How to Help Your Kids Succeed in School

Mother holding son's face in the palm of her hands

Verywell / Zackary Angeline

Many parents wonder what they can do to help their kids succeed in school. Knowing how much support to offer can be a delicate balance—and depends on your child's age. Too much help can easily result in you taking over or doing it for them and too little can leave them struggling, frustrated, or overwhelmed.

This issue is especially relevant, now, after living through the coronavirus pandemic. Many kids may have fallen behind academically after spending the better part of a year in distance or hybrid learning. Researchers warn that remote learning has widened the already large achievement gap among kids from underserved communities, including students of color, those with learning differences or mental health conditions, and those who were already struggling in school.

Learn more about the best ways to support your child's academic endeavors, including when to offer help and how much to give, when to communicate with teachers, and how to foster your child's self-advocacy, time management, and organizational skills.

Set Positive Expectations

It helps for parents and their children to set some good expectations, routines, and school year goals, suggests Maleka Allen, a Portland, Oregon school counselor with over 18 years of experience working with children of all ages in grades K-12. She recommends both parties think about what outcomes the student wants to work towards, whether that is reading chapter books, finishing homework on time, speaking up more in class, getting all As, or getting passing grades. 

Keep in mind that parent and student expectations and goals may be different, says Allen. That's OK. Aim to find common ground and age-appropriate, student-specific goals so that your child feels listened to, motivated, and realistic about their school-related goals. "Have routine check-ins to make sure that everyone is on the same page," advises Allen.

Also, note that smartness and A's don't always go together. Focusing too much on grades or performance can be very stressful—and impede your child's learning and your family dynamic, says Allen. Instead, honor your child where they are. "Really seeing the gifts that your child brings can be transformative," says Allen. "They'll truly get an opportunity to be who they are—and you'll have a better relationship."

Establish a Homework Routine

It also helps to have a good routine of how, where, and when to do schoolwork. "Setting up a time and a good workspace is also very important," says Allen. She adds that homework done in a dedicated, distraction-free area (ideally out of the bed and bedroom) can foster improved homework completion as well as better sleep for kids.

Note that despite much hype about the presumed positive link between messy, chaotic workspaces and creativity, researchers have failed to find a significant difference in creative output between those with a messy or clean workspace.

Homework quantity and quality will vary quite a bit from student to student depending on their grade, learning style, and the school they go to. Generally, younger kids may have no homework or under an hour of homework nightly, with more added with each passing year.

Research is mixed on the efficacy of homework. However, excessive amounts are often found to detract from student sleep, family time, extracurricular activities, and social lives—and aren't always shown to improve achievement.

Be sure your child is set up with all the homework supplies they need; ask their school if you need help accessing materials. Teach them to use a planner to track assignments, keep them organized, and manage their time wisely. Practice writing down assignments and checking off items when completed to reinforce these skills.

Reach Out to Their Teachers

If you have concerns about the amount of homework your child is assigned or how long the homework is taking for them to complete, check with their teacher. If you think it's too much, let their teacher know. Also, communicate concerns about learning differences or social-emotional issues that may also be impacting school success. In fact, effective parent-teacher communication has been shown to be instrumental in elevating student achievement.

In most cases, teachers and staff encourage parent communication at all grade levels, says Allen. For older children, many teachers will prompt the student to reach out first, but even for high schoolers, parents can contact the school with any questions or concerns. "Teachers and staff want to create relationships early with families so that when there are challenges, they know how to help," explains Allen.

Plus, some kids aren't as forthcoming with teachers as others, so it can help when parents step in to share pertinent information, such as any difficulties at home, illness, issues with peers, or specific homework problems. 

Foster Healthy Sleep Habits

For kids to succeed in school, they need to be well-rested (as well as well-fed). Studies show that students who get adequate amounts of nightly sleep do better in school. Interestingly, both those who get too little and too much sleep tend to underperform academically.

How Much Sleep Do They Need?

The American Association of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends the following sleep hours for school-aged children:

  • 3 to 5 year-olds: 10 to 13 hours (including naps)
  • 6 to 12 year-olds: 9 to 12 hours
  • 13 to 18 year-olds: 8 to 10 hours

Additionally, the AAP recommends avoiding screen time (including for homework) for a minimum of 30 minutes before bedtime in order to promote healthy sleep. Other positive sleep habits include using a consistent bedtime routine, sleeping in a cool, comfortable, quiet, dark room, and limiting non-sleep activities in the bedroom.

Helping vs. Hindering

With younger kids, parents may need to offer more direct assistance with homework, including reviewing instructions or working through assignments side-by-side with their child. Additionally, research shows that one of the most impactful things you can do for your child's education is read to them and encourage them to read independently—and this holds true for babies all the way up to high schoolers.

As students advance in school, they typically become more able to do their schoolwork independently. However, they still may need some guidance on getting started and making a plan, as well as supervision to keep them on task, says Allen.

At any grade level, if more help is needed than you think should be required, you don't understand their homework, or your help is not resolving the issue, then it's time to contact their teacher for added support. You can also ask your child for their ideas. "Hold that space by asking what is your unmet need," says Allen. Aim to listen to your child with curiosity and without judgment.

Research on the impact of parental involvement with their child's schoolwork often has contradictory or muddled results. Some studies show that more parent engagement equals greater student success, while other evidence points to adverse outcomes, particularly when the supervision is perceived as controlling, strict, or overbearing.

According to researchers in a 2017 study on the link between academic achievement and parental involvement, the key may be how the parents help: "Whereas perceived parent-child conflicts about homework were negatively associated with educational outcomes, perceived parental competence and support for students’ self-direction were positively related to achievement," the study says.

Trust Your Student

So, how can a parent find the right balance between being engaged and helpful and not being overbearing or controlling? "This is a great question," says Allen. "I am not sure that there is a good answer except that communicating with your student about what their goals are, how they need support, and then letting go of the outcome is important."

Often, says Allen, parents are afraid of letting kids make mistakes. This fear can lead parents to micromanage or take over the homework to such an extent that their child is not learning, says Allen. Additionally, aim to limit the pressure you put on your child. Excessive academic stress can backfire causing burnout, frustration, lower self-esteem, lower academic achievement, or even mental health issues like depression and anxiety.

Let Them Make Mistakes

"When I think of the biggest learning curves I have had, it is when I have made mistakes," says Allen. Parents are afraid of letting students learn from natural consequences and but that is often when kids learn the most, she says. Instead of being fear-based, aim to let your child learn from whatever situation they are in.

Knowing when to step back is key. "If you are working harder than your student, you need to let go. Your child is saying that they are not ready for all the work," says Allen. In these cases, although a parent can still have high expectations. it's important for parents to listen to the messages their child is sending.

Focus on communication and uncovering what need your child has that they could use help with, whether that is reaching out to their teacher, getting organized, learning to break down a project into smaller chunks, avoiding procrastination, removing distractions, or simply taking a break.

Maleka Allen

If they are sharing that a class is stressful or something else is happening, it is important to listen and see how to work through that. This is the lesson, and that is when the student learns.

— Maleka Allen

Foster Independence and Self-Advocacy

Communicating with your child regarding work expectations is key, but it's equally important to then hold them accountable, says Allen. Encourage them to ask their teacher for help or to brainstorm solutions to any school-related issues. Be their sounding board rather than telling them what to do. However, focus more on good habits like time management, organization, and self-advocacy as well as learning rather than simply grades.

"Parents worry about the grades but most 'superstars' (kids who have balanced their work and other commitments such as sports, work, volunteering, etc.) do not worry as much about the grades and really have good habits that lead them to good grades," says Allen. Additionally, successful, well-balanced students tend to communicate what they are capable of doing and ask for support for schoolwork that they are not able to do, Allen explains.

Focus on Solutions

Instead of fixating on what your child has done wrong (such as forgotten their books at school or missed a deadline), aim to help them come up with a path forward. "I can't stress enough about communication that is solution-focused," advises Allen. "Ask questions of what is needed and what are the unmet needs." It's also vital to know that every challenge is not meant to be "fixed," she says. "It could be that time is also needed for the student to mature."  

Take the time to discover what obstacles your child may have and which solutions work best for them. Most importantly, don't expect your student to be like all the rest of their classmates or achieve to a standard that doesn't match their unique talents. Instead, recommends Allen, focus on fostering their love of learning and the skills that will help them reach their goals.

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