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The Secret to Better Grades

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."

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