Emily Bradshaw has always tried to create an atmosphere that encourages learning in her home, reading nightly with her young family, encouraging their studies and designing activities to broaden their horizons. She became even more involved three years ago, when a contract stalemate between teachers and the state caused Hawaiian schools to close every Friday. Bradshaw and some neighbors in the Oahu town of Laie decided to step in.
"For a whole year, almost every Friday, the teachers were on leave without pay, which meant kids were not in school," Bradshaw said. "In a community where most families require two incomes to survive financially, this left kids at home, in front of the TV and out of luck." To fill the void, Bradshaw and some friends created what they called Furlough School for kids who lived in the neighborhood.
"I taught creative writing, my friend taught math games, another friend taught ASL," she said. "It was really like being in a one-room school house with kids of all ages. For one morning a week, I thought it was very rewarding to be engaged in this kind of community effort."
Most parents won't need to replace school curriculum as Bradshaw did, but there are many things parents can do at home to help their children learn more effectively at school. Opportunities abound for vacations, family outings, games and activities that boost learning. But many of the most effective ways for parents to support their children's school performance are neither elaborate nor expensive.
The most important way to boost children's school performance is to model a love of learning, said Wallace Goddard, a family life specialist for the University of Arkansas Cooperative Extension Service who lectures and writes books on parenting.
"When children see their parents excited about learning — reading books, asking questions or Google searching — they are far more likely to be enthusiastic learners," Goddard said.
Humans can learn a lot from rodents when it comes to creating enriched learning environments, according to The Dana Foundation, a New York-based philanthropic group that supports brain research through grants and education programs.
"Mice and rats that spend their days twirling in running wheels, nosing their way through elaborate tunnels, negotiating obstacle courses or just hanging out with their four-legged friends have provided neuroscience with some of the best evidence yet for how to keep brains healthy," said science writer Brenda Patoine in an article for the foundation. "While the overall message — that stimulating and challenging the brain reaps rewards — is not new, the evidence supporting this message is stronger than ever."
Neuroscientists theorize that the improved learning and memory skills shown by animals that live in enriched environments are the result of a basic brain mechanism that works for humans, too, though human trials that measure this are difficult to design. Children whose parents strive to enrich their lives with learning do well at school, said retired elementary school teacher Debra Gehris, who taught for 37 years in Utah's Alpine School District.
"You can tell when the parents have worked with the kids, even a little bit," Gehris said. "When the kids know the parents are interested in learning, the positive attitude of the parents transfers to the child."
Knowing the curriculum a child is studying at school can be helpful, but is not essential, Goddard said. The best way to understand what your child is learning about, interested in, surprised by or worried about at school is to ask her.
"How we respond to children's normal curiosity will determine how effective we are at becoming important educational figures in their lives and how curious they come to be," he said. Perhaps the best way to enrich children's literacy is to read with them.
Don and Karen Redd are parents of a family of 14 children who lives in Farmington. The two youngest are still in college and all of the others achieved higher education degrees. Three MD degrees, an RN degree and an engineering degree from West Point military academy are among the number, along with several master's degrees. All six sons served in the U.S. military. The Redds said they laid an educational foundation for their children through reading with them nightly, from infancy onward. The family followed up by taking family vacations to places they read about.
Making sure her children continued learning during the summer was important to Redd and gave her children an advantage at school. Most children lose about two months of grade level equivalency in math skills during summer vacation, according to Johns Hopkins University's School of Education, which also said low-income children lose more than two months in reading achievement, while their middle-class peers make slight gains.
"We always had summer school," Redd said. "I had my children do some math, reading and writing nearly every day."
Talk to your kids
Even dinner-table conversations can bolster knowledge about subjects children are studying in school. The family of Joseph Kennedy, father of America's most prolific political family, is a well-known example. Evelyn Lincoln's book about President John F. Kennedy provides a glimpse of the president's early preparation for world leadership, around the family dinner table:
"His father would assign a subject — Algeria, for example — to one child and instruct him to find all he could on the subject. Then he would tell the other children to do the same so they could question the first one when he made his report and see how much he really knew."
Dinner conversation needn't aspire to the Kennedy family's formality, though. Redd's placemats — U.S. and world maps — were a starter.
"We pointed out places where things were happening in the news, and things we've been reading about," she said. "We always asked the children to share with us what they've learned that day. That sparks conversation about current events, and gives us opportunities to share beliefs about philosophy and moral issues."
Bradford ensured that her children had cultural opportunities by banding together with neighbors, again, after arts funding was cut from her children's school.
The group organized Play-in-a-Week during spring break, rehearsed and presented in the school building. The project caught on and is in its fourth year.
"The sixth-graders write the play, and during a one-week break, kids and parents (and some teachers) learn lines, songs, dances, paint scenery, create costumes and perform the play," Bradshaw said.
Some parents, like Bradshaw, are able to bring their own education and resources to bear on improving education for their children. But even parents whose resources and time are limited can help their children succeed in school, Gehris said.
Make sure children get a good night's rest and a healthy breakfast in calm surroundings, she suggested, and use real-life situations as learning opportunities.
"Take your child to the grocery store," Gehris said. "Have them order at a fast-food restaurant, and count the change."
"Everything doesn't have to be a book-learning experience," she said. "Get out and explore together."