Kim Hoey, Special to The News Journal 5:04 p.m. EDT March 17, 2014
– Published March 2014

Lisa Carey sometimes thinks she’s a great parent, sometimes not so much. When her, now adult, son was in school she saw he was struggling, so Carey fought to have him tested for learning disabilities. While she was trying to help him, Carey thinks the message he got was he didn’t need to try so hard. His mother obviously didn’t think he could do it, so he should be happy with C’s.

So when her daughter started school, Carey took a different tactic. She would tell her daughter she was smart enough to figure it out. That caused problems, too.

Carey, a seventh-grade math teacher in the Lake Forest District who says she should know better, isn’t alone. Often parents’ best efforts to help their children, backfire and sometimes even sabotage the child’s learning.

Beverly Stewart is president and director of Back to Basics Learning, a tutoring and one-on-one private school in Newark, and says she sees it all the time. Parents say things like, “Johnny is terrible at math. I was always terrible at math …” Stewart understands the parent is trying to tell the child he or she understands and that the child shouldn’t feel bad about struggling in a subject. Unfortunately, what the student often hears is the parent thinks he’s stupid, so what’s the point of trying.

“Put kids in pigeon holes or labels and they’ll act out,” Stewart says. “What’s in your head is what you become.” Rob Wilson, a father of two teenage sons in Boston, says he realizes his children often take remarks he makes to heart. “It’s hard because kids are going to interpret what parents say,” says Wilson, who often finds himself explaining what he said to his children. “I try not to assign things to them.”

So what to do? Here are some of the common well-intentioned things parents do and some suggestions for better outcomes.

1. I wasn’t good at … either. Try instead to encourage the child. Acknowledge learning new skills can be difficult, then tell him he can do it. Try working together to find the answer if possible, although Stewart advises if the homework help becomes argumentative, stop and write a note to the teacher asking for help. Battling during homework help only makes it more difficult for the child to attempt it later because of the negative feelings associated with it.

“You’ve got enough roles,” Stewart says. “Teach your child about life – yes. Teach your child academics – no.”

2. Becoming detached or uninvolved. As students enter middle and high school, parents often pull back because it is time for students to learn responsibility. True on the responsibility, not on the pulling back. Students need to see parents still care and are part of the process. In middle school, students almost need you more, Stewart says. That doesn’t mean be a homeroom parent in high school, but check in with student and teachers regularly to see how school is going. Make sure the student knows education is a priority.

2a.Being a helicopter parent. So don’t be detached, but let the child fall down and fail every now and then. That is how the child learns and becomes stronger. Don’t jump in with answers and solutions right away. “Life is about bumps in the road. There is a purpose for challenges, we’re always stronger as a result,” Stewart says.

3. This assignment is stupid. So it’s been years since the last time you looked at an algebraic equation or studied World War II; still, lashing out sends the wrong message. Instead, maybe email the teacher for advice. There are also websites online that help explain concepts.

4. You’re not doing anything until that homework is finished. According to the National Center for Family Literacy, students don’t concentrate well for long periods. For long assignments and the loads of homework that come home, help students by encouraging breaks every 20 to 30 minutes. Maybe they can get a snack, or for older students, let them check their phones for five or 10 minutes. Sounds crazy, but they should be more productive.

5. Labeling your child. “Susie is the smart one, or Billy is the athlete.” Although it sounds like encouraging a good trait, it can lead to children feeling they have to live up to the parents’ expectations that have been spelled out. Instead, just compliment your child on something specific she does. “I really like the way you used color in you painting, or you put a lot of time into that project.”

For Carey, she’s changed her tactic with her 16-year-old daughter. Just because she’s smart, doesn’t mean she doesn’t need help sometimes, Carey says. Now she tries to be more patient and help her daughter through problems.

“They don’t know everything,” she says admitting she doesn’t either.

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Beverly Stewart, M.Ed.

Beverly Stewart, M.Ed. is President and Director of Back to Basics Learning Dynamics, Inc., an area leader in 1-on-1 tutoring and test prep for children and adults, and translating/interpreting since 1985. In addition, Back to Basics is a Department of Education approved 1-on-1 Private School for K-12, as well as a Business and Trade School for ages 16+.
Email Beverly at beverly@backtobasicslearning.com, call her at (302)594-0754 or visit on the web at www.backtobasicslearning.com or www.backtobasicsprivateschool.com.

Back to Basics Learning Dynamics, Inc. is located on 6 Stone Hill Road, Wilmington.

Beverly Stewart inducted to Hall of Fame of Delaware Women