The night had been another heavy homework evening for my daughter Markie, a 6th grade student at the time. She had finished all of her math homework except for a few challenging problems at the end. It didn’t take long to see her confusion. The problems were new to her, solving the perimeter of a room with two unknown variables in two equations. With both of us worn pretty thin, I needed to motivate Markie and determine the best way to help. Complicating matters, I had no idea how she had been taught to solve such problems and hadn’t done similar ones myself in years. I promised Markie a great bedtime story if she got through the assignment. We plodded ahead and finished, but it was clear that her understanding needed reinforcement.

Later, it was bedtime and as expected, Markie called on me to deliver a story. I used the bedtime story as an opportunity to help Markie visualize what we had covered earlier that evening, supporting what she already knew about perimeters combined with a beginning knowledge of unknown variables.

I told Markie about a girl who was going to teach her classmates how to measure the size of their own rooms, so the girl really needed to understand how to measure perimeters. At 9:15pm, we were applying that day’s lesson to a real situation. After we did our calculations, we physically measured the perimeter of Markie’s room to show that our calculations were correct. When we were done, Markie thanked me for another great story and hopped into bed, secure in her mind that the perimeter of her room was 50 feet.

The next evening, Markie told me that her math problems were all correct, which made us both feel good. I knew that she still needed more help in thinking through this new concept, so I sent a note to her math teacher who reviewed the material with her. Today in 9th grade, Markie’s favorite subject is math and she continues to perform well on her state tests.

Such experiences with my own children, combined with interviews from education researchers and many parents, have convinced me that what parents do at home to support their child’s learning contributes substantially to their school success. Researcher Karl White found that the influence of a good home atmosphere produced a test score gain as high as 42 percentile points on a standardized test.

After studying a substantial amount of research on the topic of what helps students succeed in school, I developed the Get Smart Learning Model to help guide parents in the type of parent assistance that is likely to be most helpful. The Model includes ability, effort, attitudes and beliefs, school quality, teacher quality, school learning habits, home learning habits, evaluation and communications. Here are some components of the Model:


Just as an athlete trains to improve his or her performance on the playing field, court or track, students can develop their natural learning abilities to improve school performance. Because school still requires substantial memorization and repetition of factual knowledge, encourage your child to write and draw central ideas. Writing something down gives meaning to it and creates a written record that can be referred to later. Making a note or outline can focus your child’s attention on a historic event, a lesson or a procedure, often long after he or she was introduced to it the first time. If your child has an assignment and can’t seem to get started, have him write down what he can remember about the topic. What were some causes of the Civil War? List Newton’s three laws of motion. What seems to be the theme of the story? Often what a student can write down will be more than he can remember verbally and he may be amazed at how much he already knows.


Barbara McCombs from Denver University, who has studied student motivation for more than 30 years, found that student motivation has a stronger impact on achievement than any other school factor. Researchers Harold O’Neil and Jamal Abedi have found that high motivation leads to improved self-regulation, that is, being able to control one’s own learning, which helps children become better learners. Parents can increase their child’s effort through the following learning strategies.

  • Help your child understand what counts in school. While we want students to perform well on all schoolwork, their efforts must adapt to teacher and school requirements. That means understanding teacher grading systems, prioritizing work and applying different amounts of effort at key times. Students, and sometimes parents, need to ask teachers to clarify important learning goals, assignments and tests.
  • Know your child’s baseline. Help your child apply his or her strengths to those areas of school that will benefit him or her the most. Denise, for example, had a child who was not performing well in 6th grade social studies due to lack of effort. Recognizing that her daughter had a good memory, solid grammar and spelling skills, Denise explained to her daughter that she also had difficulty in some school subjects, but succeeded by working harder than her sister and other students for whom learning came easy. Denise encouraged her daughter to put forth more effort, study every night for several nights before a big test and rewrite her notes into a condensed form for memorization. The strategy worked and her daughter received an A in social studies and made the honor roll for the semester. More importantly, her higher grade led to a stronger belief that effort makes a difference.
  • Encourage persistence and planning. Both children and adults have a tendency to begin projects on a strong note, then lose momentum as other priorities take over. Our failure to persist is often because we initially failed to realize the amount of work involved, failed to develop a plan or became distracted. Parents can help their children develop persistence by encouraging them to develop a plan. Work in stages, so that your child sees frequent progress and a reward (and end) in sight. Set the example of getting your own work done before a due date. Encourage your child to say “no” to activities or people who distract him from his goals. Monitor your child’s progress and reward him with praise.

Attitudes and Beliefs

A study by Angela Haydel and Robert Roeser at Stanford University showed that students who lack confidence in their ability to succeed, a trait sometimes called learned helplessness, perform lower on tests, regardless of the type of the test, than students with higher confidence. Here are a few ways that education researchers help their own children develop positive attitudes and beliefs toward school and their ability to learn.

“One of the things that I did,” says University of California, Davis researcher Ann Mastergeorge, “was to take photographs of my daughters and put them on their science and math books. I wanted them to have positive attitudes toward those subjects, which historically have been dominated by men, and to see themselves as competent in both math and science.”

“We also told our daughters that sometimes in school you have to jump through hoops,” says Mastergeorge, calling it the trajectory of education. Life has a lot of hoops in it too, so encourage your child to maintain a positive attitude even when things it seem to make little sense.

UCLA researcher Noreen Webb felt that her twin daughters were better writers than they thought they were. Instead of suggesting that they enter a writing contest, Webb asked her daughters’ language arts teacher to be on the alert for such opportunities. Webb felt that her daughters would probably be more likely to participate if their teacher expressed confidence in their writing skills rather than hearing it from her as a parent.

It wasn’t long before the language arts teacher found a contest that matched Webb’s daughters’ abilities. The teacher encouraged both of them to enter a Martin Luther King writing contest. They did, placing second and third at the school district level. This initial success increased Webb’s daughters’ self-confidence in their writing and encouraged the girls to enter another writing contest.

Regardless of where your children are today academically, there are dozens of ways you can help them meet their need to succeed in school and in life.

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