Surprising secrets to school success

Eight ideas about academic learning you may not know.

By GreatSchools Staff

After a busy day, dinner, and getting the kids to bed, heaven forbid if sifting through a stack of parenting studies isn’t the first way you choose to unwind!

Still it’s a shame to miss out on what science can tell us about raising happy learners. In the interest of your sanity, we’ve gathered eight extraordinary, somewhat counterintuitive findings about fostering children’s success. Try them and report back to us — we’d love to know how they worked for you!

Praise the work, not the wit

Not all positive reinforcement is, well, positive. Numerous studies have shown that children who are praised for their work ethic are better at solving critical thinking problems than those praised for ability. Those praised for effort were almost three times as likely to focus on learning rather than “looking smart.”

Minimize your unexcused absences

Research has shown that you should make the extra effort to be physically present in your child’s classroom. In fact, attending class meetings and volunteering at school better predicts literacy development than your family’s income.

Use the TV to channel critical thinking

Let’s face it — prying our kids away from the TV is no small feat. New research shows that we might be better off using this habit to facilitate learning. Try muting the commercials and asking your child simple questions while she watches TV. What just happened? What do you think about that? These questions teach children to be effective critical thinkers and communicators.

Fear not the $5 word

Many parents assume they should use simple words with kids to avoid confusion. But new research suggests we may be wildly underestimating their brainpower. Children whose parents used complex language were found to have significantly higher IQ’s (a formidable 40 points) than children whose parents did not — suggesting that young brains become wired early for complex thought.

Soothe the soul with nature

According to research, communing with nature isn’t just a nice recreational activity. Natural settings increase a sense of self-worth and decrease stress — two important factors in priming the mind to learn. One study has even shown that natural settings can help relieve symptoms of AD/HD. When children with AD/HD participated in the same activities both inside and outside, those in the outdoor settings experienced fewer symptoms. (Learn more about nature deficit disorder, and why it's important for all kids to spend time out of doors.)

Behind every smart child is a collection of good books

While reading to children is crucial, don’t underestimate the importance of simply giving your kid access to a lot of books. Studies have found that a child raised in a book-friendly environment — with at least 50 children’s books in the home — scores five percentile points higher in math and reading than kids with less access to good reads.

Attend to the body and wake up the mind

The body-brain connection is far from fully understood, but research suggests that children’s learning abilities are inextricably tied to physical vitality. When 33 schools in Ontario, Canada, participated in a program called Living School aimed at increasing student’s physical activity by about 20 minutes a day and improving nutrition, some schools bellyached about lost class time. But in the end, participating school showed enormous improvement. Overall scores climbed 18% in just two years. Third-grade reading scores alone shot up by 50%. Ontario’s education experiment suggests that sometimes basketball practice facilitates learning as much if not more than another after-school tutoring session.

Child labor with a higher purpose

According to new research, children of all ages who perform household chores gain valuable skills, which they can apply to school learning. In one study, children as young as two years old who performed household chores like matching socks or wiping up kitchen spills ended up having more-successful educational experiences and careers.

Have any experience applying these or other tips? Share them in the comments below.