Tips to Support Your Child’s Education from the Beginning:
That. Right there. If you want the best education for your child, supporting them in every way, from birth onward, is how you get there. That’s the short and easy version, anyway.
But how do you do that? What steps can parents take to ensure the best outcome for their child?
It often seems easier said than done. Life is so busy, and WE are so busy – as parents and as families. Between work, the day-to-day hands-on of parenting (especially in those first few years), our own outside commitments, and our kids’ extracurriculars, it can be all too easy to feel overwhelmed and paralyzed, not even knowing where to start.
You know you want what’s best for your child – you just don’t have the time to start from scratch in figuring out what that is. Especially when it comes to ensuring their current and future academic success.
The good news is, there are tried-and-true ways you can help maximize your child’s learning potential. This step-by-step list will get you started.
This is a collaboration post. However, please know I stand behind everything written here, and only include links to products/services/resources I’m willing to recommend personally.
Step-By-Step, How To Get The Best Education For Your Child:
1. Start at birth, if not before
As soon as your baby is born (if not while you’re still pregnant), interact with your child. Talk to them. Sing to them. Carry on a conversation. Read them stories. Ask them questions.
No, of course they can’t respond. BUT you are teaching them the building blocks for the give-and-take of conversation and human interaction. This is the first thing you can do to set your child up for success in school. (Not to mention, it’s the first thing you can do to lay a foundation for a solid child-parent bond!)
Read to them AT LEAST once a day. Narrate the world around you, what you’re doing at any given moment, and what’s going on:
- “Oh, look, there’s a green tree. And there’s an orange tree. That tree’s leaves are orange because it’s almost autumn, and the leaves are going to come down soon. And next we have winter, and then in the spring the tree will grow NEW leaves.”
- “Let’s see, next on the shopping list is tomatoes. Look, here are three red tomatoes. See how round and smooth they are?
This kind of interaction with a caregiver will help wire your child’s brain in ways that passively sitting in front of a TV never can.
2. Lead by example
Are you curious? Do you enjoy reading? Do you like to visit new places, travel and explore different cultures, or learn more about the world around you?
As parents, we are children’s first teachers. They will learn more in life from the example we set than anything else.
Think about this when you’re enjoying your leisure time as they enjoy theirs:
- Are you glued to your phone, stuck on social media?
- Are you reading a book?
- Or maybe you’re doing a craft, or making a jigsaw puzzle?
- Are you staying on top of things in your field by learning new things? (And if you are, do you do so happily, or with lots of grumbling about it?)
All of these will send different messages to your child(ren) about what is important in grownup life.
The more you can model lifelong learning for your kids, the more likely they are to have a passion for learning, a curious mind, and a willingness to explore new things. These are all qualities that will serve them well in school. It may mean stepping outside your comfort zone. But if setting your child up for academic success is a top priority for you, it’s worth considering.
3. Find a quality preschool
When I was a kid, preschool was optional. Those who went were mostly from dual-earner families who needed childcare.
Those days are long gone.
Regardless of your family’s work hours and childcare needs, be sure that your kiddos attend a quality preschool at least a couple of mornings a week, starting at age two. (Or whatever the rule is in your area; that’s the rule in ours.)
Preschool gives your child the foundation they need, both as learners and as social beings, for future school success in the 21st century. A good preschool should have a curriculum that is play-centered, rather than focused on hard-core academics. Teachers should be qualified professionals with credentials in early childhood education, who are happy working there and love what they do.
While we wanted a school with a play-based program, our top reason for sending the girls to preschool was interacting with other kids their age. This is as important for incoming kindergarteners these days as knowing their letters and numbers. Twenty-first-century employers are looking more and more at “plays well with others” when evaluating job candidates. And those kids who arrive at K with a solid start on this skill will have an edge throughout their lives, both in school and at work.
If you’re concerned about the cost, consider broadening your horizons in your search. Much to our surprise, the best value for the cost in our area was the church-based preschools. Their programs were high-caliber, but cost a fraction of what similar for-profit schools cost.
4. Communicate with teachers
As I’ve written elsewhere, open communication with your child’s teachers is crucial. As the front lines of your child’s learning, they will observe your child’s strengths and “growth areas” day after day. And if they know you’re receptive to feedback – the good AND the bad – they’re more likely to share it with you.
The first step in doing this is just plain showing up. Be there for the back-to-school meet-and-greet, even if it means taking an hour or two off of work to attend. Show up (ideally, both you AND your coparent) for the parent-teacher conferences. Be there for your kids’ concerts, plays, Parent Days at school, and whatever else is happening where you can interact with the teacher in a less formal setting.
This is not about trying to become the teacher’s BFF. This is about establishing a working relationship as two adults who can communicate openly. And you’d be surprised how receptive teachers are to parents who demonstrate they’re interested in their child’s learning, just by showing up. (More than one of my girls’ teachers has commented on how happy they are when we do this, and how they wish ALL parents would make the time.)
Besides showing up, be in contact via their preferred method whenever you have concerns about your child, or want to touch base:
- If they set up an app-based parent portal, join promptly.
- If they send out a welcome email, respond.
- And if they do a back-to-school questionnaire, complete and return it right away.
Using their preferred system is also a great way to ask the teacher how you can help THEM in their job. For example, do they need classroom donations of tissues or hand sanitizer?
It’s much better to establish a good relationship with your child’s teacher early on, versus trying to build these bridges only when your child has problems. Once those lines of communication are open, your child’s teacher will be more likely to reach out if your child is struggling – because they know you care, and want to be a partner in the education process.
5. Get involved
Just as it’s important to establish open communication early, it’s important to be involved in your child’s school, however you can.
For many working parents, this might mean that you join the PTA. If your work schedule permits, you might consider volunteering as homeroom parent. Or become a monthly or weekly classroom volunteer.
The benefits of volunteering are invaluable. Personally, I can’t attend evening meetings because of family conflicts. So I volunteer once a week instead. You get to see so many things this way, from what skills your child’s class is working on, to who their friends are. And the teachers are super-grateful for the help.
Plus you can observe for yourself how your child is progressing, where they struggle, and how they compare with their peers and grade standards. This can be a springboard for more conversations with your child’s teacher about their strengths, growth areas, and how you can help at home.
One other added benefit of volunteering is that you’ll get to know a different side of your kids’ peers. For example: now that the girls are older, I often work with kids who are struggling (and DON’T have much parental support at home) in the early-morning “Homework Club.”
Last year, I got to work with two of the class clowns/”troublemakers” in one daughter’s homeroom. One of them, “Mighty,” struck me as a quiet kid, adrift and grasping for a lifeline. He clearly thrived under the one-on-one help he got in Homework Club. A few times my daughter suggested that Mighty was one of the “bad” kids in her classroom – disruptive, homework always incomplete, etc. I was able to share a different side of someone who lacked home support with her, and help her learn some empathy in the process.
6. Help your child succeed in homework
Speaking of a lack of parental support with homework – yes, this is also crucial.
What does supporting your child’s homework efforts look like?
Well, for starters, it does NOT mean doing their homework for them.
Instead, think about what they need to do their homework successfully, and make sure you supply the appropriate environment. Some of those needs might include
- establishing an after-school routine together, with their input, so they know what to expect
- a short unwind/have-a-snack time right after school, so they can decompress and shift gears mentally
- a designated homework space that’s quiet, distraction-free, and stocked with the supplies they need
- a parent or other grownup who’s nearby to help if needed, but otherwise stays in the background
- encouragement and positive reinforcement, especially when they get stuck
- staying on top of their homework and assignments, so you can help them when they get stuck, in the ways your teachers are teaching them (vs. how you learned a subject – this is especially the case for math)
RELATED POST: How to Make a Homework Station On A Budget
7. Consider tutoring if warranted
If your child needs extra help in a particular subject or to help them prepare for a test, tutoring can give them that extra edge. And tutoring doesn’t have to break the bank, either.
Sure, there are plenty of private tutoring firms and “skills-help” companies out there that can help. If your child needs serious long-term help and you can afford these options, go for it (after doing your due diligence to find the right balance between quality and cost).
But there are plenty of other options that might work just as well.
- I tutored my dyslexic younger brother throughout his school years. Not only did this strengthen the bond between us, but it led me to wanting to become a teacher.
- If you have friends or neighbors who are teachers, ask if they could give your child some occasional extra help, either for a small fee or in exchange for something you can help them with.
- Or perhaps your neighborhood has high-school kids who’d be willing to help, either for a small fee or as a volunteer project for school/Scouts/college applications.
8. If needed, seek extra support at school
If your child is struggling in school, it’s important to try to figure out why – and then get them the extra help they need. This means being your child’s advocate, as loudly and for as long as it takes, until you all get to the bottom of what is going on.
And while your first thought might be to wonder if your child has a learning difference, that may not be the actual cause of their challenges. Talk to both your child and their teacher(s) about what’s going on, and be sure to rule out other medical conditions:
- Perhaps a vision problem is behind your child’s reading struggles.
- Maybe they’re not following directions well because they can’t hear as well as they should.
- Perhaps their focus is crashing mid-morning because they need a snack, and/or aren’t eating enough breakfast at home.
- Or maybe there is some sort of peer dynamic, whether the ordinary “friend” dramas of childhood or something more serious like cyber- or face-to-face bullying, that’s hurting their ability to learn.
Until and unless you know what’s really going on, you won’t know what help they need. Whether it’s requesting an IEP or Section 504 plan for your child, arranging an intervention from the school counselor, or just having your child sit closer to the blackboard until their new glasses arrive, work with your school and teachers to get your kid what they need.
9. Consider the benefits of independent and non-traditional schools
It’s also worth keeping in mind throughout your child’s education that the local public school is not the only option, and may not even be the best option for your child’s needs.
With any luck, you researched school districts when choosing your current home. But even the best public school districts may not be equally strong across all schools within the district, or for every student’s unique learning needs.
If this is the case, it’s time to think outside the box and explore other options. You need to find a school that’s the best academic environment for your child, one that will help to nurture them in the ways that you want. Follow this link to learn about some of the benefits of private schools, Many have excellent academics and low student:teacher ratios compared to nearby public schools. And while price tags can be steep, these schools generally offer financial aid to help offset tuition.
Some things to consider when comparing your child’s schooling options:
- One of my high-school friends sends her children to Catholic school because her local public schools no longer offer gifted services, and her boys both need extra enrichment in certain areas.
- If your child has a learning difference or two, there may be specialized schools that cater to their unique needs near you. Another high school friend of mine has worked at such a school for many years.
- If you want your child to have immersion in a foreign language, or access to music or arts programs that your public school district has cut, a private school may be the only way to go.
- Or perhaps you’d prefer that your child receive a Montessori or Waldorf education, instead of a traditional public-school learning experience. (Montessori’s benefits for kids who learn differently is one reason we’re switching one of our girls to a Montessori school this fall.)
- In larger districts, look for special magnet-school programs in STEM, foreign-language immersion, or the arts. Often these are free, but spaces are limited, so do your research and apply early. Sometimes these options are available only through charter schools or cyber-charter schools.
10. Keep kids learning outside of school
And even if you don’t homeschool, your home and family environment should still be places of learning for your child. There are so many ways you can nurture your child’s love of learning outside the traditional classroom:
- Travel with them, as much as you can. It can be as simple as a camping trip near home, or as elaborate as a cross-country road trip or traveling overseas. Have them help you research your destination ahead of time, for even more learning. If you’re driving, get them a backseat atlas so they can help navigate.
- Work on skill-building at home in fun ways. For example, thanks to Dear Husband’s profession (he’s a math teacher), we’ve been teaching the girls pre-math skills since they were infants, and actual math skills since they were preschoolers.
- Cook with them. My girls LOVE to cook. Whether you’re doing a kid-specific recipe, or having them help you on a more traditional one, cooking involves so many important academic skills, from basic math/counting/fractions to complex sequencing and planning.
- Do science experiments together. Especially if you can sneak some science into a fun other activity.
- Have regular family game nights, then make sure the games include a number of educational options. From matching games and counting games for younger children, to spelling (Scrabble) and math (cribbage) for older kids, to the logic and strategy involved in such classics as chess and Othello, games are a fun and sneaky way to flex those mental muscles at home.
- Limit screen time starting from birth. When your kids do have screen time, prioritize educational TV shows and educational games and apps.
None of these is a one-stop “fix” for helping your child maximize their learning potential. And yes, all of them require some work on your part, parents. But when your child’s learning and future potential are at stake, spending the time on these steps is the best investment you can make in your child’s future.
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