Succeeding at school: What have parents got to do with it

By Amy Graham 

This summer, you might be preparing for your child to start school or move into a new class. This can lead to a mix of feelings: excitement, sadness, trepidation, uncertainty. I could swear it is harder for the mums and dads than the kids! But did you know there is so much you can do as a parent to help your child navigate this transition successfully and chances are, it is simpler than you might think. And no, it doesn’t involve flashcards, Jolly Phonics or tutoring. Nothing in the research says that children benefit from flashy, expensive toys or that the activities have to be academically orientated. In fact, the greatest gains are experienced by children who have a wide range of toys and learning materials to explore, opportunities to play with a warm and engaging parent and talk about what is taking place, and a rich and diverse range of experiences out of the home.

As parents, we are a child’s first and forever teacher. I know this, both as a parent of three children but also as an educational researcher. We have so much rich knowledge about our child and have taught them since birth, even in nuanced ways. My research explored the tremendous contributions that parents make to helping a child succeed at school, both through their positive and encouraging beliefs and their enriching and diverse preparation behaviours. It reinforced my belief that parents really do matter and they are a crucial partner in a child’s learning.

Fundamentally, on every measure, children experience greater success when they have engaged parents. Parental engagement has emerged as the new benchmark to forecast children’s educational outcomes. Some research concludes that parental engagement is the most effective factor in a student’s educational success, over and above factors within the child or school. But it is not a single behaviour, expectation or aspiration by parents that makes the difference nor is it a perfect formula. Rather, it is about communicating the overall message to your child that education matters and that you have high expectations for them. This can be done through simple conversations, where parents and children are positively discussing school and what they can expect in the new environment. It is also about parents spending time with a child to support their learning.

If your child is starting school for the first time, and has not attended childcare or an early learning centre, this transition could be more pronounced. My research showed that stay-at-home parents engaged in more behavioural preparation in the year before starting school, than those children who attended childcare services. This could be because parents assume the necessary skills and attributes that are needed to successfully transition to school are taught in these settings, or it could be that working parents are especially time-poor. So what can you do? Pay close attention to your child’s social skills and self-regulation: traits which are often developed more in the social environments of early learning and care. It may be that you could arrange a play date with a friend of your child’s from kindergarten that they will be attending school with, play board games that encourage turn-taking (and modelling how to be a ‘good’ loser) or teach mindfulness to your child.

How can parents support their child’s learning at home?

· Read to and with your child. Parents in my study were doing this far more than any other preparation activity, and it is a great way to bond and develop an early love of literacy. A recent study found parents who read one book a day with their child are giving their child a 1.4 million-word advantage over their peers who have never been read to.

· Spend time playing with your child and show an interest in what they are doing.

· Facilitate a range of experiences, both in and out of the home.

What can we do to make the transition easier for children?

· Make sure they are familiar with the environment in a fun, non-threatening way. Visit the school playground in the holidays, make sure they know where the toilets are and arrive early to show them where to go and where you will be at the end of the day.

· In the months leading up to starting school, try to work on your child’s self-care and independence. Ensure they can ask for help if they need, toilet independently, open containers and lunchboxes, and know how to behave in a group.

· Save your tears for the car ride home. Kids need to see that you are excited, proud and confident that they will love all that school has to offer.