When our children start to struggle in school, it’s tempting to think that something significant is wrong:
Maybe they aren’t cut out for the advanced classes they’re enrolled in
Maybe their friends are a bad influence and affecting their grades
Maybe we need to drop everything, get them a tutor and double down on study time
But many times the story isn’t quite so dramatic.
When we work with kids we often find that it’s not that they hate learning, don’t want to try because it’s not “cool,” or have some fundamental deficiency in a particular subject. Instead, most of the time it’s a few small things that have gone wrong, and have started to accumulate over time. Things like:
In this post we cover 12 habits of successful students, and how you can use these small, manageable actions to create some big wins for you and your child in 2018.
These aren’t the grandiose commitments you’ll see attached to most people’s New Year’s resolutions this year, that in their wild ambition are almost always doomed to failure. But instead reasonable tweaks you can make to the routines and strategies your family already has in place to start to turn things around.
If there’s a specific section you’d like to tackle first, here’s a quick reference table of contents that will take you there:
Habit 1: The basics of time management and planning ahead
Habit 2: Don’t just get organized, they stay organized
Habit 3: Distribute your practice
Habit 4: Taking notes in class
Habit 5: Study using active recall
Habit 6: Approach your mistakes correctly
Habit 7: Make friends you can study with
Habit 8: Rock solid morning and evening routines
Habit 9: Parents: Give them the tools but don’t do it for them
Habit 10: Know how to ask for help, but try to find the answer first
Habit 11: Parents: Don’t focus on motivation, focus on behavior
Habit 12: School isn’t everything
Otherwise let’s jump in!
As we’ve covered before, time management is a struggle for a lot of students, especially as assignments become more complex.
But they don’t have to be planning experts to be successful. If we break it down into the simplest time management habits of successful students, there are a few things almost all of them do:
The simple act of writing down their assignments is the cornerstone of staying on top of their schoolwork, having a better sense of when things need to be done, and making the best use of their time after school. Often just the act of getting something down on paper is enough to set of a chain of events that leads to homework getting done on time, and projects getting started on earlier than the day before they’re due.
They use their agenda book or planner to write out what they’re going to do, but not in big general terms like “study for math test.” Rather, they break it down into smaller goals like: “spend 15 minutes working on fractions worksheet.” This makes it easier to get started, and easier to see progress as well.
This is one of those “duh” type habits, but it’s one that a lot of kids don’t develop. Without learning a sense of time from paying attention to how time actually passes, many students have a hard time estimating how long things will take, as well as how much time they’re spending on un-productive activities. Encourage them to check the clock or wear a watch on a regular basis.
At this point it’s no secret, we’re BIG on organization here at Educational Connections, because it’s one of the most effective tools you can use with your student to help them improve their performance in school. Often times academic or behavioral issues are merely symptoms of disorganization and lack of routine.
Here are some of the top organizational habits of successful students (covered here in more detail):
Now it’s all well and good to put new habits in place, but the difficult part is getting them to stick. How many times have you reminded your son or daughter to write down their homework, only to find missed assignments a week later?
So not only do successful students work on their organization habits, they also work together with their families to monitor and revisit them to make sure they’re working. Here are some ways you might do that:
Make sure you’re not nagging, but just check in: “Hey I know you said you liked the way we set up your homework folders for your classes. How’s that going? Is it helping you organize your assignments?”
You can even pair this with your Clean Sweep so that you’re uncovering all of the “mess” that may have accumulated as a result of failed organizational habits.
Get your closet organized. Set your things for work out the night before. Spend time planning out your week, visibly, so your child can observe you in action. This is the most powerful way you can demonstrate the importance of organization habits for your kids.
If you’re lucky, maybe your son or daughter takes to studying like a diligent professional – planning ahead, setting aside time each day, and cruising into their quizzes and tests without so much as a hiccup to their usual bedtime.
Well I can confidently say: most of us aren’t lucky.
Instead most of us have kids who, although maybe they aren’t chronic “Crammers,” definitely have their moments where they wait until the last minute to study for their tests.
Because they don’t tend to have a strong sense of urgency until they are right up against a deadline, if they have a test on Thursday, they start getting ready on Wednesday night. This type of cramming can pay off in the immediate term, but when they need to learn information on a deeper level, it backfires.
Cramming only puts information into short-term memory, whereas learning it over many nights and sleeping on it (by the way, sleep is a fantastic study tool) stores it into long-term memory.
This is because of a concept called Distributed Practice.
Distributed practice (also known as “spaced repetition”), is just a fancy way of saying: study a little bit each day rather than cramming it all in the night before the test.
Studies show that when students use a concept called Distributed Practice, they are far more likely to do better on tests. For example, if your child has a test on Friday, he could study for an hour on Thursday night, but he would actually get a better grade if he took the same amount of time and distributed it over multiple days — 20 minutes Tuesday, 20 on Wednesday, and 20 on Thursday. The reason he’ll get a better grade is not because he’s reviewed the material multiple times; it’s that he’s slept on it.
When you learn information and then sleep on it, you’re consolidating that information into long-term memory. However, when you cram for a test, that information is learned at a superficial level, really for regurgitation the next day. It’s going into short-term memory. Long-term memory is more beneficial, because when you have a test later on, say a month later, you’re much more likely to be able to retrieve it.
First, they have to want to change. In order for a different way of studying to work, he or she must recognize the problem and be willing to make modifications. If it’s not seen as an issue, all the parental suggestions in the world won’t work.
So have a chat with them. As difficult and exhausting as it is to stay up with a kid cramming for a math test last-minute, you can bet that they don’t like it either, even if they claim they work better under pressure (a “tell” that they’re justifying their behavior).
I’ve found that kids who tend to cram are willing to plan ahead if they don’t feel like they have to do any more work than necessary and if they see the changes result in better grades (and they almost always do). The good news is that they often don’t have to put in more time, they just need to use it more efficiently.
Crammers also respond well to the suggestion of using “weird windows“. Sometimes, students think they need lengthy, dedicated time in which to study. And if they don’t have the perfect time and if they’re not in the ideal mood, they won’t do it. In actuality, they can use any chunk of time to get studying done. An example of a ”weird window” is the 15 minutes he or she’s waiting at a doctor’s office or that 20 minutes right before lacrosse practice starts. Those are weird windows, and you can chunk time for studying by getting a lot done in short periods of time.
There are definitely some students who get into class, pull out their notebooks and a pencil, and start transcribing everything the teacher says like an efficient note-taking robot.
There are other kids who will plop down at their desk and sit… comfortably listening (or not) to what the teacher has to say, until he or she notices said kid is doing nothing, and tells them to get out a piece of paper and write down what they’re saying.
The proper balance is somewhere in the middle, and there are any number of different note taking methods successful students use. Here are a few you can introduce your child to if they don’t already have a good note-taking habit:
Exactly as it sounds, the outline method is probably the most straightforward. Chances are if the teacher is organized they’ll present the material in an outline format already. Here the student’s job is to recognize when the teacher has moved onto a new topic, and keep their notes relatively organized underneath each topic (although it’s not an exact science).
Let your child express their inner creative by taking notes as they see fit. Drawing diagrams, linking notes together with a mind map… the danger here is if they take too many liberties and miss key information. But if your child is a bit more “outside the box” this may be something to explore.
The Cornell Method is a more advanced method probably best reserved for high school students. You record your notes during class in the right-hand column, and then formulate questions and terms on the left-hand side as soon after class as you can. You can then use these notes as a study guide, covering the right hand side and trying to remember what each question or term means.
When it’s all said and done though, even just a rudimentary copying of what the teacher has on the board is a start, and you can build from there.
Whether through an app like Quizlet or through old-fashioned physical note cards, students who practice recalling key information from memory almost always do better on quizzes and tests.
The official name for this practice is Active Recall and the method is pretty straightforward.
Step 1: Write down the term, concept, or problem to solve.
Step 2: Write down or recite the definition, explanation, or answer without looking at any notes or information.
Step 3: Check your answer against your notes, and correct your mistakes.
In direct contrast to passively reading the textbook, or leafing through notes, this technique has been shown be the research to dramatically improve exam performance, and is one of the lesser known habits of successful students that people talk about.
Speaking of mistakes, the most successful students don’t dwell (and don’t avoid either). Many times I’ve seen students who get down on themselves due to a missed question on an exam. Unfortunately, by viewing their mistakes in this way, they almost always ensure they won’t learn from them and improve the next time around.
So it’s important to help foster a growth mindset: the idea that your child’s skills and abilities aren’t fixed (e.g. they’re not “smart”) but can be improved over time with practice and effort (e.g. they’re hard workers and can become “smarter”).
With this type of self-talk (and encouragement from mom and dad), kids are much more likely to dig into their mistakes and work hard to correct them so that they learn what to do correctly the next time.
Some kids are extroverts and have a vast network of friends they can reach out to at a moment’s notice. For others, making friends in class can feel like climbing Mt. Everest.
Regardless of your child’s natural temperament, having at least a few other classmates your son or daughter can reach out to in each class is critical.
Even with just one or two friends in class to text, your child can quickly clarify assignments, ask questions if they’re not sure about something from class, or set up a meeting time to study for an upcoming test. All of these will serve as a buffer against forgetting to write something down, missing a class due to absence, or just simply having some material go over their heads.
Even better, if they schedule a regular time to meet up over Skype or FaceTime, it can be a great accountability tool to make sure they’re staying on top of assignments and exams.
The routines that frame the beginning and end of each day often determine the success or failure of that following school day for your child. And there are a few reasons for this:
First, having a solid morning routine established not only for your son or daughter, but for the whole family, ensures that when they get up in the morning, they know exactly what they need to do to get ready for school. There’s no (well… let’s say less) negotiating, and less likelihood that they forget something critical like a homework assignment, an instrument, or their lunch.
And often the tone that gets set at the beginning of the day determines the success of the remainder of the day: so a smooth low-stress start to the school day gives your child the best chance at successful learning for the six or so hours they’re at school.
Second, having a clear and timely evening routine further facilitates organization, proper sleep, and preparedness for the following day. It’s tempting to let TV, the computer, or last minute assignments throw a wrench into your plans – but unless your son or daughter find themselves in a critical circumstance the bedtime routine should rarely be deviated from.
Third, both consistent evening and morning routines facilitate a consistent sleep schedule. It cannot be overstated the magnitude of the negative impact lack of sleep, or even and inconsistent sleep schedule can have on a students ability to learn, ability to regulate their emotions, and the overall quality of their interactions with you, teachers, and other students each day. Having a set bedtime and wake up time each morning dramatically increases the probability that they’ll get the rest they need, when they need it.
I know, it’s tough to see your child struggle. Especially when you can see exactly what they’re doing wrong and you know you could just step in for a split second and help them correct the problem.
Unfortunately, while it’s absolutely critical to be loving and supporting to your child, helping them with their homework or studying when they could do it on their own does them a big disservice.
The more a student can expand their abilities and level of competence independently, the better – because not only does it set the stage for success in higher level classes in high school and college when mom and dad aren’t around (or don’t understand what they’re learning!), but for success in life when it’s time for them to experience the difficulties of navigating in the real world.
But that doesn’t mean we have to sit and observe from the sidelines. In fact, the language you use as a parent to guide and encourage your child can actually make or break their success as a student.
We already talked about the importance of fostering a “growth mindset” above, but what you can also do is use questions to facilitate thinking and planning ahead. We call these Powerful Questions.
For example, you could ask questions like:
The benefit of framing your conversations with your child about school in this way is that you spark thinking instead of telling them what to do. You give them the tools to figure out what to do, without actually doing it for them. This is the balance the parents of the most successful students strike.
On the flip side, one of the most consistent habits of successful students we observe is their comfort and ability to ask for help when they need it.
These students are much less concerned with what their teachers and classmates will think when they ask a question about something they don’t understand, and a lot of this comes from the growth vs. fixed mindset distinction we discussed earlier. They know that in order to learn they’re going to have to ask questions when they don’t understand something because they aren’t expected to know everything right off the bat.
That all being said, these students also know that they need to put in the effort to try to find the answer themselves first. Whether that’s looking back through their class notes, reviewing the textbook for explanations and examples, or using Google to try to find what they need. If they’ve done their best to try to figure it out, but still are stumped, they don’t hesitate to ask the teacher, mom and dad, or a friend for help.
Note: age is a factor here. Elementary age students aren’t going to have the self-direction to find the answer themselves as readily as middle or high school students, so they’re going to require a bit more help. However, as a parent you should encourage them to do as much as they can independently as early as they can to foster those independent learning skills.
Motivation comes and goes in waves, and if your son or daughter depend on these waves to get their work done, it’s going to be difficult for them to make consistent progress.
As a parent then, it’s your job to help your child understand that even if they’re feeling down or tired, they can still do their work, even if they have to go back and fix it later. Having something down on paper is better than nothing, and often once they start to make a little bit of progress on an assignment, that motivation all the sudden reappears to help them continue to work through it.
To do this, prioritize behaviors over motivation. We all know the cliche of “going through the motions” but for developing habits, this is actually preferred. Change your language to fit this concept: you don’t have to feel good to get your work done, you just have to try. And in fact, when parents stop focusing on motivation (e.g. “You need to care more about school!”), students are often left with the space they need to find their own self-motivation to learn and succeed.
And their parents aren’t only focused on their academic success.
It can be easy to focus in on the marks that show up on a graded exam or on report cards because that’s an easy measurement to look at and keep track of. But there are plenty of other ways that our kids can develop and succeed, and acknowledging those wins outside of school actually goes a long way towards helping them be successful in school.
Contrary to what you would think, the most successful students don’t tie their whole identity to their school performance. It’s just one facet of what makes them who they are, and this relieves the pressure to succeed in one area that can often be devastating when they encounter challenges and failure.
Think about it this way: if your son feels that his value as a person is highly tied up in how well he does at the end of the quarter in his biology class… then if he has a bad day and does poorly on an exam, it can have severe consequences psychologically. In that way, putting such a high importance on doing well academically is actually preventing him from continuing to learn, because taking an inevitable “loss” isn’t as easy to overcome and learn from.
If instead he also knows that he’s valued for his sportsmanship on the basketball court, his success in building his own gaming computer, and his ability to make his brothers and sisters laugh at the dinner table, that failed bio exam is less of a blow, and more easy to brush off and try again.
Now like we said at the outset of this post: small behavioral changes are what lead to big long-term results. So trying to help your child uproot their academic habits all at once is a recipe for failure.
To get the most out of the changes you could make this year, read through the list above, and choose 1-3 changes you can implement this week.
How are you going to introduce those changes to your child or your family?
What will you do to ensure you succeed?
And what will you use as your criteria for success to know if they’re fruitful or not?
Choose the habits you want to work on, answer those questions, and then give it a try.
And let us know in the comments what you’re going to work on and why. We love hearing from parents like you. Have a wonderful 2018!