Editorial: ABCs for Back to School

Students get off the bus and head into the school Monday, Aug. 4, 2014, during the first day of school at Burgin Independent School in Burgin, Ky. Clay Jackson / AP

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By Dr. Sarah Vinson

As summer winds down and fall approaches, families across the country are resuming the school routine. With that routine, however, comes the risk of school becoming simply somewhere your children go, rather than a place where they excel at their full potential.

The overwhelming majority of the time children take their cues about the importance of education from their parents, and a parent who approaches the school year intentionally can help to set the stage for their child’s success.

Here are a few tips for starting the school year off right.

Agree on Goals

Taking the time to discuss goals for the school year with children signals to them that school performance and academic effort matter to their parents/primary caregivers, the most important people in their lives.

Goals can also clarify the abstract, translating it into concrete steps for the child to work toward. What it means to have a “good school year” or what constitutes “good grades” has a myriad of definitions. Goals that are clear and attainable ensure that everyone is on the same page, and when reached, can bolster children’s confidence and inspire them to continue achieving.

Be Present

Parental accountability changes behavior for the better and waiting until report card time means up to a quarter of the school years has passed. If a child knows that his parent may show up and observe class or that his parent will go online and checks his grades, it can motivate him.

The goal for parents is that there are no big surprises come report card time. The other reason to show up early and often is that if there are academic struggles, interventions to address them can be explored before the child falls further behind. Often if students do not have problem behaviors, schools do not proactively reach out to parents about academic issues.

A school bus is seen during a safety event for children at Trailside Middle School, in Ashburn, Virginia on August 25, 2015.PAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP - Getty Images

Create the Environment

Think about the things in the home environment that make it easier or harder for your child to start off their school day rested and ready to learn. Are they able to play their video game all night because the TV and console are in their bedrooms, which sets them up to be tired during instruction the next day? Are they eating pastries for breakfast, which spikes their glucose levels early but leave them with little substance throughout the morning? Are they rushing to get ready in the morning and forgetting or misplacing their homework?

Distinguish between Needs and Privileges

Good job prospects, as an adult when they grow up seems too far away and abstract to motivate most children. What can? Tying effort and performance to things that matter to them now.

Watching TV, playing sports, the use of personal cell phones and the like are all privileges. Identify the privileges that your child values most – weekly allowance, screen time, use of a personal cell phone, etc. – and give them the chance to earn it on a daily or weekly basis.

Encouragement is Key

Often parents feel the need to make their children stronger by focusing on what the child is doing “wrong”. Though well-intentioned, sometimes this is done at the expense of encouraging and praising the child for what he/she is doing right.

Acknowledging when they are working hard, helping them recognize and build upon their strengths, and praising their hard work and progress can encourage them to keep working toward their personal best.

Dr. Sarah Y. Vinson is a physician who specializes in adult, child & adolescent, and forensic psychiatry, and the founder of the Lorio Psych Group, an Atlanta, GA based mental health practice providing expert care and consultation.