How to Boost Young Kids’ Performance at School


Like all parents, you want your child to succeed at school.

What you may struggle with is figuring out the best way to achieve that goal.

Of course, optimal nutrition, physical exercise, and plenty of sleep are crucial ingredients in setting the stage for academic excellence. But there’s a whole more to it, too.

The good news is: Creating an environment at home for top scholastic achievement is totally within your control. Assisting your youngster to self-regulate in a conducive home environment is key. Here’s how.

Teach the Value of Delayed Gratification

Are you familiar with Mischel’s Marshmallow Experiment?

He presented 4-6 year-olds, when alone in a room, with a choice: Eat the marshmallow now, or wait a little while and you’ll get two.

The results were surprising.

Some kids ate the marshmallow immediately. Others waited a little, then chowed down.

But a full third of them actually waited. Then they got another marshmallow to enjoy.

Here’s a short video of the experiment:

Researchers noted that the youngsters who held off used different strategies to resist the ultimate temptation. They turned away. Some covered their eyes. Others hummed to distract themselves.

As a parent, you may already see how you can implement this ingenious method of teaching self-control in your home. (Note to self: Try it with a favorite food or toy.) Maybe you already use it.

For instance, have you ever asked your child not to open a gift or delivery package until they have completed their homework first? Or, to wait until they had finished a meal before indulging in a tantalizing cake on the table? Both times, you’re delaying gratification — and teaching patience while you’re at it.

After conducting the marshmallow experiment, Mischel tracked the kids over 40 years. He found that those who waited for the second treat were more successful in many areas of life such as:

  • Higher standardized test scores
  • Better health status
  • Handling stress
  • Fewer substance abuse issues
  • Greater social skills

And all it took were two marshmallows and a little patience.

When children demonstrate self-control at an early age, like in the Marshmallow Experiment, they will likely have educational and economic success later in life.

Celebrate the Joys of Imperfection

The prevalence of standardized tests and pressure to earn high scores and straight As on report cards is becoming the cradle of a mental health crisis in people of all ages. Some of the dangers of perfectionism include depression, anxiety, or eating disorders.

To prevent this from happening now or later in life, convey the idea to your kid that mistakes and failures aren’t bad. For him/her, they’re signs of learning and growing.

Being unafraid of making mistakes encourages kids to keep trying and not give up.

mother raising child high in the air

Here are a few things you can do to keep the motivation high in your young child when the grades or test scores are on the low-end:

  • Point out progress from previous work.
  • Emphasize what was good about the assignment or test.
  • Praise the effort to do well. (Not the child)
  • Suggest areas to focus on next.

You may wish to consult with teachers on specifics before talking with your child. An email or short phone conversation may be what’s needed.

Promise your kid that you have their back! Follow through and be there to offer support and encouragement when they start the next assignment.

Create a Growth Mindset in the Child

Dr. Carol Dweck developed the notion of growth mindset in her research on student motivation and achievement. She discovered that when children truly believe that their efforts and hard work determine their academic success, they do better in school.

So, how can you get your kid to adopt a growth mindset?

Start with fostering internal motivation to learn – not external rewards like money or toys. No place for instilling a fear of punishment if they don’t perform well at school, either.

For your youngster to internalize an “I can do this!” mentality of growth mindset, try these techniques at home as family activities:

  • Explore new subjects together. Take a tangent on something they’re studying. For instance, if the topic is transportation, take a bus or train trip somewhere new. Research and plan out the itinerary together. Then write about it.
  • Offer academic challenges as fun activities to do at home. Find a subject that they’re interested in. Maybe it’s dinosaurs or unicorns. Create art featuring it, like dioramas, paintings, poems, stories, or videos. Try something they haven’t done before.
  • Raise their reading, writing and math abilities to the next level. Select more difficult books from the library on their favorite topic. Encourage them to enter a writing contest. Use cooking or home improvement projects as a way to develop their math skills.

They may not even realize they’re actually learning how to learn — and loving it!

Model Gentle Self-Talk

Despite giving it all they’ve got, sometimes your child will fail.

Failure is a blow to self-esteem. Unabated, it can lead to self-hate. Then the downward spiral into serious mental illness.

sad kid sitting on grass

Mastering how to accept failure, learn from it, and move on is critical to your child’s academic performance and to their future success in life.

Here are some ways to promote compassionate self-talk that will facilitate your kid’s acceptance of failure:

  • Model it yourself. Next time you fail at something — like following a recipe or forgetting an appointment — point out your error in front of your child. Be sure to say you tried your best. Note that mistakes happen. They’re part of life. Then describe how you learned from it. Maybe the blunder led you to think up another idea of how you’ll prepare the recipe next time. Or possibly you’ve begun to write down your appointments in a special place so that you won’t forget. The point is that it’s possible to turn something bad into something good, even when you least expect it.
  • Ensure your modelling is constructive.When engaged in self-talk or conversing with others in your youngster’s presence, make it positive. For example, don’t belittle yourself if you made a mistake by calling yourself “stupid.” Just state that you made an error and express a wish to do better next time. Offer only constructive criticism of other people instead of judging them. If you hear about a mistake committed by a friend or neighbor, refrain from condemning them or making a mean joke about what took place. Instead, express your regret that it happened. Hope for the best outcome. Suggest a way that would have prevented the blunder from occurring in the first place.
  • Troubleshoot your child’s own self-talk. When you notice him/her struggling to do something, like homework, speak positive thoughts in their presence. Casually mention that you see them working diligently on mastering something, but it’s just not there yet. Congratulate him/her on this. Encourage another try. Ask them to repeat the motivating language aloud to make it their own. 

Create a Home Environment Conducive to Learning

Although posters, books, and objects are important to convey the importance of education to your family, more central to this goal are the learning activities you engage in with your kid.

mother teaching child how to cook

How many ways can you involve your youngster with the 3Rs in day-to-day, “normal” activities? For instance:

  • Visit the library. Read books together there and bring home many more. Maybe a night-time story is a good routine? If your child can read, a brief discussion of what they’ve read would further their engagement with the written word.
  • Cook together. Have you ever noticed how many fractions appear in a recipe? Or try doubling it. Maybe halving it? Challenge your youngster to figure it out. Then measure it. Following a recipe is itself a good experience in carrying out directions.
  • Write greeting cards and send them to relatives. Grandparents adore receiving letters from their grandchildren tucked into a card. Allow your kid’s imagination to have free reign! Provide the art supplies and special writing instruments then supply the stamps. Better yet, drop off in person.
  • Play “educational” games. Board or card games will whet their appetite to learn more if they’re challenging enough. Your enthusiasm for playing will be contagious. Scrabble is a classic favorite. Memory card games are popular, too. 

All of these activities reinforce what they’re doing in school or boost critical thinking abilities. Once their skills are sharpened, your child’s ability to achieve a high level of academic performance in school will often follow.

Practice Good Study Habits

It’s understandable that a distraction-free area that your child is comfortable in and returns to every day at the same time will engender good study habits.

Your being there for support and encouragement — and keeping progress on track — are crucial pieces of the success puzzle, too.

But like other aspects of great academic performance discussed above, developing good study habits depends on internal drive to do well. It also requires a personal willingness to self-regulate.

That’s true whether it’s for a marshmallow or for a good grade.

Once all the physical parameters are in place, developing good homework habits depends on a child’s ability to focus.

girl doing school homework at home

To increase focus, you can aid your kid in the following ways:

  • Practice mindfulness. In a youngster, an effective way to encourage a calm and clear mind is to lie on their back with a small toy or stuffed animal on their stomach. As they breathe, the object will rise and fall. Challenge your child to count to 10, 25, or 50 rises and falls. If you do the same lying beside them, your own mental focus may be restored!
  • Play out energy before trying to do homework. If your youngster returns from school energized and ready to go, allow them to work out their exuberance outside if possible. Playing with a neighbor, friend, sibling, or pet may be added insurance for lowering the excitement level for mental work later.
  • Ensure all physical needs are met. If a kid is tired or hungry, it will be next to impossible to do mental work. So a nap or a snack may be in order first. Just make sure they’re not too close to dinner or bedtime.

Takeaways on Boosting School Performance

Parental involvement is key to success in children’s school performance.

Of course it is important that your youngster is well-nourished and well-rested if you expect them to be able to perform mentally challenging tasks.

Time to play, preferably outside every day, is also vital to working out pent-up energy so that intellectual effort can later take place.

Creating the proper setting for learning in your home — making it print- and number-rich — is crucial.

More important, however, to your child’s academic performance is nurturing and promoting his/her internal regulatory mechanisms. These include an appreciation and aptitude for all the points mentioned previously including delaying gratification and developing a growth mindset.

In every step of the way, there is opportunity for parents to nurture these internal characteristics in their youngsters.

Through offering unconditional love, steadfast support, and appropriately directed encouragement, you will equip your child for academic excellence in school. Even more, you will set them on a learning journey for the rest of their lives.

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