A+ Advice for Parents

Q: My third-grader is an impatient learner. He's smart enough, but if he doesn't get something right away, he gets upset and gives up. How can I help him?

A: Talk to your son about how we learn. A third-grader is old enough for that conversation.

"It's important for kids to realize that learning something new doesn't happen immediately," says Matt Frahm, superintendent of the Naples (N.Y.) Central School District. "It's a process that can be broken down into simple steps. We all go through them, whether learning to kick a goal in soccer, play a new video game or master a recipe."

We also need to make kids aware that learning new things is easier when they've developed key personal traits and attitudes, says Frahm.

"In his best-seller, 'How Children Succeed,' author Paul Tough talks about the hidden power of character," he says. "Research shows that successful learners use their curiosity, grit, persistence and dedication to great advantage."

So apart from trial and error, how do we learn new things?

First, we're introduced to a new idea or concept. Good teachers provide and discuss examples and then ask students to draw on what they already know to provide context. Teachers call this "building on prior knowledge," says Frahm.

For example, third-graders study astronomy and space -- the properties of suns, moons, planets and stars. After introducing the lesson's theme, a teacher will draw out what students think they know already. This might range from notions gained from sci-fi movies to watching a NASA launch online.

"Teachers observe what kids are curious about, what their misconceptions might be, and what knowledge they have to build on," say Frahm.

Once new material is introduced, an important next step is practice. It's common sense that when we practice we get better at something -- whether it's hitting a baseball, coding or multiplication.

"But in today's packed school day, there is often too little time to practice new skills, so parents can help a lot here," says Frahm. "For example, few students nail math facts right away. When parents promote fun math-fact practice with games, apps or even old-fashioned flash cards, kids learn them faster."

The next step is making new learning stick. We do that by using it over and over in different ways so that it is retained and reinforced.

"Families play a key role here, too," says Frahm. While teachers try to give students plenty of chances to apply their learning in class and homework, savvy parents ask kids to use their new skills at home.

For example, Frahm suggests, "Ask your third-grader to figure out how much it will cost if the family orders three pizzas that cost $11; or how much it costs to fill an empty 5-gallon can if gas costs $2.44 a gallon. Giving kids chances to use new learning not only provides practice, it develops confidence. They begin to own it. When they own it, they use it more and lock it in."

Whether you're a parent of a third-grader or a senior, talk about how learning occurs. Help kids develop the character traits that make them successful. They'll be more eager learners as a result.

(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)

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