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Expert Q&A: Building Kids' School Success

Boy getting on school bus

By Jennifer Dobner
WebMD Health News

The self-help bookshelves at our local libraries are flush with suggestions on how parents can better assess our children’s needs and things we can or should do to hold up our end of the child-rearing bargain.

So many ideas and philosophies are overwhelming, and it’s hard to know what really makes sense. It gets even harder if your child has been diagnosed with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder or another condition that presents emotional or educational challenges.

The Learning Habit Study tries to make that a bit easier. The online survey, thought to be the largest of its kind, gathered data last fall from more than 45,000 parents – including parents on WebMD — in hopes of identifying comprehensive information about the ways in which family routines affect the way our kids develop. The results are aimed at providing parents and educators with practical tools for helping kids.

We’ve tapped neuropsychological educator and co-author of The Learning Habit Rebecca Jackson, whose company Good Parent, Inc., helped coordinate the work of researchers from Brown University, the Children’s National Medical Center, Brandeis University, and the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology to execute the study.

Q:Why did you conduct this study?

A: We wanted to see if we could actually predict which students would be better in school — not just academically, but also socially and emotionally — to really determine what habits and routines at home contribute to that success. For the online study we were very dependent on finding websites and organizations that would help us with the common goal. That can be hard … but we were very successful, and that shows how extremely timely and important our conversation about education is in this country.

Q: Which of the findings surprised you the most?

A: The 45-minute benchmark for media use was the most surprising to me. We’re talking about a specific amount of time after which texting, Facebooking or other types of screen activity begin to have a negative effect on the things we care about: (children’s) grades, their sleep, their emotional development. I think it’s nice for parents to have that information so they can make more informed decisions.

Hopefully down the line, policies will follow. I liken it to car seat or seat belt use. We all sort of knew these were important, but it took time and a grassroots movement to turn that safety information into policies that protect our kids. It’s a similar situation here. And it’s empowering. Now it’s not Mommy and Daddy taking something away from (the child) — we have the data to substantiate our decision-making. It’s one thing to intuitively know something, but it’s another ball game when you can link to something that improves a child’s health and well-being.

Q: Your study looked at many factors that influence learning, such as sleep, screen time, family time and homework. For parents who already feel overwhelmed, what one thing can they do to help their childrens learning?

A: We think the most essential building blocks for raising a healthy and successful kid are fostering the qualities of self-reliance and perseverance, or the ability to stay on task. We call it the “Grit Scale” and I think parents often overlook this.

In the study, parents were asked if their children set unreasonable goals, “gave up,” quit after-school activities, took instruction well, saved money and so on. Of all the scales used in the study, it was the only one that was at all related to personality. What we found is that 40% of kids will quit when they are asked to do a difficult or challenging task. Forty percent. But “Grit” is something we can build, something we can develop, in part through letting our kids fail. As parents we are so concerned with making sure they are succeeding that we aren’t allowing that sometimes. But we all have to learn how to manage not only the highs but also the lows.

Q: Some screen time is associated with positive results, but too much had a negative impact on kids in several areas. What type of limits can you suggest to parents? 

A: Parents don’t really associate their own households with reports about how much screen time children are having. It’s always someone else’s kid. The only way I’ve seen parents really make that connection is to track it. I’m all about a notepad and a pen and taking a minute to write down the screen available to your children and then just keeping track for 24 hours when they use it. It makes you more aware.

Not all media use is the same. Often when children are online, we are talking about scripted dialogue. We had a mother ask if there were qualitative or quantitative differences about playing the popular board game Monopoly in person or virtually. There’s a huge difference. Doing something live involves navigation, communication, the challenges of decision-making — like in Monopoly, who is going to be the banker? It’s the negotiation that you never have with that scripted dialogue online. When children are participating in an activity, they’re building “Grit.”

There are actually three different forms of media — creation, consumption and communication. Media creation is naturally more difficult. We’re talking about a child working extremely hard on something difficult or (mentally) strenuous. Consumption media is passive, like watching TV or playing a video game.  The challenge for parents is when these show up as indirect competition with a homework assignment. That’s where digital homework assignments can be hard to navigate, and that’s why we want to  empower parents to set reasonable limits. It’s incredibly important for parents to be aware that not all screen time is created equal. If a child is playing a game, even an academic one, that’s not homework time, it’s media time.

Q: Family time was found to be important in many ways, but the survey defined that pretty narrowly: dinner together, board games and religious services. Are there other types of activities that would qualify as family time, such as doing activities together?

A: We were limited in the amount of questions we could ask and certainly there are many other activities that meet the definition of family time. We have hundreds of examples in our book. Here’s why it’s important: Family time is an opportunity for parents and children to hone in on the skills kids need to be successful, not just academically but also socially and emotionally. Communication. Time management. These are intricate skills that are learned and often learned by replicating what children are seeing at home.

What we found is that (family time) is incredibly important. It minimizes the time that children spend using media. Playing board games. Family dinners. Children that participated in regular family dinners had a higher GPA, but was even more interesting is that their “Grit” scores were higher. They also performed more household chores. A huge part of building “Grit” is giving kids important activities that the whole family may depend on. It helps their self-esteem. They feel important. They can structure their day around these activities. These children are doing extremely well academically.

And it’s never too late to go ahead and start making these really important changes for your family.

Q: The study found that children whose parents used positive parenting had less ADHD symptoms than those whose parents used traditional parenting. Are you saying that parenting style can cause ADHD?

 A: No. We’re saying that when parents set up rules and routines, they can generally minimize the possibility that children can develop some of the symptoms that we commonly associate with ADHD.

There are really three things that parents can do. The first is having household rules and building habits through rules. Everybody likes knowing what the rules are.

The second part of that is making sure we are empowering children by giving them choices that have consequences. A child can choose not to follow a rule — say, if all our chores are done, we can have 30 minutes of media time. They can choose not to do their chores, but then they don’t get the media time.

And last, use effort-based praise. There’s a ton of great research that encourages this. The connection between that type of praise and “Grit” is astounding.

I do think that having rules, choices and the right kind of praise is a magic equation.

 

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