Shelves and shelves of software promise to help your child succeed in school, but how do you know which ones are right for your child? Educational (instructional) software can teach specific academic skills (like reading and study skills) or subject matter content (such as history and science). Most educational software is fairly affordable (many titles cost under $30, and more expensive programs top out at $50), but choosing the right software for your child will keep your total investment down.

The array of educational software programs available can be both tantalizing and confusing. Before you start shopping, you should understand how educational software works, what your child’s specific needs and interests are, and how to find a reliable program tailor-made to your child’s needs and learning style.

Software for many skills and subjects

Educational software programs address academic skills and subjects such as:

  • Study skills and homework help
  • Critical thinking skills
  • Reading
  • Math
  • Writing
  • Other academic subjects (such as history and science)
  • Enrichment (areas of special interest)

Ask yourself what you want your child to gain from using the software. Does he need help practicing certain skills? Or is your goal to immerse him more deeply in a subject (like math or science) he struggles with? If your child is curious and passionate about a particular subject (say, dinosaurs, or the Civil War) he may enjoy delving into software that offers in-depth enrichment and exploration.

Find the right fit for your child

Once you decide what type of educational software your child needs, you’ll want to narrow the list by considering additional features and factors that are suited to your child. Here are some questions to get you started:

What’s your child’s age/grade level? If your goal is to shore up his skills or subject matter mastery, be sure the software is both age-appropriate and aligned with his grade level. That said, some programs are designed to be “leveled up” as he makes progress and as he moves from grade to grade.

What’s his learning style? Most kids prefer a certain way of learning, such as listening (audio), seeing (visual), or hands-on work. Some kids enjoy role-playing or creative activities. What approach to learning does your child most enjoy? What techniques help him learn best? Choose a product that matches his learning style.

Does he need regular feedback and progress reports? Some kids respond to software that gives them frequent feedback and “rewards” to stay motivated. An ambitious or competitive child may prefer a program that tracks his progress and charts his success — and tells him what tasks he has yet to tackle!

Where’s the “fun factor”? No matter how reliable and appropriate an educational software program is, if it doesn’t captivate your child, she probably won’t use it.

Be savvy when selecting software

Once you’ve matched software to your child’s needs, the next step is to verify the quality and reliability of the program. Here are some key questions to ask:

  • Where will the software be used and with what other equipment and technology?
  • Can you try before you buy? Take advantage of the free trial demos and downloads offered by many software companies. Some retail stores have demos set up for customers to try out onsite. Be sure to let your child “test drive” the software, since she’s the one who’ll be using it.
  • Does the company provide convenient access to technical support in the event you need help setting up or operating the software? When trouble-shooting is required, will you have the support you need?
  • How do different programs compare in terms of features and the flexibility to customize them for your child?

Where can you find answers to these questions? The software manufacturer or computer store salesperson may be the first resource you turn to, but you should also seek information from less-biased resources, such as:

  • User reviews. Whether you chat with parents you know or you read online reviews, real-world input can be invaluable. But remember that every child has unique needs, so dig deep to find reviews from parents whose children seem similar to yours.
  • Independent consumer guides. Two guides we like are: Educational Software Buying Guide (Consumer Guide Products) and SuperKids – Education for the Future

How effective is educational software in improving kids’ academic skills and knowledge? There is still much debate about this among researchers. So it pays to do your homework when choosing software. No matter where you turn for information, be smart and somewhat skeptical of claims that seem too good to be true. Learn how to evaluate products and services for your child.

Be your child’s computer co-pilot

Once you and your child select and install the educational software that’s right for her, you’ll want to help her navigate its use and troubleshoot any glitches. As soon as she’s ready to take the driver’s seat, back off and let her work independently. Don’t hover but do monitor your child’s use of the program and assist with any challenges that crop up. Above all, be sure to celebrate her progress and help her recognize how her efforts on the computer translate into greater success in the classroom.