This article, by Blyth-Templeton Academy Head of School Lee Palmer, originally appeared in the Huffington Post on April 20, 2017.
In my more than 30 years teaching and leading high schools, I often see parents unknowingly sabotage their own child’s success. They’ve been bombarded with messages that tell them, “the more involved you are in your child’s education, the more they will learn.” It’s not that parent involvement isn’t crucial to success, but many of us are doing it wrong.
The interpretation of this involvement maxim has come to mean helping with homework, rushing to school to bring the forgotten book, offering a multitude of enrichment activities, hiring tutors, and using carrots and sticks to motivate. While it is important for students to know what is valued in their families, it is equally important to allow them the space, time, and emotional support they need to own their high school experience and grow into independent and competent adults.
Here are four things we need to “unlearn”:
#1. Over-emphasizing homework.
If your child is anxious about homework, tell them to email their concerns to their teacher. Don’t engage in the homework with them, whether it is to provide assistance or discuss their anxieties about schoolwork. The more discussion of homework, the more the message your child receives from you is “this is important and I have to do it tonight or I have failed.” Of much greater importance for learning is satisfying primal needs for sleep, food, and love. Which scenario leads to greater learning – staying up until 2:00am to work on something that can easily be remediated with the help of the teacher the next day or getting a good night’s sleep and arriving at school the next day ready to ask for help?
On the other hand, be open to discussions initiated by your teenager about what they’re learning at school. A powerful reinforcement of learning is explaining something of interest to someone else.
#2. Not engaging the school for support.
If you have any questions, concerns, or suggestions that may help the school support your child, reach out sooner rather than later to teachers and/or administrators. Problems can’t be addressed if the school is unaware of them, and a quick heads-up can often prevent a minor issue from developing into a major one. In addition, if your high school student is facing mental or physical challenges, consider allowing the school to communicate with external support such as psychiatrists, therapists, and primary care physicians so that they can create an effective support network. Make the presumption of good will, that every adult at school has the best interests of your child at heart.
#3. Responding to emotion with more emotion.
Teenagers often maintain an even keel at school and then release all of their emotional energy as soon as they get home. It’s hard for parents to see their child in tears and not react emotionally. As with homework, a response that is loving, empathetic, but not with high emotional energy sends the message that you are a safety net without fueling the fire. Most of the time, a good night’s sleep and a return to school the next day will take care of the problem. If it doesn’t, then it is even more important that a child sees a parent as a calm place in the storm.
#4. Don’t join the college arms race.
The post-secondary landscape is very different from when you were a teenager and there are infinite paths for students to follow that prepare them to use their gifts for themselves and for others. Despite the emergence of so many non-traditional paths, a lot of parents still put a significant emphasis on certain colleges – occasionally even prioritizing selectivity and status over the right fit. Our students are preparing for a world that will be very different from the one you knew as a young person, so be open to their ideas about their own journeys.
Every child is different and we shouldn’t assume that what is right for one child is right for another. However, we must remember that parents play an important role to empower their students when it comes to school. Doing this well will help make the school experience one that matters to students.
Lee Palmer is the Head of School at Blyth-Templeton Academy, an experiential micro school located on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. She has worked in education for over 30 years at schools such as Sidwell Friends, Trinity NYC, and Bryn Mawr. She is a contributor for The Huffington Post.