Parents Supporting Studying in the Middle and High School Years

Wondering how you can play a role in your teen’s education?

You have a Science test tomorrow. Did you study?” I asked knowing I hadn’t seen any science content pulled up on my eighth grader’s computer screen during homework time. But I was ready to give the benefit of a doubt. “I studied — in school. I’m fine.” Was the response though grades would indicate that he’s not quite fine. After similar conversations such as these, I discovered my middle schooler had a very different definition of the word “study” in his head than the one I held in mine. His version of study meant “to hear about the topic presented in class.” And in earlier years, this method – learning in the classroom – seemed to be enough for him to show mastery on his tests. But now, in a more rigorous school with high expectations and a new level of high school preparatory content, the method of “learn it in class” studying is just not sufficient (yes, this was one of his vocabulary words we worked on together last night. Studying has evolved so there’s more to this story!).

There are numerous challenges we face in the middle and high school years but one important one is: how can we be involved in our teen’s learning as parents? Our teen is busy pushing us away finding their own identity and needing independence. And indeed, they need to learn how to manage their own work load, communicate with their teachers and become strong advocates for their own learning. We may miss the classroom parties and story times of younger years where we could make an appearance in the classroom and feel authentically engaged. Now, we may get half of a response if we are asking about homework and may feel in the dark often when it comes to their learning world. Yet, they still require our support to meet the demands placed on them.

There are a number of new ways to become involved in our teen’s learning. It will require our patience, but I ask you, what worthwhile endeavors in parenting do not require our patience? Contributing to a new definition of studying is an important one.
Though some teachers and schools offer direct instruction in study skills, most do not. Most assume that your teen will figure it out on their own. But it’s a significant leap from passive auditory learning or note-taking in the classroom to active, engaged strategies for learning content at home and over time. 

You may face resistance if you push your way in. So it may take multiple tries, small steps and false starts. We learn from mistakes and failures. And though for parents it can be painful to see our child fail, allowing for that failure in the midst of offering support may just be the way your teen learns they need your help. So go easy, go slowly and make strategic in-roads to help build positive study habits over time.

One message that’s key for parents to internalize is that schools never expect us to be or become content experts. That’s never our role or job. But we can learn ourselves from the best educational strategies the ways in which to support our young learners. Let’s take a look at some simple steps forward…

Empathize with your Teen’s Challenge! When we begin talking homework or academics with our teen, they can, at times (or all the time!) skip into a defensive mode preparing for us to blame them for some negligence or fault. Sometimes, it helps to articulate our teen’s challenges and feelings about it. They spend so much time tightly guarding their privacy and managing their self-image that hearing your level of empathy and understanding might be a giant relief. So begin with really seeing and articulating their challenges and ask what their hopes and goals are. What do hope to achieve? What do you want to learn? What grade are you aiming for?

There are indeed tricks to learning to study productively. Longer is not necessarily better! The next step is to discover how your teen learns best. That discovery process can raise their self-awareness in ways that will prepare them for all future learning experiences. 

Try this!

Step One: Look ahead to a quiz or test that’s upcoming. Grab your planner (buy one if you need one!) or digital calendar and block time each day (whatever amount of time teen and parent agree is reasonable) up until the test.

Step Two: Each day, take just a section of the material (Two paragraphs? One page? 3 pages?). Learn the material with a different learning strategy including:

a. Day one: Read ideally together using a highlighter to highlight the most important content. No student automatically knows how much or how little to highlight so if you can read with your parent and highlight together this one time (or more if it helps), you can collaboratively decide what’s important. Some common strategies include anything in bold plus its definition should be highlighted. Titles, names, places and events tend to be important. Examples are important for understanding concepts but don’t necessarily need to be highlighted. If your student’s content is digitized, you may either print off the most important handouts to highlight and make notes on or you may need to take notes from the online text. If you note-take together just the first couple of times, your student will learn what is important to note and what they can leave behind.

Learn more from Edutopia about why reading together and reading aloud is a benefit to children and teens well beyond literacy learning years.

b. Day two: Hand-write notes from your reading. Yes, handwriting matters! It seals the material in your brain in a way that typing does not.

*If you only have two days, this might be enough but it’s good to experiment with multiple ways of learning.

c. Day three: Listen to a section of the material while you follow along visually. Whether read by another person or a recording of the material, discover whether your teen is more of an auditory learner. Discuss the meaning of what you are learning together.

d. Day Four: Teach it! Your student can attempt to teach you the material studied.

Step Three: After the test, REFLECT together!

You might ask the following:

  • What one method helped you the most? 
  • What combination of methods were even better? 
  • What did you learn about how you learn best? 
  • Did you involve others in your studying? Was that key to your success? How did others help you?

Remember that using more of your five senses to take in the materials boosts your memory and learning in multiple ways. 

Bonus! Add taste and smell to your experience. Peppermint essential oil on a tissue, in a diffuser or in a hot tea has been found to sharpen alertness (do not use around younger children). For more, check out this medically reviewed article. Enjoy a hard peppermint candy to go along with it while you are studying. Smell that same tissue right before the test to add to your recall power! 

Other Helpful Tips:

Brain Breaks: 

Be sure and take five minute brain breaks while you are studying. This time should not be more computer time (or phone, television). Walk outside and breath fresh air. Stretch. Get a drink of water. Listen to music. These are all restorative and will help you return refreshed. Learn more about brain breaks.

The Myth of Studying All Night:

Make no mistake – at a certain time of the evening, you begin wasting your time. Sleep is critical to your brain’s ability to process what it’s learned during the day. If you deprive it or even short change it of that opportunity, you will not have the full brain power you require the next day for your test. Be sure you study over time (days). And be sure you get a full night’s sleep. Here’s the amount of sleep science says you need for your brain to function optimally.

Flashcards and Quizzing:

Flashcards or quizzing one another on the material can be a useful study method however, beware! We do not recall any names or new concepts that we do not attach some meaning to. So if you don’t understand a concept, you are far less likely to remember anything about it. Be sure your student fully understands words and ideas before attempting to memorize them.

Learning how to study is not a quick process. In fact, it requires trial and error over time since every person learns in different ways. But if your teen recognizes that he/she can come to you for support, it can be a great comfort to them. And you can feel a sense of satisfaction as you contribute to your teen’s growing self-awareness of how they learn best. In fact, I find that, as my teen is super busy with friends and extracurriculars, I treasure the time we spend together while I support his learning.

To learn more about ways to study productively, check out:

Help Your Kids with Study Skills by D.K. Publishing

Eat That Frog! 21 Great Ways to Stop Procrastinating and Get More Done in Less Time by Brian Tracy

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