By Brad Choyt for the Valley News Monday, March 13, 2017
(Published in print: Tuesday, March 14, 2017)

I have three children, all at very different stages of their lives as students. My eldest, a high school student, is balancing sports, a job, and his schoolwork. My 5th grader is involved in sports and drama and the youngest, a first grader, has his plate full with learning to complete homework and swim lessons.

Catching up with them to find out how they are doing and what they are learning is a daily challenge for my wife and me. But we persist and for some powerful reasons. It may seem like an obvious finding, but more and more research has shown that one of the greatest predictors of success at school is the degree to which learning is reinforced at home.

No matter what age kids are nor the kind of school they attend, most students follow an intense routine that has them switching from room to room, subject to subject. Despite their own and their teachers’ best efforts, they might not often have a great deal of time to reflect on all this new information, apply it to other relevant facts or, more importantly, contextualize new content with how they understand the world.

Teachers, of course, play a critical role in this process and certainly take the first step toward making the information accessible by relating new material to what students already know and establishing a foundation of core knowledge that builds upon itself from year to year. Teachers may also spend a few minutes at the end of class reflecting on new material covered that day and helping students make these connections before they dart off to their next commitment. These strategies are very helpful and are among the best practices for learning new material in any school.

But parents can help even further. No one else quite gets their kids the way parents do — they have the most knowledge about their children’s interests, past experiences, and unique ways of learning.

I’m not trying to suggest that parents have to turn every car ride or dinner conversation into a pedagogical conversation. But here are three types of interaction that our family uses that might make a difference in how your child develops as a student, thinker, and lifelong learner.

Use whatever meals you share — breakfast, dinner, weekend lunch — to ask about and listen to specific details about what’s gone on at school. I am fascinated by the common threads we can find between the first-grader’s discussion of Egypt to the high schooler’s reflections on Andrew Jackson’s America. What we have noticed is that when there’s an expectation that you will share a story and listen, that it’s something we all look forward to.

Take advantage of the moment. It could be in the car, before school, 20 minutes at night before bed. Simply being present to ask, “What are you learning? What does it mean to you?” becomes then a theme that we’ve seen our kids take responsibility for. They have slowly started to understand that their teachers may assign them homework and grade their tests, but actually learning is something that they are responsible for.

When you do have those moments, either spontaneous or more planned, try to ask informed questions. Mary Ehrenworth, a professor at Columbia University’s Teachers College, wrote an article titled “Making Parents Partners in Developing Their Children’s Writing” in Educational Leadership. She wrote that parents should “Ask teachers what kind of parent support would be most helpful to them.” To facilitate this process, teachers could generate a blog on student learning in their classrooms or send home a document that outlines subjects or big questions covered in their weekly syllabus.

As Ehrenworth suggests, parents who ask more informed questions forge stronger bridges between the learning that takes place at school and that at home. It can also help students feel that the adults in their lives are working together as a team, supporting them academically, socially and emotionally.

And in this case, as in much else, perfection is the enemy of good enough. We all have evening commitments, sometimes kids don’t want to speak about what happened at school, and teachers don’t always have time to communicate the specifics of what happens during each class. What matters is a steady commitment to asking good questions and staying present for the answers.

Brad Choyt is head of school at Crossroads Academy in Lyme.

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