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9 habits of smart kids

Child in classroom
Want to raise a high-flying child? Here's how to encourage good learning skills that'll set them up for life.

Ever wondered why some kids are keen to learn and take schoolwork in their stride, while others struggle to focus even on basic tasks and need relentless chivvying? It can be easy to assume that some children are simply ‘brainier’ than others, but while intelligence undoubtedly has some genetic basis, all kids have the ability to learn to work smarter and do better at school.

We asked Bradley Busch, a chartered psychologist and author of Release Your Inner Drive: Everything you Need to Know about how to get Good at Stuff (Crown House Publishing) about the habits that ‘smart kids’ show, and how you can help your child develop them.

1. They believe they can do better

Some kids believe they have a fixed amount of intelligence, which can lead to a defeatist attitude towards schoolwork. These children will say things like, ‘I’m rubbish at maths,’ or, ‘I know I can’t do this, so there’s no point even trying.’ ‘These children are less likely to persevere; they often give up on tasks that they find challenging, and reject feedback,’ says Bradley.

Other children, however, believe that they have the potential to do better. They’ll say things such as, ‘I find maths difficult so I’m going to try even harder,’ or, ‘I know I can do this – I’m not giving up.’

These kids have what is known as a growth mindset: the belief that they can do better by working hard, putting in effort and learning from their mistakes. ‘They believe they can improve, and this makes them better learners,’ Bradley says.

Try this: Praise your child for their effort, not their achievement. So instead of saying things like, ‘Don’t worry; I know you’re not very good at English,’ try, ‘I’m really pleased with how hard you worked on your writing. What do you think you can do to make it even better?’

2. They read for pleasure

Okay, so ploughing through endless Biff and Chip books isn’t much fun, but children who pick up a book in their free time are giving themselves a big educational advantage. ‘We know that children who read for pleasure do far better at school,’ says Bradley: in fact, research has shown that reading for enjoyment benefits their reading attainment, writing ability, comprehension, grammar skills and vocabulary.

Try this: If your child isn’t keen on books, buy them their favourite comic or take out a subscription to a kids’ magazine: all reading is good reading.

3. They get enough sleep

Being sleep-deprived not only makes children grouchy and unreasonable; it also has a noticeable impact on their academic achievement. ‘Sleep is closely linked to children’s learning, memory and emotional control, and children who regularly get a good night’s sleep tend to raise their results by one grade per subject when it comes to exams,’ says Bradley. And while primary school tests are less life-changing than GCSEs and A levels, sleeping well can still have a positive effect on their learning and attainment.

Try this: Enforce a screentime ban an hour before your child goes to bed, and never let them keep their tablet, phone or laptop in their room overnight. Using screens before bed affects their sleep so much that they could lose an hour per night, and the temptation to check messages overnight makes the problem even worse.

4. They don’t compare themselves to other kids

We all have a tendency to compare ourselves and our children to others, so it’s no surprise that many kids do exactly the same. But smart children are more likely to focus on their own achievements rather than on how they’re performing in relation to others. This is known as self-referencing.

‘It’s the difference between saying, “I know I’m good at ten-pin bowling because I always win,” and, “I know I’m good at ten-pin bowling because I used to get 90 points and now I get 110,”’ Bradley explains. ‘Self-referencing leads to greater motivation and confidence.’

Try this: If you have more than one child, try to break the habit of comparing them to each other. Instead of saying, ‘Why can’t you write as neatly as your sister?’ try saying, ‘Your handwriting is really improving. Now can you focus on making your letters all the same size?’

5. They have a sense of purpose

If your child’s schoolwork seems pointless, they’re unlikely to be motivated to get on with it. But smart kids are able to focus on the purpose of a task, which helps them get on with it. ‘If children understand why they’re doing a task or how it will help them, they rate it as more interesting and put more effort in,’ Bradley explains.

Try this: A good teacher will explain why their pupils are doing a task at the start of each lesson, even if it’s with a single sentence like, ‘This will help you understand what we’re going to do in science next week.’ At home, help your child work out the purpose of their homework by discussing why it’s been set: are they doing a mock paper to help them do better in their SATs, for example?

6. They don’t procrastinate

Like adults, children naturally put off things that they don’t want to do. But kids who work smarter recognise that procrastinating doesn’t help in the long run. ‘Children often procrastinate because they don’t know where to start, the work looks too difficult, or they don’t think they can finish it in one go,’ says Bradley. ‘If they start the task, they often realise it’s not as daunting as they thought.’

Try this: Set a timer for 10 minutes and encourage your child to at least start the task, with the promise that they can stop when the bell sounds. ‘Often, they’ll want to carry on, as the brain doesn’t like leaving things unfinished,’ Bradley explains.

7. They balance schoolwork with pleasure

Contrary to appearances, smart kids are not the ones who put hours into every homework task and stop going to their after-school clubs to revise for exams, but those who are able to balance their workload with downtime in the form of extracurricular activities, get-togethers with friends, or just relaxing at home. ‘Physical activity and social contact are linked to mental and physical wellbeing, which has a knock-on effect on their schoolwork,’ says Bradley.

Try this: Make time to go to the park or out for a walk or run as a family. Leading by example is important if your child is going to achieve a good work/life balance.

8. They ask for help

‘Towards the end of primary school, we often see children becoming reluctant to ask for help – especially boys, who consider it a sign of weakness,’ Bradley explains. ‘But one of the hallmarks of a resilient learner is that they can ask for help if a task is proving difficult or they don’t understand something.’

Try this: Explain to your child that asking for help isn’t a weakness, but the sign of a mature learner. If they’re having trouble with homework, encourage them to write a note in their homework diary or jotter to remind them to ask the teacher for an explanation.

9. They learn from feedback

Does your child get upset if their schoolwork is less than perfect, or are they able to absorb the teacher’s comments and understand how they could do better next time? ‘A lot of students see feedback as criticism, and are less likely to take it on board,’ Bradley explains. But listening to the teacher’s advice will help them make improvements when they next attempt a similar task.

Try this: Rather than asking, ‘Is this okay?’ – a question that leads to them accepting work that doesn’t live up to their ability – suggest that your child asks, ‘How can I improve this?’ ‘Children whose parents have high expectations for them do better at school,’ Bradley adds.

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