3 Things That Help Parents Raise Successful Learners

As the new school year approaches, it’s a good time for goal setting. Many parents spend time thinking of ways to help their children have better academic success and higher test scores. Here are three things to help us as parents raise successful learners. 

1. Optimal success? Foster optimal brains.

 When kids are trying to diagnose a problem they are facing, motivate themselves to get to work, or learn something that is confusing, they need to have their prefrontal cortex engaged rather than their amygdala. The amygdala is essentially the fear center of the brain   —   great for fighting or running like hell, but kind of useless for the work of the typical high schooler. The prefrontal cortex is the part of the brain responsible for guiding thought, action, and emotion, and thus all of the organizing, planning, and motivating crucial to success. When the amygdala (fear) jumps in, the thinking, planning, and motivating of the prefrontal cortex gets shoved offline. What helps successful learners keep the prefrontal cortex in charge? Among other things, being rested, regular exercise, lower stress, meditation and mindfulness, and a healthy sense of control over their own lives. 

2. Lower our own stress.

 If we are more anxious about our children’s success than they are, there is a problem. Guess whose it is? We are better able to help our children and raise successful learners when we aren’t stressed out. Ever watched (or been) a frazzled parent trying to soothe a crying baby? Not too successful, huh? When our children are struggling, feeling stressed, or in need of great adult advice, we would like them to turn to us—few people know them better and no one loves them more. If we are stressed, we are less successful in that role. If our children are especially sensitive, they may even not share their problems with us for fear “of upsetting us.” It’s not easy to be Zen, but it’s worth working towards. 

3. Be a consultant, not a manager.

 We want our children to develop autonomy, but as parents we aren’t looking to be put out to pasture just yet. We want to parent. The etymological root of parent is the Proto-Indo-European (PIE) root pere, which means “bring forth.” To bring forth the best in our children, to stay involved in their development and success, and to increase the likelihood they embrace rather than reject our well-intentioned advice as criticism, strike a pose as a consultant.   

 We want our children to be successful learners and manage their own lives. This will allow them to develop the tools of college learners and successful adults. They need to do this work. But, as with any process of learning, it is a process, full of hiccups and bumps. We cannot help our children if they are afraid to reveal their struggles. 

 Touch base: “How’s everything going? Would you like to talk about it? May I offer some advice?” and then listen. If no advice is wanted, don’t offer it. They won’t hear it anyway. If we respond with “Okay. I’m here if I can help,” our children are much more likely to circle back to us when they are ready to hear us. 

 Recently, I asked my son about whether he wanted “reminding” to get up and get going in the morning. “Honestly, Dad, once or twice is helpful. But after that, the more you or Mom remind me, the less I want to do it.” Okey-dokey. So, this morning, I flipped on his lights. He groaned, saying he wanted to stay in bed to warm up. Okay, got it. Ten minutes later, I circled back. He eyed me warily. “All right, pal,” I said, “I’m headed for breakfast. It’s your choice to get up or not. Give a holler if you need anything.” Five minutes later he was downstairs, 10 minutes faster than usual. He looked at me brightly: “See! I told you. If you leave it to me, it goes better.” I could get to like this consultant gig.