive in school have parents who support learning at home. / KidStock/Getty Images

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Homework for parents

Kids who thrive in school have parents who support learning at home. Here’s what you can do:

1. Make it clear that it is important to your family that effort is put into doing well in school. Good grades are welcome, but praising effort is the key.

2. Keep abreast of their progress. Ask specific questions. Not: How was school? (Answer: Fine.) But rather: What did you study in science class today? (Answer: a conversation about what they are learning.)

3. Provide quiet, interruption-free space for them to do homework. Elementary schoolers can work at the kitchen table while Mom or Dad does the dishes (and keeps on eye on their progress). Middle schoolers can experiment with working on their own.

4. When it comes to schoolwork, multi-tasking is code for not paying attention. If your child is doing homework on a computer, insist that Facebook is removed from the dashboard and Pandora is turned off.

5. Keep plenty of reading material in the house and make sure that your children see you reading for work and pleasure.

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It’s a time of year marked by excitement and anticipation: back to school. And if you’re like most parents, you want to ensure that the academic year is a success. But beyond buying a backpack and some blank notebooks, what can you do? It turns out, quite a lot! Here are seven ways — backed by research — to help your children achieve their very best.

Tip 1: Make contact with teachers by Week 3.

This is easy to do in kindergarten, harder in middle and high school when students roll their eyes at the mention of parents. Still, do yourself, your child and your child’s teachers a favor and get each teacher’s cellphone number and e-mail address. Give them yours. The goal is to open up the lines of communication between the most influential adults in your child’s life. Standard topics: checking in, praise and concerns. If you are talking regularly and a problem arises, teachers won’t hesitate to call you, or you them. Persistent worries? Contact the teacher before a school administrator. (Target grades: K-12)

Tip 2: Check that your child is reading at grade level.

Each fall and spring, check to see whether your child is scoring at “proficiency” or above on statewide tests. (Jargon alert: You’ll want the ELA test score, which stands for English Language Arts and is edu-speak for reading and writing.) A telltale sign of a reading problem? Homework requiring reading always gets left undone. If you suspect — or are told — that your child is behind, you need to act now. Ask the teacher: What skills does my child need to master to get to grade level? And what kind of instruction can you provide that is different from last year to help him or her catch up? Not satisfied? Meet with the reading specialist and the principal. (Target grades: 1-8)

Tip 3: Understand the importance of downtime.

It may seem counterintuitive, but recess, a lunch break and small breaks during the day improve learning. To be at their cognitive peak, elementary school kids need 20 minutes of downtime a day. Yet the journal Pediatrics reported in 2009 that 30% of 8- and 9-year-olds were getting little or no recess. Though there’s no set “dose” for older kids, research has shown that adolescents who do regular cardiovascular activity do better in school and get better jobs as adults. (Target grades: K-12)

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Tip 4: Analyze test scores.

High-stakes test scores matter. But just because scores went up last year doesn’t mean a school is great. Long-term improvements are key. Top schools get good scores by helping kids understand, analyze and write about complex subjects. So-so schools use relentless test prep. If test prep dominates the curriculum, seek a meeting with the principal. (Target grades: 3-12)

Tip 5: Stay on track for college.

High schools need to prepare students for college. Know this: Most colleges want your child to have taken four years of English, math, a laboratory science, history and some foreign language in high school. So starting in middle school, course sequence becomes important. Ensure that children are on track to take algebra by ninth grade so they will be on the path to do college-level math. General rule: Students should take the most rigorous courses they can handle. (Target grades: 7-12)

Tip 6: Don't trash-talk about math.

Psychologists Harold Stevenson and James Stigler found 15 years ago that in countries that produce a lot of math whizzes, parents and teachers believed that math ability is like a muscle you strengthen with good instruction and practice. In the USA, where kids don’t do that well, parents think of math ability as a talent, not a skill. Do this: Check that nightly homework is completed (not on the bus). And watch what you say about your own math aptitude — it matters. (Target grades: K-12)

Tip 7: Be part of the learning community.

Make a commitment to attend twice-a-year school meetings. If you can, volunteer in the library or as a class parent and attend the school play. (Dads, this means you, too!) It can be hard to be a steady, reasonable advocate — especially if your own memories of school are mixed. But your child is counting on you. Get ready. (Target grades: K-12)

Peg Tyre is a top education writer and speaker. Her latest book, The Good School: How Smart Parents Get Their Kids the Education They Deserve, was just released in paperback.

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