It’s back to school time, and most parents ask themselves what academic skills are my children going to learn this year? What number concepts will they have mastered? How will their writing improve?
Not to worry. Your children’s teachers have those topics covered.
But what are you going to focus on teaching your child this year? Life skills are first and foremost the responsibility of the parent. Here are some of the key skills that will support your children’s school success:
1. Emotional Awareness
Emotional awareness has to do with being able to identify emotions in yourselves and others. This is built in children first by helping them identify emotions and states of being in themselves by narrating their experience. That means guessing what is going on with them by connecting their physical clues with their likely emotional states. You might say things like, “You’re shivering. You must be feeling cold” or “You are pulling your eyebrows tight together. Are you angry about something?” Increasing the emotional vocabulary beyond mad, sad and glad also helps children be more aware of the range of emotional states. Are they annoyed or furious? A bit blue or down in the dumps? Content or jumping for joy? Emotional awareness can then be extended to their interactions with other people or characters from a book. You might say, “I see that Camille’s lower lip is jutting out like this and the corners of her mouth are turned down. How do you think she is feeling right now? The more sophisticated kids get at perceiving their own and other’s emotional states, the more efficiently they can offer solutions for altering that state.
Resiliency means bouncing back relatively easily from difficult experiences (Note that it does not mean sheltering our children from difficult experiences!). Being emotionally aware is a good first step in building resilience in children. Naming emotions and connecting them the physical states allows children to step back from their emotions and be less overwhelmed by them. Let’s say that a child is feeling some strong emotions because she has lost a game. Perhaps she is disappointed at her own performance. Perhaps she fears being judged as “less than” compared to her peers. Perhaps she feels disconnected because attention has shifted to the winners of the game. Knowing what the strong emotion is allows her to take an action that will address that specific need. If she is disappointed in her own performance, she might make a plan for what to practice for next time. If she feels being judged compared to her peers, she might remind herself that there are lots of other things she is good at. If she feels disconnected, she might reintegrate herself by congratulating the winners on their accomplishment. Each of these actions has the potential for helping to regulate her strong emotions.
3. Taking Responsibility for One’s Own Actions
A big part of taking responsibility for one’s own actions is seeing oneself as being “in process.” When we accept that as we learn new things we are bound to make mistakes, it makes it easier for us to own up to actions or decisions which in hindsight were maybe not the best choices. Parents can help their children learn this by encouraging their children to reflect on their actions rather than to just be critical about them. Children who have parents who model forgiveness learn to forgive themselves. That makes it safe for them to admit when they have messed up. This in turn aids in their picking themselves up and moving forward.
4. Problem Solving
One of my favorite questions for kids is, “What needs to happen now?” Spilt milk? What needs to happen now? Lost sweater? What needs to happen now? Little brother crying because you grabbed a toy from him? What needs to happen now? Failed to save your homework on the computer and don’t have it to turn in? “What needs to happen now?”
Many parents have a tendency to rush in too fast. They rush to make things better. They rush to punish. They rush to find a solution. But given the chance, kids are natural problem solvers. Milk spills? Even a toddler has seen you wipe things up dozens of times. Next time try asking, “What needs to happen now?” Most toddlers will run grab a rag (You can help them out by hanging some rags or having a paper towel rack at their level). Computer glitches? Maybe you can work some magic to recover a lost document. If yes, great. Take the time to teach your child how to do the same trick. If no, offer lots of sympathy, but at the end of the day, let your child suffer the consequence whether that is redoing the assignment or getting in trouble with the teacher. When you solve things for your child, he might be grateful in the short run, but in the long run you have failed to teach him anything.
Mentally walk through your child’s day and consider where she could be more independent. If she is a toddler or preschooler, could she do more to put on her own clothes? Handle her own ablutions? Pick up after herself more? With training, bit by bit, a child can do all these things before entering Kindergarten with very little supervision. An elementary school child can learn to get his own cereal, make his own lunch and pack his backpack for school. He can begin to read the weather and make guesses based on the season (or check the app!) to decide whether he needs a sweater or a jacket in that backpack. He can sort his laundry and make sure it gets to the laundry room. He can fold it and put it away. An upper elementary school child should be doing homework independently and asking for help only after trying a couple different strategies. She should be getting comfortable with walking away from you physically-next door to borrow some sugar or to the other end of the store to pickup the milk or down the block to a friend’s house. A middle school child should be keeping track of her own schedule and communicating her needs (for carpooling or other support) to her parents and coordinating what will work for them. She should be able to talk to her teachers and coaches when she has questions or concerns.
The Bottom Line: Parents Set Their Kids Up for Success
Parents are their kids’ first teachers. Kids who have learned these five life skills come to school ready to learn. They have the external structures which allow them to work efficiently and the internal structures that allow them to cope when things get hard both socially and academically. In the end, these are the skills that allow your child to focus more fully on her academics, so if you want your child to do well at school, don’t ask him to do extra assignments or get him extra tutoring. Help him learn to regulate his emotions, to find ways to stay positive when things get hard, to see the effects of his own actions (positive or negative), to find solutions to problems and, finally, to take charge of his own life as much as he is developmentally ready to do so.
These skills do not happen over night. The mastery of each of them represents many hours of thoughtful parental guidance. It is easy to feel impatient as a parent. You might wail, “I’ve told him a thousand times to… ” Look for improvement and take heart. As much as possible, try to use questions rather than “I told you’s.” Asking, “What is the result of leaving wet towels on the floor?” is much more effective than yelling for the umpteenth time, “Hang up your wet towel!” A child who can verbalize that wet towels lead to mold, smelly bathrooms, and maybe even wood rot is much less likely to just throw the towel on the floor.
Get Support in Supporting Your Children
Parenting is a life skill. It is something we learn, not something we just know how to do. How effective are you at instilling life skills in your children? Which ones come easily? With which do you still struggle? I hear a lot of variations from parents along the theme of “But my kid just isn’t ready” or “Well, my kid has ADHD, so I can’t trust him to do that on his own.” Few children are able to jump from A to Z, but all children are capable of learning if you break the learning down into small enough chunks.