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Six Tips for Boosting Kids' School Achievement (and Their Confidence)

Published on: September 30, 2010

Teen doing homeworkHere is one of today’s little secrets: Tweens and teens can become dependent on parents to the point that they fear they can’t make the grade without parental help. Some well-meaning parents put their children’s papers into a word-processing program’s editing mode, and all the teen has to do is “accept changes.” When parents become a crutch, teens feel like a sham, and this dependence whittles away at their self-esteem, because they know they’re not doing the work themselves. No one feels good, but who wants to give the crutch up and risk falling into a bad grade?

Here are six ways parents can get involved — without becoming a crutch.

Be an authoritative parent. Research shows that academically motivated teens come from families in which parents have high expectations and also encourage independence. Parenting that is warm, firm and fair (authoritative) works better than parenting that is punitive, harsh or overly strict (authoritarian), or detached or inept (permissive).

Become a cheerleader. A parent’s crucial role in a teen’s education is to support, encourage, ignore minor slippages and keep a 5-1 ratio of positive to negative interactions.

We now know definitively that pressuring kids about school does damage. Recent studies conducted in suburban America show the harm of a preoccupied focus on grades. Among affluent, advantaged children, academic pressure is correlated to depression, anxiety, substance abuse and alienation from parents.

Adopt the right attitude toward achievement. Should you encourage your teen by continually telling her that she’s smart? Although some 85 percent of parents say “yes,” major research begs to differ. This type of remark contributes to a “fixed mindset” about intelligence. Thirty years of research shows that students who believe their ability is fixed (that is, it’s a “given,” not subject to change) don’t try as hard as those who believe their abilities are malleable.

Instead of praising kids for being “smart,” praise them for being “good learners,” remarking on the processes they use for achieving: working hard, concentrating, rallying after a setback, getting help when they’re struggling or asking teachers to clarify assignments. Kids who are confident in their ability to learn tend to hang in there when the going gets tough.

Be aware of the “panther in the backpack.” Teens can have incredibly negative emotions about schoolwork: fear of failure, resentment about not being as smart as other kids, worry that even one’s best effort won’t be good enough — not to mention sheer dread of the workload.

And teens are rarely able to articulate their deep anxiety about schoolwork. Within all procrastinators lies some kind of anxiety, but it’s beyond them to say, in essence, “I see a panther when I see my backpack,” even though their emotional brains might register their pile of homework as predatory. Parents need to realize that there’s more to procrastination than meets the eye.

Realize that academic thriving involves the whole child. Support the various building blocks of your teen’s life: home, school, extracurricular activities and friendships. Starting when your child enters0 middle school, create a family policy of having your teen participate in sports and school-based extracurricular activities. Attend school functions and be involved in what happens there. When teens complain or blame teachers for difficulties, work to solve problems with your teen and hold off on criticizing the school. Although parents will need to jump in if there is a clear problem of bullying, teacher abuse or disciplinary injustice, work with the school, not against it.

Having friends who make good grades and aspire to college can enhance a teen’s achievement. Nevertheless, if your teen has fallen into a non-academic peer group, instead of agonizing about “bad peers,” focus on a balanced routine of extracurricular activities, schoolwork, family dinners and responsibilities, and very little socializing on weeknights.

Consider other secrets to success. Anything that increases a teen’s happiness quotient, self-esteem and confidence can enhance school achievement. Here are other ways to do just that.

Plan summers strategically. Although teens may scream for their rights to “hang out,” a surplus of free time can be trouble. In middle-school years, camp can be just the ticket. Summer activities should not be about the college résumé. Instead, consider what else would enhance your teen’s development and expose her to new horizons: employment, being out in nature, public service or visiting a relative in another part of the country to work on a farm, for example.

Help your teen think about career options — maybe through a part-time job, internship, informational interview, “shadow” day in a job setting or conversations with your friends about their careers.

Encourage volunteering. Even if your teen is employed, helping others who are less fortunate or being exposed to the nonprofit world opens up valuable new perspectives on life.

Limit employment to 12 hours a week or fewer during the school year.

Counteract educational gender stereotyping. Girls’ brains mature earlier, setting them up to read and write better, and providing them with more developed executive-functioning abilities. Also, girls are socialized to behave better in all the ways that schooling requires. But because girls are sometimes not encouraged to take advanced math, science and computer courses — and may pick up on the “boys only” messages in these future careers — parents may need to spur them on.

Although boys are nudged to take the “harder” sciences, their brain development is two years behind their female classmates. This lag, together with their boisterous ways, means boys are more likely to be diagnosed with behavior, learning and attention disorders. Parents and educators alike can benefit from reading more about boys’ emotional development to understand what a struggle it is for some boys to sit in class all day or to deal with vulnerable feelings.


Adapted from Getting to Calm: Cool-headed Strategies for Parenting Tweens and Teens by Laura S. Kastner, Ph.D., and Jennifer Wyatt, Ph.D.

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