How to help your child learn more effectively

Mother and son doing homework
Is your child permanently discouraged by homework? Banish a defeatist attitude to learning with these brilliant proactive tips.

Does homework time always end up with your child in meltdown, claiming they can’t do it? Do they spend more time complaining than actually getting on with their work?

It’s not an uncommon scenario; let’s face it, most kids can think of 100 things they’d rather do than practise their spellings or times tables. And as a parent, trying to encourage a protesting, procrastinating child can be extremely frustrating.

The good news is that this is a situation that can be turned around – and it’s not too soon to help your child become a more effective learner.

‘If children don’t develop learning skills, learning can become a scary task and children will go to great lengths to avoid it,’ explains Professor Sherria Hoskins, head of the Growing Learners research group at the University of Portsmouth and co-author of My Hero (CreateSpace, £7.99), part of a series of other children’s story books designed to encourage a growth mindset.

‘If, however, they’ve developed strategies to face challenges, they’ll be able to learn more effectively, and can also apply these skills to other situations in life,’ Sherria says.

So how can we help our children develop the skills for learning effectively?

1. Play up the benefits of practice

Children can be discouraged if they don’t get the hang of something straight away, so it’s our job as parents to encourage them to keep trying.

‘Children need to understand that most people have to practise when they’re learning something new,’ Sherria explains.

‘If something is difficult, it’s an opportunity to learn, not a sign that it’s not for them.’

2. Turn failure on its head

Children can fear failure so much that when something goes wrong, they give up rather than having another go.

‘This can lead to a situation where they avoid learning, for example by passively withdrawing in the classroom,’ Sherria says.

It’s important to teach your child that failure isn’t the end of the world.

‘Failure is a learning opportunity, because you have to explore different strategies,’ Sherria explains. ‘Effective learners aren’t afraid of failure; in fact, they’re proud of their mistakes and how they’ve overcome them.’

Create an environment where your child can talk openly about what they’re struggling with, so you can work together to find ways to overcome the problem.

3. Help them find their learning style

Learning is not a ‘one size fits all’ experience. You can help your child learn more effectively by helping them identify learning strategies that work for them, and for different tasks.

For example, some children will master their times tables by practising them by rote. Some do better if they write them out over and over again. Others might find that singing along to YouTube videos works best.

‘Effective learning is about understanding, exploring and discovering which strategies work for you,’ says Sherria.

‘This means trying things out to find your optimal approach. Teachers are constantly working to help children discover the strategies that work for them. What we can do is help our children to have the motivation to explore and experiments with the strategies they are being shown to them.’

4. Encourage them to push themselves

Effective learners aren’t the children who sit in their comfort zone and get 100% every time, but those who aren’t afraid to push themselves.

‘They’re uncomfortable if things are too easy, and given a choice of tasks, will choose the harder ones,’ says Sherria.

‘They like being stretched, aren’t ashamed to say they’re finding something difficult, and will explore their own strategies to learn more.’

You can encourage your child by, for example, suggesting that they complete homework extension tasks, not just the basic activity, and praising them for having a go at something difficult, even if they don’t get the right outcome.

5. Avoid comparisons

We all want to know how well our kids are doing in relation to their peers, but it’s important not to fall into the trap of making comparisons.

‘When children get used to looking at those who have done less well than them to build their self-esteem, they can be knocked back if someone else is doing better,’ Sherria explains. ‘Instead of comparing your child to the rest of the class, get used to measuring them against their own progress.’

This means, instead of saying, ‘Well done for getting 9/10 on your spelling test; did anyone get 10/10?’ saying something like, ‘That’s a great score. How does it compare to last week’s spelling test? What strategy did you use, and what will you try next time?’

‘Being the best doesn’t mean your child is learning, and being the worst doesn’t mean they’re not learning,’ Sherria says. ‘Focus on their growth and progress, rather than whether they’re the best.’

6. Teach them to ask for help

Children – particularly high achievers – may be reluctant to put their hand up in class and ask for help, and while it can be good for them to try to work things out on their own, it’s important that they know it’s OK to find things difficult.

‘Effective learners will try to solve the problem themselves first of all, but they’re not afraid to ask for help when they need it,’ says Sherria.

Teach your child that asking for help is a good thing. If they’re reticent about it, it might be worth having a word with their teacher so they can encourage them to speak up if they need a hand, too.

7. Use the right language

We’re all aware of how important praise is to our children, but if we want to help them become effective learners, we need to make sure we’re praising the right things.

That means giving them positive feedback for their progress, effort and achievement, rather than their ability.

Telling your child, ‘you did really well to persevere with that maths problem,’ or ‘you did really well on that task, that’s a great mark,’ or, ‘I love how you’ve used some good adjectives in your writing,’ is much more valuable than saying, ‘you are fantastic at spelling,’ or, ‘you’re so good at maths.’

‘Using language that celebrates effort, process, outcomes and perseverance focuses your child on their growth, and will help them learn to value the skills that will serve them well when they face a challenge, whether in their schoolwork or in everyday life,’ Sherria explains.