By Marcy Lovitch
These five strategies — gleaned from spelling bee stars, science fair champions, and others — can help any child excel.
When you see the latest spelling bee champ crowned on TV, or hear about a kid earning a perfect score on the SATs, you probably assume the winner studies all day ... or is just a born genius. In fact, there's usually something else at work. These kids, with their parents' help, have unlocked the secrets to being supermotivated students. They like to study, they like to achieve — and they know how to get results. Here, they spill their best strategies to help your children love learning and excel in school (and their future careers).
Sharpen Their School Skills
High-achieving kids don't forget when term papers are due or arrive at an advanced math class without a calculator. These kids have learned good organizational skills, often thanks to their parents. And they've learned what study habits work best for them.
Having — and using — a planner is one habit most high achievers swear by. Jannett Maxon buys daughter Lindsey, 17 — a high school senior in Arlington, TX, who earned a perfect 2400 on her SATs — a day planner so she'd get in the habit of writing down important dates. Planners visually organize information for students, so they can see when papers are due, when tests will be taken, and when, say, recitals are scheduled. "When you've got things coming at you from all directions, you've got to keep one calendar," says Jannett.
Harnessing your family computer can also help. Bonny Jain, 15, of Moline, IL, won the National Geographic Bee in 2006, and prepped for it with Excel spreadsheets he created with his parents. "We asked him his goals and what he wanted to accomplish each month," says his father, Rohit Jain. Since there were so many categories to cover for the bee, such as history, current events, and natural resources, Bonny had to estimate how much time he could devote to it while not letting his schoolwork slide. With the help of his spreadsheets, Bonny was able to figure out how many hours he could allot for each category and create a schedule/study guide to steer his efforts.
And when it comes time to actually study, consider how your child learns best, and tap into that. "Children learn in different ways," says Paul J. Donahue, Ph.D., director of Child Development Associates in Scarsdale, NY, and author of Parenting Without Fear: Letting Go of Worry and Focusing on What Matters. "Some benefit from oral repetition and quizzing, while others are more visual learners and better at writing out their answers or studying from notes or textbooks." Josephine Kao, 13, of Roseville, CA, has competed in the Scripps National Spelling Bee three times, and takes a low-tech approach with her parents' help. "My dad puts Post-its with hard words all over the house, so I'll be walking by the fridge and see one there," she says. "The spellings tend to stick in my head that way." If you know your child retains information better when he says it out loud, follow the lead of Erica Remer of Beachwood, OH, whose son Scott, 14, tied for fourth place in this year's Scripps National Spelling Bee. When Scott practiced for a spelling bee, he and his mother power walked, spelling out loud as they got fresh air and exercise. Unconventional, for sure, but it worked for them.
Teach Them to Tune In
Do homework in front of the TV? No way, say high-achieving kids. John and Danny Berg, both honor students in Western Springs, IL, follow this homework drill: Turn off the TV and their cell phones, pop out their iPod earplugs, and focus. "One of the most important things you can give your kids is their own space that is neat and quiet," says their mother, Cathy Berg. "With all the technology in their lives these days, their environment is so noisy that I make sure they get a chance to concentrate when it comes to school." Today, at 18 and 12, John and Danny both "unplug" themselves before hitting the books with no prodding from Mom.
Parents who enforce distraction-free work are on to something. Spending too much time watching TV diminishes kids' ability to learn, their academic success, and even their chances of graduating from college, suggests three recent studies. And a healthy diet, plenty of sleep, daily exercise, and a home free of parental or sibling squabbling correlate to better memory retention and higher grades at school. "Having the proper learning environment for your child is crucial," says Carol S. Dweck, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success. "If kids are texting or their siblings are talking to them, they're not devoting their full attention to learning, so they learn less. When kids know this, they're more motivated; they think, Uh-oh, if I'm not in a quiet place, I won't learn as well."
Set an A+ Example
The values you communicate — perhaps unconsciously — can have an impact on your child's academic achievement. It can be as important as the books he reads and the tests he takes, says Linda Baker, Ph.D., chair and professor of psychology at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County. "Don't make homework seem like an aversive experience," says Baker. "If you say, 'Let's get your homework out of the way so you can play,' or 'If you finish this chapter, you can have dessert,' they'll see academics as a negative experience."
Instead, value their schoolwork. Don't present it as a chore but as an endeavor that sparks your curiosity. Chat about their school projects and your work projects. "Play word games like Scrabble, Upwords, and Scattergories to build your child's skills. And Monopoly gets kids counting and helps with math," says Baker.
Also, don't put undue pressure on your child to spend free time, say, working on his algebra or reading only the classics. Be sure to encourage the lighter side of learning, too. Play educational games or do jigsaw puzzles as a family. And give your child freedom of choice when it comes to his leisure reading. When kids are doing something they enjoy, they retain more information, studies show. Says Lindsey Maxon, the SAT perfect-scorer: "My younger brother learned the word quiche from a comic book — it helped him win his school's spelling bee!" And here's how mom Erica Remer puts it: "Calvin and Hobbes may not be what I'd pick out for my kids, but it's better than reading nothing, and sometimes it's okay to just read for fun."
Unstuff Your Child's Schedule
While parents want to encourage their kids' academic achievements, a child's sense of worth shouldn't ride on his report card. Make sure he has some chill-out time, says Donahue. "Kids ages pre-K to 11 should have at least two days a week without anything scheduled, so they can de-stress and use their imagination," he says. "These are critical aspects of childhood, and such moments can't be recaptured."
Downtime can even create its own eureka moments. Graham Van Schaik, an 18-year-old college freshman at MIT, says playing outside while growing up in Columbia, SC, made him interested in the outdoors, from constructing backyard forts out of cardboard boxes to wondering how antibiotics given to cows affect the purity of their manure. His natural love for science led him to earn the second-place prize in this year's Intel Science Talent Search, one of the world's most prestigious science competitions.
Experts caution that, as kids get older, carving out free time gets harder, especially if the child is on a sports team or two and/or plays an instrument. But here's a tip: Have family dinners as often as possible. Studies have shown that they deliver a variety of academic and health benefits for adolescents.
Praise Effort, Not Intellect
Sure, when your child does well on a project or a test, it's tempting to say, "Look how smart you are!" Indeed, surveys say that 85 percent of Americans think telling kids they're smart is good parenting. But the experts say it's much better to acknowledge how hard your child worked. Dweck conducted research that revealed that praising kids' intelligence rather than their efforts can make them fear mistakes. They may shun future challenges to avoid messing up and looking "dumb." Shifting the focus from labels ("you're a genius") to the thrill of meeting a challenge ("you worked really hard on that") can help give them the freedom they need in order to excel. "Many students think trying hard is only for the inept. Yet sustained effort over time is the key to achievement," Dweck says.
This same principle can be applied when your child is really struggling with a tough topic; parents should let children know they're doing a terrific job within their own capabilities. Says Erica Remer, mother of top speller Scott: "Kids need to learn that just because they're doing something challenging doesn't mean they should give it up immediately." So reward hard work and earnest effort with the same praise, "Good job!" stickers, and the other reinforcements you'd dole out for a stellar report card.
Isha Jain, 17, a Siemens Competition in Math, Science and Technology winner this year, says she's so self-motivated because her parents taught her that hard work is its own reward. "That'll definitely help me in the future, because real life isn't based on getting a 4.0," she says, summing it up nicely. "It's the attitude that counts."
Could Your Kid Be a Whiz?
If your child dazzles you with her intellectual efforts, you might want to see if she qualifies for one of America's top talent-search programs. Four major U.S. universities offer these testing and enrichment programs. They help millions of kids — from kindergarten through 12th grade — determine how advanced their abilities really are, and they provide kids with resources such as online classes and academic-year and summer enrichment and acceleration programs. There are fees associated with most services, but financial aid is available. For more information, log on to whichever of the following Websites covers the region in which you live:
Duke University Talent Identification Program, tip.duke.edu
- Programs available in AL, AR, FL, GA, IA, KS, KY, LA, MO, MS, NE, NC, OK, SC, TN, and TX
Johns Hopkins University Center for Talented Youth, cty.jhu.edu
- Programs available in AK, AZ, CA, CT, DE, DC, HI, MA, MD, ME, NH, NJ, NY, OR, PA, RI, VA, VT, WA, and WV
Northwestern University Center for Talent Development, ctd.northwestern.edu
- Programs available in IL, IN, MI, MN, ND, OH, SD, and WI
University of Denver Center for Innovative and Talented Youth, du.edu/city
- Programs available in CO, ID, MT, NM, NV, UT, and WY
Originally published on October 9, 2008
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