The case for mum and dad

29th November 2002 at 00:00
Many parents feel left out of their children's schooling, or don't know how to get involved. Bill Lucas reports on ways to welcome them in

Over the past 10 years, the way children are taught has changed so dramatically that few would recognise the schools of their parents' day. During this period we have also found out an enormous amount about the workings of the mind through advances in neuroscience and psychology, helped by television programmes, such as Susan Greenfield's Brain Story. Teachers have looked inwards in their search to develop new strategies. Now, at last, they can look out again and consider afresh the challenge of involving parents in children's education. Learning how children learn is firmly back on the agenda.

At the same time, the relationship between teachers and parents has remained limited. Homeschool agreements are often signed reluctantly and then forgotten. Some parents wait outside primary schools for their children, but rarely enter the classroom. Many primary teachers want to involve parents, but struggle to find ways of doing this. What goes on in the classroom remains a mystery to many parents.

It need not be so. For the past year, I have been working with motivational trainer Alistair Smith, on a book that takes a new approach to involving parents. The central point of Help Your Child to Succeed: the essential guide for parents is that parents are learners, too. They need to have their confidence developed. They need simple strategies to help their children become effective learners. And they need this in the hectic environment of modern family life.

Each of the book's nine chapters begins with a short quiz which allows parents to take stock of their own attitudes. Do you prefer to learn by doing or listening; alone or with a friend? Do you enjoy watching someone and copying them? Does your child try to avoid difficult tasks by doing something else? Such questions encourage smiles of recognition, gentle self-diagnosis and, most importantly, active engagement.

All parents want their children to succeed, but few know how they can help. If teachers could convert this wish into informed support, pupils would benefit enormously. Of all the things parents can do, the most important are what we have called the three Ps of parenting - being positive, being persistent and problem-solving.

Parents need to understand that what they say to their children has a huge impact and can shape their outlook. They also need to see the value of sticking at things. When faced with a difficulty, many of us retreat into our comfort zone. But learning involves taking risks and pushing yourself. If a parent can give a child strategies for overcoming obstacles, the child will become a more resilient learner. And problem-solving is an essential life skill. Being able to get the big picture, ask good questions and stay motivated are important.

We also deal with the tough issues around the use of television, mealtimes, dealing with stress or failure, friendships, timekeeping, planning homework, remembering things, overcoming barriers, understanding moods and preparing for the strange world of school.

Adopting such strategies will undoubtedly help children do better at national tests, but that is not their primary purpose. We see the job of a parent as fostering a love of learning and helping children to learn more effectively. Unless we fully engage parents in supporting their children, we will never realise the potential of the pupils we teach. There are several ways we set about encouraging this. Parents can act as coaches to their children; our coaching model uses the word "respect" to remind parents of the key principles:

* Reassuring: "I know you thought this would be a good way of doing this andI "

* Enthusiastic: "I really liked the way youI "

* Steady: "That's okay. I'll wait while you pick them all up again."

* Practical: "Let's see what happens when we try this again. You stand over there andI "

* Engaging: "I'll do it first, then you tryI "

* Clear: "When you move your hand more slowly, you will stop smudging your writing."

* Truthful: "You're not as good at kicking the football with your left foot as you are with your right foot, so why don't we practiseI " Bill Lucas is an international expert on education and patron of the Campaign for Learning. Help Your Child to Succeed: the essential guide for parents, by Bill Lucas and Alistair Smith, is published by Network Educational Press at pound;6.95 (discounts available for bulk purchases). Tel: 01785 225515

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