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Helping your child navigate school

By Sandy McDaniel

School is off and running – are your children keeping up? As a former elementary schoolteacher, I will tell you that it is critical that a child does not get lost in the beginning of the year. Attitude is half the battle! If a child gets discouraged, they will give up on themselves and cause more trouble at home and at school.
Have a sibling help a younger sibling (give a lesson in support as opposed to criticism), hire a tutor if needed, and be sure to let the teacher know that struggle is happening. It is also important that a parent provides a checkpoint for each child: “I want you to show me what your homework is, then show it to me when you are finished.” I would make my children do a messy paper over, with me watching. Mis-spelled words can be circled with pencil, to be corrected; math errors can be circled to be fixed – or one math problem circled, which means all the problems need to be checked by the child.
I am not a good student. My brain works differently than many teachers teach, so, I went through school thinking I was dumb, suffering as I tried to learn the curriculum. I think that’s why, when I became a teacher, I knocked myself out to be creative, to teach in all modalities (auditory, visual, kinesthetic), and it was there I learned how important it is to be really nurturing when helping a student who is stuck.
For some children, reading is difficult. If a child lags in reading, every subject will have hurdles for that child. The best way to learn to read is to read! Have your child read aloud to you while you are cooking dinner. Read with your children every night before bedtime, taking turns to read a paragraph or even a sentence. Sometimes, read and just stop at a word for the child to say what it is. Helping a child to sound out a word needs to be done with NO negative body language, sighs, or a change in tone of voice. If the child feels like a failure, that child will fail.
When a child was doing a math problem, I asked that it be completed aloud. That way I could hear where thinking needed to be re-taught. In spelling, sometimes a big word can be tackled in syllables. If you knock your knuckles on the table three times, el-e-phant is broken into three parts: two e’s and a ph for fant. Sometimes, learning a group of ideas can best be put into mnemonics. Learn five men’s names who signed the Declaration of Independence to spell out a word, such as “flags.” That could include Franklin, Livingston, Adams, etc.
The start of a new school year can be very traumatic. I have been reminded by my friend, Laura Sonderegger (author of “Emotional 911: For Parents”), how important it is to listen to a child’s fears. Listening means to ask, “What are you feeling?” Follow up by asking the child where that upsetting or negative feeling (scared, worried, anxious) is in their body; give it a color and invite the child to pretend to blow it into a balloon to float away from them. Once the fear is gone, the child can listen and focus.
Thanks to our continuing COVID-19 reality, children are experiencing new kinds of trauma. Stored inside, those feeling become hurdles over which the child will need to vault throughout his or her life. They also become triggers, invisible snares that cause sudden fear and often drama in relationships. More than ever, we need to be with our children, listen to their feelings and help them to release them so they can reach for a better feeling (calm, content, happy). Laura’s book, available on Amazon, will give you a gazillion ways to assist your children with their feelings, and work to heal existing trauma.
I see myself mentioning the need to listen in many of my columns. Listening requires connection. If you are busy, tell your child, “I need five minutes to put this together, then I can listen. I’m setting a timer, so take deep breaths until you hear it ring.”
To connect, look in the child’s eyes and be with them completely. Take a breath! If your answer is negative (“Mom, can I please watch X on TV?”) think before you speak. “I hear that your friends watch that show, that you hate to feel left out, but it’s not something I want you to watch.” The child (especially a teen) will argue. Listen. Be present. Repeat exactly what you said before in a calm, level voice. Repeat your sentence as many times as necessary; the trick is to stay calm and not show anger. Bored, the child will stop.
To the degree you are present and try to provide the help your child needs to navigate the school years, will your child feel safe enough to ask for help in other areas? Listen! Be present! The time you take now will save years of trying to get through the wall they otherwise build between the two of you.

For more than 55 years, Sandy McDaniel has been an international speaker and recognized authority on families and children. Author of five books, columnist, founder of, she is a resident of Meridian and loves spending time with her three Idaho grandchicks. She may be reached at; or go to YouTube:Sandy Spurgeon McDaniel to see videos on specific parenting issues.

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