Q: One of my partner's and my New Year's resolutions is to become more involved in our kids' school. Our work makes it impossible to volunteer or attend meetings during the school day. What other activities make a difference in helping them succeed?
A: It's useful to have met with your children's teachers at least once during the school year, preferably early so you can build a relationship. But the most important things you can do to boost your children's school success happen within your family -- in the attitudes you foster and activities you pursue with your kids on nights and weekends.
"Research gives us new ways to think about parent involvement," says Bill Jackson, founder and CEO of GreatSchools.org, a national organization dedicated to guiding parents in getting a great education for their children.
"What this couple should resolve is more involvement in their kids' education," he says. "There's a difference. There's nothing wrong with active parental participation at school, but the real drivers of school success are the things parents do outside of school -- the standards you set and the beliefs you hold about achievement."
Jackson outlines the drivers that matter.
-- Prepare children for learning. "This means making sure that kids get good nutrition, exercise, quality sleep, are on time for school and have good attendance," says Jackson. "You can't learn if you're absent. This may seem like a no-brainer, but there's a lot of learning lost when kids are tired or hungry in class."
-- Partner with teachers. Solve problems collaboratively. Don't automatically accept your child's version of every issue.
"Seek out great teaching, too. It's OK to request the best teachers," Jackson advises.
-- Support literacy and numeracy development. "There's not enough time for adequate math and reading skills practice in class, so supplement at home," says Jackson.
Cultivate key skills early. Read and talk with children daily. Engage in number talk and problem solving. Ensure math-fact mastery. Guide kids to higher-level math.
-- Build knowledge. "This means model curiosity; talk about new information, books and ideas," says Jackson.
"Make connections to topics children are studying. For example, use the spelling list to build vocabulary by spotting the words used in various contexts. Discover and feed kids' interests. Do they love 'Star Wars' movies? Take them to NASA.org to explore past and future Mars expeditions. Show your kids that learning is fun by being a lifelong learner yourself."
-- Build character. Help kids become emotionally intelligent and resilient.
"Promote enduring values kids can fall back on," suggests Jackson. "Foster a growth mindset, the belief that our most basic abilities can be developed through dedication and hard work -- that brains and talent are just the starting point. This keeps kids from giving up and thinking, 'I'm just not good at that.'"
-- Advocate for excellence; choose great schools. "Speak up for high standards," advises Jackson. "Know school strengths and weaknesses. Choose high-performing, good-fit schools for your kids."
-- Put college on your kids' radar early. "Talk about post-secondary pathways," says Jackson. "Set the expectation as early as elementary school that they will go to college. Don't wait until they're freshmen and discover that they should have worked harder at algebra."
(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.)