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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.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

09/22/2011:
"i like these "
09/19/2011:
"Rather than just stating, "Numerous studies have shown," "Research has shown," "New research shows," "new research suggests," "According to research," "Studies have found," and etc., this article would be more helpful and possibly valid if actual source were cited. Some of these "secrets" are know findings that have existed for quite sometime. With respect to Secret 6, please note the high literacy rate of Cubans stemming from their education system in which most Cubans are raised with a few to no books in their homes. As for Secret 7, between the economic recession and the heavy weight of state standardized tests, U.S. school first cut arts followed by physical education. What do you recommend? "
09/13/2011:
"Love you article. Please include example statements next time, such as for #1 say, "Instead of saying, 'good job! You got all the problems correct!' Try saying, "you worked really hard and took the time to study all the problems! Good job!" It helps me and other parents around America when sample sentences are given. "
09/7/2011:
"I have practiced 5 out of these 8 suggestions through the years with my kids. They all ring true, particularly the ones about TV, Vocabulary and school presence. As a parent there are unlimited teaching opportunities throughout the day. Even our demeanor and reactions are observed and quickly learned. How we guide them, respect them as well as ourselves and others, makes remarkable footprints for their entire lives. "
09/6/2011:
"I homeschool and yes, I do all these things. I have books at home and even get kid magazines sent in the mail. I also encourage vocabulary and many times we use the internet to investigate more information on topics and that increases research skills and also vocabulary to some extent. I also am a firm believer in getting the kids moving throughout the day for a few minutes here and there. (I bet if classrooms did this....there would be less Attention Deficit issues.) Books are great, but try popping in some great educational dvd's sometimes besides just letting them watch Disney Channel....you would be amazed at what they learn by just watching an good educational dvd. "
09/6/2011:
"LOL!!! So THIS is what makes my 7 y/o SMART?? I didn't realize that by doing what comes naturally that I was increasing her intelligence!! I have done all of the above since she was born and now she is in 2nd grade and scores well above average on all the standardized tests and is a straight A student!! We have TONS of books in the house and we read to each other, I am an active volunteer in her school, she has chores (and has since she was tiny!!), her school has PE class 2x weekly, and we DO talk about what she watches on tv!! "
09/6/2011:
"I agree wholeheartedly that using mature speech to talk to your child is the best way to broaden their minds. I couldn't stand Elmo and the way he spoke. I never used baby talk and my sons always spoke better because of it. They began reading before entering Kindergarten and if they don't understand some of the words I'm using they always ask. I also make an effort to ask if they understand what certain less common words mean and often they surprise me with words I never knew they understood. I ask them how they came to know that word and they say they heard it from television or they've heard someone using it. This just makes me beam with pride. My boys are open to learning because they have been exposed to mature language since they were babies. Seriously parents even babies don't need baby talk. Regards books, I've always kept a collection of books on their bookshelves but I constantly change them out as they finish reading them. Sounds expensive but just go to your loca! l libraries and they almost always have books that are discards for sale really cheap. This keeps them excited about what new books they have to read. "
09/6/2011:
"When I cook my grandsons help me and I usually double the recipes. When I need eggs I ask them how many I need when I double or triple. This helps in math but also in their self awareness. They not only realize they can help cook but also know how much of each ingredient we need. This was how I learned to cook with my maternal grandmother starting at age 4, I knew basic math, and I would get the ingredients and see how much I needed. At 63 I still love to cook and I hope this helps my grandsons follow the same path. "
09/6/2011:
"Great work of GREAT SCHOOLS team. Very practical tips. One more tip I found very useful with with kids is facing a challenging situation - Example- Coming to school even if not feeling 100% fit , appearing for examination even if late admission in session. This is specially the situation in Indian Schools . "
09/6/2011:
""suggesting that young brains become wired early for complex thought." This does not suggest anything about wiring young brains. It does suggest that intelligent parents with large vocabulary produce children with the same. Nature not nuture. I bring this up because this seems to be a serious educational site. While encouraging parents to use big words is a positive, exageration of benefits ("a formidible 40 points") is a negative, creating unreasonable expectations for parents no matter what their IQ. "
09/6/2011:
"Had to comment on #4-"Faer not the $5 word." Personal experience with my oldest shows there are many benefits to using $5 and even $10 words. Not only has he used them from an eary age, but comments from adults and teachers about his extensive vocabulary have brighened my days since his early age. Using those words is one of the easiest and most fun ways of training children to be expressive. "
09/6/2011:
"With regard to the 1st item, my husband and I have a child that was diagnosed with learning disabilities. We tried high priced private schools where he was often roundly criticized, and in one instancem the teacher admitted that she sat him in the corner and did not teach him. We pulled him and put him into public schools. We worked in tandem with the teacher (4th grade at this point), and had never put the emphasis on grades, but effort. Our learning disabilites student turned out to be a Straight A student (ranked number one in his class for the 5th straight year) because of the encouragement on the work rather than the grade. He learned that he could do what he set his mind to do, and sincerely wants to learn, spending hours studying and researching in-depth any topic he is engaging. He has also witnessed both me and my husband working on post-graduate degrees, and has learned the behavior. He no longer has an IEP. He is a respectful, confident, teenager who is very much looking forward to maintaining his rank, and has been preparing for college ever since he learned that he could be successful through a strong work ethic. I completely concur with this suggestion. I have seen it firsthand. "
09/6/2011:
"Read aloud every day or night, and read them books that are above their reading level -- you can start that in kindegarten. We still read to our son in 5th grade, even though he also has to read on his own for school. Keep a good stack of board games around....and article in the Wall Street Journal just mentioned that sustained activities like board games help kids focus, and there's a world of games to choose from. Check out your local hobby store or go online. Great for bringing families together. And giving a kid simple chores absolutely helps, even if they grumble. Our 5th grader has to keep his bed made and keep the dirty clothes picked up in the bathroom, practice his piano and occasionally pick up the dog doo to earn "screen time." We also encourage him to be a "helper" in his classroom, so the teacher can see that our otherwise attention-challenged goofball can step up to the plate. "
09/6/2011:
"I'm sorry to realize this is a retred and that Great Schools doesn't have more recent content. My son is starting first grade and I can say that #4 and 6 have proven true in our home. My husband and I are both language people and it never occurred to us to dumb down our vocabulary for our son. We both beam a bit when he asks (practically daily) what a word or phrase means. He doesn't use language without thought. Not only do we have an abundance of books in our home, we make frequent trips to our local library to pick up more books. For critical thinking, I highly recommend reading mysteries to your child or with your child. Cam Jansen and Jigsaw Jones are particularly good for young readers. "
09/6/2011:
"I must say without knowing this before i have tried a few of these tips just on my own and what a difference it made in school life of my child. With the physical presence in the classroom.... you get a sense of the teaching process as well as learning a little bit of the personalities and interaction of the other kids in your child's life. "
09/6/2011:
"I totally agree with your points....We have a vast collection of non-fiction books as well as fiction books (some taken from the library0 and my two sons do score extremely high on the state/local tests that are given... Remember---give them a chance and they will fly "
09/6/2011:
"One good way to be present in schools, at least in Texas, is to go to the office and say I WANT TO VOLUNTEER FOR THE SCHOOL. After they come to from passing out from shock, they will help figure out the best way you can help the school, whether you are in PTA or help shelve books or tutor kids or whatever. It's not hard. It's fun, and it is definitely needed. "
09/6/2011:
"This is a great article! I plan to share it with parents via our school's newsletter. "
09/6/2011:
"This is good. "
09/6/2011:
"I absolutely agree with the importance of increasing physical activity in children's schedules. Too bad that public schools in my area don't see the benefits of it. "
09/6/2011:
"Students need enough sleep to function. And parents who understand how the student learn will be able to better advocate for them and help the teacher help the student "
09/6/2011:
"I love the article! I would like to take it to my principal. She is going to want to view the research. Could you please tell me to what research you referring? Thanks, Bill Clark (The happy math teacher) "
10/19/2009:
"I take a modified exception to item 1. While it is important to emphasize effort and hard work, it is also important, if not more, to emphasize results. In our society , it seems politically correct to reward effort to the discredit of results. I have seen in our society awards given to those who 'work hard' without achieving results. It is true that invention is 90% perspiration and 10% inspiration. BUT, don't knock the inspiration, intelligence, and wit to achieve RESULTS."
09/16/2009:
"Appreciate your surprising secrets to school success. I want to share with you that a very important clue for learning other languages is 'PERSONALITY'. I am an English Teahcer in Ecuador, Soth America 20 years ago, so always I am looking for new and interesting things for my seniors class. Regards, Jacquie Prado"
09/14/2009:
"I knew that reading to my kids and instilling in them a love of books was critical to their success in school so I read to them every night- even when camping. When they were young, they would both climb up beside me on my bed and I would read them a story - every night. when they got a little older and could read, they started to read to me every night - and so on. School was so easy for them as they were very proficient readers and this instilled confidence in the rest of their ability to learn. Now they're in college and doing very well. The point of this story, the early reading emphasis made school easier - not only for the kids but for me too. "
09/14/2009:
"Excellent tips for parents, especially the one with nature. This helps both teacher and Ss with attention difficulties. I propose a change of environment is good."
09/11/2009:
"Great advice, unfortunately sending the message is one issue and implementing these starategies in the home appears to be related to the cognitive capacity of the parent or at least that appears to be the correlation. The cleaver parent provides the cleaver environment, however the children that require additional help just to maintain a basic skills competency level, rarely are exposed to these fundamental strategies. In closing I have two Degrees in Teaching and Education, however the lack of educational insight to the very basic 'rights' of children appear to be neglected.I have the greatest admiration to those dedicated teaching staff who can stomach the sub standard respect for the most critical link they provide so our children can develop in terms of accademic achievment benchmarked at an International standard. Timely advice, Regards Ian Fulford Cordeaux Heights Ex Teacher Adult Vocational Education and Team Leader."
09/8/2009:
"very reaSSuring a day before kinder (the real begining I guess we are on the right track"
09/8/2009:
"PLease, give more examples of using the of praising work not wit. I havr hard time praising period. I would like some more ideas of ways to encourage my child at school. I get so wrap in the phone calls from the teacher , I don't find time to say you did a good job on anything. If you have any suggestion for how to praise your child send to me via email. Thank you"
09/8/2009:
"Love Your Take on 8 Ideas for Raising Happy Learners! 1) A+ For Effort! Praise the Work of Learning 2) 'An Example Fit To Follow!' - be an active parent! 3) Tivo Critical Thinking Shows, offer pre-view Q & A to initiate discussion. 4) Never Talk Down to Our Child! Speak Adult!!! 5) 'Our World' Bio 101 = Aquarium, Aviary & Our Garden 6) All About Books! How they work, how to make them too! 7) We Change Attitude By Behavior: i.e. Our BIG BOOK Project has Mom & Baby race a BIG BOOK Cartoon Course reading the Tortois & The Hare for example, on all fours at eye level frame by frame around the gym. A Virtual Story Meets A Real Race 8) Our early experience training Labrador Retrievers of all things taught us that a being with a job to do always rises to the occasion - those without a job to do just look for trouble to get into! Y'all Great People at Great Schools! Thank you!!! Please see us & say hello @ hiedcoach.wordpress.com"
09/8/2009:
"I know that all of these are great tips how about coming up with some stuff for kids in a split home situation!!! Thank you"
09/4/2009:
"These are excellent ideas. Especially the one about reading. All kids need to read at home and at school. SSR works, but is rarely done at school."
09/4/2009:
"My daughter loves to read. Even when she was a baby and barely walking, she would plop herself down on daddy's or my lap with a board book to indicate that she would like us to read to her. We embraced that and now at six, she has already read classics such as Charlotte's Web, the Secred Garden, etc. But of course, the issue with reading ahead is many books contain subject matters that are a bit mature for her, so we have to be very careful in helping her selecting the books. We can't keep up with buying books(so expensive) so we go to library all the time and she would borrow 12 chapter books at a time and that won't even last her a week, usually. We also set the example of reading. Sometimes all three of us just lie down on the couch and read for hours on a lazy Sunday afternoon. Yeah, let the laundry and house cleaning can wait! My daughter does not watch any TV, occasionally DVDs. But it is so rare that she never asks to watch anything. Our TV is rarely on when she is awake, so she is not in a habbit of TV watching at all. I let her read the Disney books, Barbie books, Sponge Bob, etc. so she is still in tune with what all the kids in school are watching. Have you noticed though, Disney does not make really good reading books? Great post. "
09/4/2009:
"Yes, the reading library is a great idea. Also , I can testify to the success of reading to your child from books that are well-above his/her grade level but are high-interest books. My son is a college freshman & when he was 6yrs. old, I started reading to him from the C.S. Lewis, 'Chronicles of Narnia' series. We also watched the old BBC productions of the Chronicles from videos borrowed at the local library. He was small & didn't mind the horrible animatronics, it was nothing compared to modern american CGA. He loved the stories, which I used as a bedtime bribe. He started reading the Chronicles from about 2nd-4th grade. He even did his 4th grade biography report on C.S. Lewis. When he was 16yrs. old we visited Northern Ireland and saw the university and the forrest that inspired C.S.Lewis to create the Chronicles of Narnia. Yes, read to your kids every night and read high interest stories, it builds their vocablulary thus building confidence as a reader. It's win-win si! tuation. Parents get quality time, while reading to their child and your child gets a wonderful creative life. "
09/2/2009:
"Why did it take scientific studies to 'figure' this out. I was raised this way in a large, low income family. All of this has to do with nurturing responsibility and a love of learning!"
09/2/2009:
"My son asks: Where is the documentation? We in the public sector know that unless something is documented then it didn’t happen. Sebastien"
09/2/2009:
"When planning ANY activity that involves the child, try to include the child in the actual planning process itself. They learn a lot & being involved in the planning creates more 'buy-in' for the activity."
09/2/2009:
"Very informative and I think that parents and children can benefit from reading this article."
09/2/2009:
"My son first read at age 2 yrs 9 months, he is in 2nd grade and reads at level 638(700 is 5th grade). He does not like 'work' but loves games and projects. I always disguised 'homework' By saying what games did your teacher send home, he will do math games and grammar puzzles. (homework in disguise.)I am a parent that loves homework. If the parents are not interested it is less likely that the children will be ALL children are different. I have 6 two drop outs and one wiz kid and 3 average. all raised the with the same activities, and structure. So don't feel like a bad parent if your chid does not accell in some areas. We can not control their personalities, we can limit phone, tv and pc until reading and homework are finished."
09/2/2009:
"I was pleasantly surprised to see that my family does most of these things mentioned in the article, and I believe they really do help. my 6th and 7th graders last year received excellent grades and did very well in school. my 2nd (now 3rd grader) is the one stumping us. she does fine just not taking off great like we anticipated. She is so smart, started out great, early verbal, loves school, and helped everyone around her in kindergarten, but every year she seems to fall alittle lower in the pack. she is very disapointed she did not test into GATE like her brothers and some of her best friends. any ideas?"
09/2/2009:
"I actually agree with this! I do several of these findings already and I do see a significant difference in my child's academics, escpecially reading."
09/1/2009:
"I am a regular reader of your articles. It gives me new ideas to improve my child's overall growth. Thanks rs"
09/1/2009:
"One thing that I learned about learning was when I was working in one town and driving a total of three hours to university night classes twice a week. I made up audio tapes for the car ride and got top marks. I realized later that it wasn't listening to the tapes that made all the difference, it was the making of them. Over to you."
09/1/2009:
"Vocabulary, vocabulary, vocabulary-We decided early on to minimize daycare to expose our son to our postgrad level vocabulary as much as possible. I think this is invaluable. Television is a remarkable expansion of the universe these days. Again, our son knows about things we haven't heard of from The History channel, Nature, National Geographic, news channels, etc. (He led his 2 person team to a 3rd place victory in the middle school county-wide social studies competition when my son was in the 6th grade.). He has followed up on many subjects by reading adult level books to satisfy reading log assignments. Again, his vocabulary is incredible. Applaud the word AND applaud the accomplishments. Feed the interest in learning even if it is about the engineering of garbage pickup. My opinion is to let them find areas that are sparking their interest at any given time and make available any and every form of experience that can feed their interest. "
09/1/2009:
"I would love to have some expert feedback on this one. I use all of the above suggestions, and my children still don't love learning! Maybe I'm overlooking how it has helped though. They do love to read recreationally, and they do occasionally impress me with a vocabulary word or two. Still, I feel I'm spinning my wheels in the mud many times because they don't like to take notes or really study. Parenting is so much harder than they tell you!"
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