Helping your kids thrive at school

Most parents want their kids to thrive at school. But thriving is not just about academic performance or whether or not a child is good at sport or can make friends easily. According to the authors of Thriving at School, Dr John Irvine and John Stewart, current research shows that our children’s success in life will depend less on their ‘traditional’ IQ and more on their emotional intelligence.

“Ideally”, say Irvine and Stewart, “children need to develop attitudes, values and good habits in their early school years which help them to become happy and effective learners.”

“While highly important for a child’s intellectual development, the original 3Rs of reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmetic are not enough on their own to ensure children will thrive as learners. In addition, they need to learn the values of respect, responsibility and relationships – the new 3Rs.”

KidsLife spoke with John Stewart, co-author of Thriving at School about how parents can help their children get the most out of school years and build a strong foundation for success in adult life.

What should a child be able to do before they begin school?

Starting at big school is always an exciting and sometimes anxious time in a child’s life. Dr John and I would emphasise that readiness is not just educational – it’s the combined preparedness of body, soul, mind and ego strength. 

In general, children are certainly ready if they can play well with other kids, dress themselves, go to the toilet by themselves, and enjoy books and stories. Along with these, and strange as it may seem, being able to write (that is print) their first name when they go to school, seems to be the best indicator of reading success later!

You can also tell a lot by the way a child draws pictures of family and their house. Developmentally these drawings can reveal different stages of development – from stick figures to bubble figures. But we stress that ‘ready’ kids are those who are all set to have fun and enjoy their education.

What are some of the main issues that children face at school, which parents may not be aware of or consider?

I think we forget just how social and emotional school is. Children are placed in age-cages, where one day can determine which ‘year’ you are in, who you mix with and what you will learn. 

Children need to mix and feel connected. This isn’t always going to be a smooth and happy journey. Learning can be difficult – learning social skills and emotional intelligence means there can be upset.  But they are just as important in the development of kids as learning the traditional 3Rs – Reading, ‘Riting and ‘Rithmetic. These new 3Rs – Respect, Responsibility and Relationships – are important for our kids’ futures.

In classes, parents sometimes forget that their kids are being cared for by adults who are neither family nor close friends – and these people are professionals. Sometimes we forget just how much experience of children our quality teachers have – they have a history of hundreds of children. Where parents see the world of their child, teachers see the world of ‘their’ children. 

I also feel that parents are much more focused on ‘success’, which can be based on how my kid is doing against other kids in the same class. You hear some parents say – “he has to catch up, he is slipping behind”. This makes learning out to be a race. But it isn’t. A plant that grows quicker doesn’t have a better flower. 

Also, I feel that some parents are forgetting just how much kids are doing these days – the hurried child phenomenon. We have some parents who feel that to be a ‘good’ parent they have to keep up with other mums and dads.  The perception is that if I do more I am providing the best. As a result, we have kids rushed home after school, attending tuition classes, zipped off to music lessons, popped into swimming classes, and then herded into art classes. If we were kids would this be what we want? I just think we have to offer times of ‘nothing’ – seasons of stopping.

What are the personal qualities that can help a child succeed at school?

This is really entering into the world of emotional intelligence – the personal growth and development of a good and happy learner. These qualities are not just for school – they are for life; after all, that is what we are really trying to develop in school. This is the domain of social-emotional well-being.  We find that the real qualities are the new 3Rs:

Respect – Everyone has the right to be respected. Respect comes from appreciating something for what it is – not what it can do for us.
Respect means having regard for others by accepting that other people are different but just as important as you are.
Respecting yourself means that you stand up for yourself and don’t let yourself be talked into doing things that you know are wrong or make you feel uncomfortable.

Responsibilities – We must take responsibility for our actions – for our learning, for possessions, for following rules, and for being kind. We become responsible by gaining satisfaction in knowing that what we do is appreciated. Parents must respect that schools have to assert rules to ensure all kids act responsibly.

Relationships – Once respect and responsibilities are understood, good relationships follow easily. This is probably the most important element for happiness in a life. The most important relationship we should strengthen is the one with ourselves. How we relate to ‘us’ is fundamental for social and emotional well-being. For it is this relationship that offers us the greatest platform on which to build success, to increase our confidence, to tackle change.

What are the habits we should develop in our children to maximise their opportunity to thrive at school?

Why can’t parents rely on a school to teach their children everything they need to do well? There is a statistic that states the following:

15% of time for a child is spent at school
30% of time is spent asleep
55% of time is spent with a parent or adult outside of school. 

I think this statistic highlights the importance of learning that stretches far beyond the school. But we find that more and more is being seen as the school’s responsibility. 

Teachers will be the first to support us when we say our curriculum is far too crowded. The latest addition to the curriculum is a program to stop gambling. Society has all these really worthy causes but we are just not understanding the time constraints on teachers. Parents have to take on more of the responsibilities – and governments have to be more aware that just because schools provide an opportunity for educating a mass audience, that they cannot deliver all the ‘worthy’ causes on top of all the ‘academic’ requirements, or outcomes. 

A frightening statistic was a study in the USA which looked at all the outcomes their curriculum required of their teachers and children. They analysed the actual time available in a school year, measured this against the time required and came up with the realisation that covering all the ‘outcomes’ would require a school to operate from preschool to Year 22!!

How can parents feel more confident raising children at a time when there seems to be so many expectations and so many unique needs?
Parents need to take solace from other parents – it isn’t easy being a parent, and we kind of learn as we go.  That is why there is such a growth in parenting books. We need to build a network of knowledge – the kind that includes grandparents’ clear-sightedness, teachers and their professional understanding, other professionals such as child psychologists’ experiences, as well as other parents’ anecdotes.  And, we must bind all this information up with a good twist of humour. It has to be fun.

What are some of the ways parents can keep track and be aware of their child’s experience at school both as an educational and an emotional experience?

  • Communicate with the teachers.
  • Find time to talk.
  • Schools have to be communities of learners – that includes children, parents and teachers. We are all learning.
  • There have to be good channels for talking openly and confidently – but a balance must be struck: teachers are not consultants who can give all their time to nurture parents’ esteem as well as the kids’.
  • When you know things are a little ragged – don’t let them fester, get in to school to chat with the teacher. 
  • And don’t think that kids are going to tell you what is happening just because you ask them, “what did you do today at school?”  That question will be met with silence or “nothin!”  And when your kid comes home to say that something dreadful happened and it was unfair and not his or her fault – well, kids don’t always have both sides of the story – but a school will.

Can you explain why developing the qualities of respect, responsibility and relationships early helps a child in school and in later life?

The point that needs to be made here, is that we are preparing kids for a future that we don’t even know! 

It is said that 70% of the jobs in 20 years’ time haven’t even been invented. Our children will be finding answers to problems that haven’t even been thought about! Our kids are living in exponential times. Things are excelling and changing faster than ever before – it is true to say the world is speeding up. Childhood is under the barrage of mass marketing, consumerism and sensationalism. We are seeing smaller families, double-income earners, ‘safety’ restricting freedom, and privacy now in its death-throes.

Technology means our kids now know more than their parents. They network with an interface that is faceless and impersonal.

Consider these statistics:

  • In 2006, there were more than 2.7 billion searches performed on Google each month.
    The number of text messages sent and received each day exceeds the population of the planet.
  • There are 540,000 words in the English language: five times as many as during Shakespeare’s time.
  • More than 3000 books are published daily. A week’s worth of New York Times contains more information a person was likely to come across in a lifetime in the 18th Century.
  • New information growth is staggering, with over five exabytes (5,000,000,000,000,000,000 bytes) of new information being generated each year, 800 megabytes for every man, woman, and child on earth! That is estimated to be more than in the previous 5000 years!
  • There are more than 70,000,000 users on Facebook – if Facebook was a country it would be the 18th biggest in the world!
  • Change – that is the certainty. We need to ensure that the foundation for our future community is based around the new 3Rs – and the sooner we embed them into our kids’ character, the more these values will guide them.  They are the radar beacons that will help them navigate through this world of flux.


Is emotional intelligence really something that can be taught?

Absolutely – from the saying, “Take a deep breath and count to three” to the more advanced understanding of empathy, using restorative justice, circle time, and mediation techniques. 

Kindness is all about putting yourself in another person’s position. These are not ground-breaking new truths – they have been around ever since our brains were hot-wired, and that is over 100,000 years! And we can all learn to get better. Managing our temper, understanding others and relating as social creatures makes us human – well, humankind!

Balancing expectations of your child with their individual qualities

How can parents balance their expectations of their child with that child’s individual qualities?  For example, how do they know when to push their children or simply accept that they may not be good at a particular subject area, such as maths? 

I am still learning with my own kids!! I don’t have the panacea for parenting ‘battles’ to get kids to do ‘more’, but I do know that effort and interest are the keys. 

Judge your kid’s progress on the effort they are applying – and be aware of differences. One child might be successful grasping maths concepts; another may be very creative and not analytical. 

So don’t battle away with a concept that their mind is currently not open to – that form of homework haranguing only helps to belittle and entrench a belief that they are ‘dumb’.  And don’t reinforce your viewpoint, saying to the teacher, “Oh, he is just like me – I was never any good at maths” or “He is terrible at spelling and he doesn’t like reading”.

  • Look instead for strengths, and springboard off these.
  • Look for other teaching techniques – use food, cooking time, gardening, the computer (there are fantastic student resources online), colours and acting.
  • Find diversity – because we are all individuals and we are all different. 
  • There is one clear fact that comes out of all research: to learn you have to be engaged, interested and willing.  That means make it fun. Make it fun so we can let more of our kids thrive at school – not just survive at school.

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