Step Up, Parents: Schools Won’t Teach Your Kids This Valuable Skill

For some kids, success comes early and easily. But once middle school hits and the stakes are higher, developing study skills is a must.

If elementary school was the ultimate indicator of life’s future success, then my kids would be set. I hit the academic jackpot with three children who never had to study, but still made the top grades in the class.

While other moms were investing in expensive tutors, we were breezing through without even trying. In the early years, we were the lucky ones, but our luck ran out. Kids like mine, who coast through elementary school, are in for an uphill battle later on because they don’t know how to study.

My oldest child probably could have slept through fifth grade and still aced every test. Studying was non-existent in our house, because it just wasn’t necessary. School was easy and he had no reason to devote extra time because the A’s flowed in effortlessly.

But then he hit middle school and it was like running headfirst into a brick wall. Suddenly, the A’s didn’t come easily. In fact, sometimes the B’s and C’s didn’t either. My intuitively “genius” child became a frustrated teenager who was not equipped to handle complex subject matter. For the first time he was challenged in school, but he was unprepared to respond. He had no study skills.

Stanford University psychology professor Carol Dweck warns that kids who do well in elementary school without trying are more likely to lose confidence and motivation when the work becomes more complicated. Dweck points out in her article, “The Secret to Raising Smart Kids” for Scientific American, that “a focus on ‘process’ – not on intelligence or ability – is key to success in school.” Children who learn that effort equals success are better off than those who are used to succeeding simply because they are “smart.”

Very few children can breeze through school forever, and the earlier they learn how to study, the better. Creating the habit is key and gets more difficult as your child grows older. The kids who had to learn study strategies to survive second grade math are now better prepared to tackle Algebra than my former elementary school whiz kid. Being smart isn’t enough, and now we are playing catch up.

When my son’s first subpar grade appeared, I immediately went into panic mode. I began battling him to study so he could get his grades back on track. He reluctantly reviewed for each test, but the grades didn’t rebound. I dug deeper into what my son was actually doing when he was studying, and discovered that he put in the time, but in the wrong way. He memorized his notes and underlined some key concepts, but that’s about the extent of what was going on at his desk.

Dr. John Dunlosky, a psychology professor and Director of Experimental Training at Kent State University, identified the best methods for studying, and debunked some of the most common ways children prepare for tests. According to research published in Psychological Science in the Public Interest, Dunlosky determined that many popular study practices aren’t very effective. Re-reading and highlighting do little to promote long-term retention and understanding, and rarely yield A’s when the subject matter gets tougher. Dunlosky says the best two study tips are quite simple: 1. Don’t cram; 2. Take practice tests.

Schools don’t teach study skills, so it’s up to parents and kids to come up with a system that works. After we recovered from the initial shock of some less-than-stellar grades, we regrouped on how to study more effectively. It has been a battle of wills with a stubborn teenager, but we are making progress with some simple steps.

Spread it out. Research says that studying more frequently, but for shorter periods of time, is best. Procrastination and cramming are so tempting, but we all know they are wrong. Keep a weekly calendar for each child, and overlay it with extracurricular commitments, so kids can map out their week of studying.

Re-work the homework problems they missed. It’s easy to be happy when homework grades are near perfect, but those couple of missed concepts might be significant at test time. Homework is the best indicator of what will be on the test.

Take practice tests. Many teachers’ websites include links to online quizzes. If yours do not, then search online for new questions that test the concept they are learning.

Don’t rely on memorization. Have them create note cards with their own definitions, instead of copying what’s in the book. That way they aren’t just memorizing, but truly understanding.

Turn the student into the teacher. Have them explain the concepts to you, in their own words. If they can’t teach it, they probably don’t understand it.

Acing third grade is great at the time, but if it happens without studying, they may pay the price later on. Even if your eight-year-old Einstein understands the life cycle of flowering plants better than you do, you need to force study time so they get into the habit early. Then, with a little luck, the middle school and high school years might be a tad easier. At least the academic part.

Information Overload: Navigating the Research on Kids and Families

Advice for parents who want to make sure they’re getting the right information from studies and research popularized on the Internet.

You’re reading through your daily Facebook posts, and a headline pops up: “Why so Many Rich Kids Learn to Like Healthy Food.”

You’re intrigued because you sure haven’t had much luck getting your daughter to eat her broccoli lately, and wonder what the experts have to say.

You click on the link and are brought to an article in The Atlantic covering a recently released research study.  You skim the article and learn that kids sometimes need to try new foods somewhere from 8-15 times (research study #1) and that low-income families buy what they know their kids will like because can’t afford to waste food (research study #2). 

Linking these two research studies together, the journalist reaches the conclusion that has informed his article’s title – rich kids learn to like healthy food because their parents can afford to waste food they don’t eat on the first ten tries.

But wait, can it really be that simple? 

If you find yourself asking that question, then you’re onto something.  It isn’t as simple as the title or even the nicely-written article claims. 

While the article cites strong and important research on both of these topics (repetitive offerings and spending patterns of low-income families), there are a multitude of other factors that also influence the foods that kids like, such as how early kids are exposed to a food, what their parents eat, how the food is cooked, what is served in school, access to fresh vegetables, and more. (A week later, I heard this NPR Story on Bee Wilson’s book First Bite, in case you’re interested in this topic.) 

I believe that many of these factors could also be linked to socioeconomic issues, and need to be equally attended to to alleviate disparities.

So perhaps the title of the article should have been:

“Economic Factors Influence Families’ Ability to Expose Children to Food Repetitively, Making One Strategy to Encourage Healthy Eating Inaccessible to Low-Income Families.”

You might not have clicked so quickly on that one.

microscope and science tools arranged neatly

Sometimes the message of research is lost in translation.

Therein lies the challenge with how research is shared online. There is outstanding research being conducted that should help parents in their day-to-day pursuit to raise happy and healthy kids, but sometimes the message of that research can be lost in translation. 

The language of scientific research can be entirely inaccessible to those who have not been trained in these practices and researchers are not always good at leaving that language behind.

At the same time, some journalists and blog authors will be tempted to write a misleading article (whether intentional or not) because they can get a better response with a title like “Why such and such will solve your child’s behavior problems” than they do with a title like “Research shows that such and such a strategy may contribute to better behavior in children.” 

See the difference? 

So, what is the average parent to do? 

As a trained researcher, I am hypersensitive to misleading research summaries.  I always find myself digging deeper to make sure the summary is on target with what the actual researchers intended.  But you don’t necessarily have to have a Ph.D. to get your questions answered.

Here’s my advice to parents who want to make sure they’re getting the right information:

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Be a Critical Reader[/su_highlight]

I don’t mean “critical” only in the sense of “critique” – the point isn’t just to try to poke holes in the author’s argument.  I also mean “critical” in the sense of “critical thinking.”  Dr. Stephen Brookfield, a prolific scholar in the field of adult learning, says:If you can’t think critically you have no chance of recognizing, let alone pushing back on, those times you are being manipulated” (2011). 

Being a critical reader means digging below the surface and asking questions about what the author presents as fact.  What kind of assumptions are they making about the research and how it applies to our day-to-day lives?  Do those assumptions sound too simplified?  One clue that an author might be making a jump from the research findings is a title that infers (or directly states) that this research provides conclusive evidence that there is a definitive “solution” to your problem. 

Most scientific research articles include a list of limitations as to how far their research findings can be generalized.  For example, if they did their research on 50 kids in a small suburban elementary school they likely list limitations about whether their research can be applied to kids in, say, inner-city schools.  Does the research summary include those limitations or boundaries, or are they left out? 

Another common disclaimer in academic research is that the research found correlation between two things (an input and an outcome, for example) but that they cannot definitively claim causation.  In other words, they can’t always say that one thing causes the other, or that there might not be other (perhaps unknown) factors contributing to the outcome.   

Don’t let these disclaimers ruin your impression of the value of research.  The magic happens when multiple studies in multiple contexts arrive at similar findings.  An article that presents more than one research study on a topic of interest may be a stronger source of information. 

For example, Amber Leventry’s recent Parent Co article on children and creativity used multiple sources (research, interviews, examples, personal testimony, etc.) to present a compelling argument for making space for our children’s creativity to blossom.

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Understand the Messiness of Research Limitations[/su_highlight]

Here’s the thing – our kids are not machines. 

It might feel frustrating to read research studies that contribute to our knowledge about a given topic but don’t answer it definitively.  But here’s the thing – our kids are not machines.  There is no users’ manual to tell you that connecting wire A to wire B will lead to outcome C. 

Research on kids, or on humans in general, is not that straightforward either. 

Be open to reading articles that offer promising strategies, compelling correlations, and potential solutions – not just amazing revelations or answers to “why.” 

Read them and think about whether they apply to your own family, or could be tweaked to apply to your family.  Try some of the things the researchers suggest,  but don’t assume that they are the ONLY solutions.  You are the one who knows your family best, after all.   

Here’s an example: In our house we notice that our son’s behavior goes downhill after he watches a television show on the tablet.  I’ve been reading up on sensory sensitivity issues, and while I’m not eager to diagnose anything the research is helping me to think about whether watching “shows” on the tablet is a good choice for my son. 

We’re trying to limit tablet use to interactive activities to see if that helps – our own little experiment.  The research gives us some ideas to go on, even if we don’t attempt to take it as “fact.”

hands typing on laptop

[su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Consider Reading the Research Yourself[/su_highlight]

I know, I know.  Who has time to read scientific journal articles on a regular basis?  Moreover, who can understand those things?  But if you’re really interested in the topic, or it’s extremely relevant to your family, it is worth it to go to the source.  And here’s a little secret for you – there is a formula to how scientific articles are written that can help you to browse quickly a paper and get the basic outline of the study and its conclusions.

Almost every scientific research article includes the following sections:

  • [su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Abstract[/su_highlight] – the paragraph that gives you a summary of what the article will tell you, including the problem they were examining, their approach to the project, and a summary their findings.
  • [su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Introduction [/su_highlight] – the opening section (or sections) that introduce you to the topic of the research, the problem the research is trying to address, and why the research is relevant.
  • [su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Literature review [/su_highlight] – this often can be included as part of the introduction.  What other research has been done on this topic to-date and how does this new study build on that research?
  • [su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Methods [/su_highlight] – a detailed description of how the study was conducted (who was studied, with what tools, for how long, how the data was analyzed, etc.).
  • [su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Results [/su_highlight] – the scientific results of their research – often with lots of tables and research jargon.
  • [su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Discussion[/su_highlight] – typically a more narrative section in which the researchers interpret their results, and often try to justify extrapolating those results to a broader or more general population. This also is the section in which the limitations of the research, based on the research methods and assumptions, are discussed.
  • [su_highlight background=”#f1c40f”]Conclusion [/su_highlight] – the “take away” of this research; what have the researchers really learned from doing it, and what questions need to be addressed next?

If you can familiarize yourself with this outline, you can then direct your attention to the parts that will be easier for you to interpret and understand.

Here are a few tips on how to read a research article:

1 | After you’ve found a title that seems promising to you, take a quick look at the abstract to see if the article is really discussing what you want to learn about and to get an initial sense of what you’ll likely learn by reading the article.

2 | Skim the introduction to see why this research is important.

3 | Skim the literature review (for now) to see how much research has already been done on this topic and whether there are any interesting trends in the research to date; you might want to come back to this section if you decide you want to read other articles on the topic.

4 | Skim the methods section to see how extensive the study was.  Look for things like size of the sample (e.g. number of people surveyed), where the study took place, and how much data they collected.  This will tell you if this is a small niche study that tells just one part of the story (still important!) or a large-scale study that offers greater “generalizability.”

5 | Skip over the results (you can come back to that section later) and move to the discussion and conclusion.  This will help you to see what the authors found in their study that was meaningful and potentially applicable to your situation.  It will also give you a sense of the limitations the researchers cite in how their research can or should be applied.

Many people think that scientific research is just for labs and nerdy researchers.

However, research on humans is a fascinating endeavor that can add a lot to our lives (and does every day, whether we know it or not). 

Parents should be able to benefit from this research, but it is important to look at research summaries with a thoughtful and critical eye.  After all, if we’re going to use research to back up a decision we make or an approach we take with our family, we ought to be sure we’re getting the right information about that research and not someone else’s misleading “click bait.”

Recommended site: the by Alice Calahan, PhD

Students Perform Better When They See Nature Outside

New research shows that students perform better and recover from stress faster in a classroom with a view of green nature outside.

Students perform better on tests when they’re in a classroom with a view of nature outside.

This finding comes from new research by doctoral student Dongying Li and head of the University of Illinois Department of Landscape Architecture William C. Sullivan.

It’s the first study to establish a causal relationship between exposure to a green view and students’ performance.

“It’s a significant finding, that if you have a green view outside your window, you’ll do better on tests,” said Li.

Students’ capacity to pay attention increased 13 percent if they had a green view outside their classroom window, the study found.

The findings are being published in the April 2016 issue of the journal Landscape and Urban Planning. The article is available for review online.

The authors hypothesized that views onto green landscapes help students recover from mental fatigue and stress. They conducted a randomized controlled experiment with 94 high school students at five high schools in three settings:

  •  a windowless classroom
  • a classroom with a view of built space
  • a classroom with a view of green space

To quote the study highlights:

  • Window views to green landscapes promote high school students’ attention restoration.
  • Window views to green landscapes speed high school students’ recover from stress.
  • Attention restoration and stress recovery are separate pathways.
  • Exposure to daylight alone did not improve student performance.

Additionally, there was no statistical difference in performance for students in the windowless room or the room with a view of built space.

Study co-author Dongying Li hypothesized that the positive showing was a result of Attention Restoration Theory.

“When someone focuses on a task, he or she must ward off other distractions, either those in the environment or the thoughts inside their head, all competing for attention. Doing so causes fatigue, and after a while, a person feels mentally drained.

When someone stops focusing, his or her attention is drawn involuntarily to certain things – a campfire, a waterfall, a baby, a puppy. Focusing on those things doesn’t require effort, and the theory suggests that doing so provides an opportunity for the brain to rest and restore its ability to focus attention again.” – Dongying Li in Science Daily

Students in the classroom with a green view didn’t just do better on attention tests; they also showed greater physiological recovery from stress vs. the students in rooms without a green view.

This appears to be more evidence for the common-sense notion that kids benefit from exposure to nature in hundreds of ways .

“A green view through a classroom window can improve students’ performance.”  ScienceDaily, 22 January 2016.
“A Green View Through a Classroom Window Can Improve Students’ Performance, Study Finds”


Study Shows How Memory is Critical to Pre-Schooler’s Long-Term Success

Preschoolers who score lower on a memory task are likely to score higher on a dropout risk scale at the age of 12.

In a new article, the authors offer suggestions for how parents can help pre-schoolers improve their memory.

This is important because research shows that preschoolers who score lower on a memory task are likely to score higher on a dropout risk scale at the age of 12.

“Our findings underscore the importance of early intervention,” says Caroline Fitzpatrick of Concordia University, first author of “Early childhood working memory forecasts high school dropout risk.”

“Parents can help their children develop strong working memory skills at home, and this can have a positive impact on school performance later in life.”

Suggestions that help pre-schooler improve memory include:

  • Engaging in pretend play with other children.
  • Encouraging mindfulness by helping them focus on moment-to-moment experiences.
  • Limiting screen time, which can undermine cognitive control and take time away from more enriching pursuits.
Source: Long-term benefits of improving your toddler’s memory skills: Early intervention: New research shows that preschoolers with poor short-term recall are more at risk of dropping out of high school via ScienceDaily.

New Study Shows That People in Their 40s Are Happiest

New research published in Developmental Psychology suggests that people are happier in their early 40s (midlife) than they were at age 18.

A number of studies have claimed that happiness declines from the early 20s to middle age (40 to 60). That low point is known, of course, as the “mid-life crisis.”

Well, maybe it’s all a myth.

New research published in Developmental Psychology suggests that happiness doesn’t stall in midlife. Instead, it’s part of an upward trajectory beginning in our teens and early twenties.

This study is reviewed as far more reliable than research that came before.

Other findings:

  • People are happier in their early 40s (midlife) than they were at age 18
  • Happiness rises fastest between age 18 and well into the 30s
  • Happiness is higher in years when people are married and in better physical health, and lower in years when people are unemployed
  • The rise in happiness to midlife refutes the purported “u-bend” in happiness, which assumes that happiness declines between the teens and the 40s and cumulates in a  midlife crisis

The difference in results from other studies of happiness is attributed to longitudinal data. Past efforts to report on life span happiness are reported by the researchers as “fundamentally flawed.”

Source: University of Alberta. “New study challenges ‘mid-life crisis’ theory”  via ScienceDaily.
Journal Reference:
Nancy L. Galambos, Shichen Fang, Harvey J. Krahn, Matthew D. Johnson, Margie E. Lachman. Up, not down: The age curve in happiness from early adulthood to midlife in two longitudinal studies. Developmental Psychology, 2015; 51 (11): 1664 DOI:10.1037/dev0000052