In a perfect world, you might be able to oversee every second of your child's education to ensure that he or she has the best opportunity to succeed. Unfortunately, you won't be in the classroom with your kids all the time-they'll be building the foundations of their success later in life under the authority and tutelage of others.
But that doesn't mean there aren't plenty of ways you can guarantee those foundations go up strong from the very beginning. Experts say that the sooner you get personally involved in your child's schooling, the better.
Here are a few of their suggestions to help your child thrive.
Connect with the school
At the soonest opportunity, establish a line of communication with your child's teachers, principal and, particularly if your child has a medical condition, the school nurse. Be certain to learn the best way to contact teachers and officials.
"Teachers often appreciate when parents ask what is the best way to get in touch with them," says Dr. Bradley Stein, a child and adolescent psychiatrist with the University of Pittsburgh. "You don't want to wait until there's a problem or an issue."
Stein suggests researching your child's school to find out about open house nights or parent-teacher conferences. If these happen later in the year, though, particularly with younger children or in a new school, seek out teachers earlier.
Teachers can certainly use your insight early on in helping them to work with your child, says David Raye of the Goddard School. "The parents need to communicate and the school needs to communicate, both ways."
Keep in touch
Once you've established that connection, use it, especially when problems arise. "If the child is struggling in school, there needs to be more communication between school and home," says Sue Adair, director of quality assurance for the Goddard School systems.
Slipping grades, a declining interest in school or other negative changes in a child's approach to learning are best addressed between parents and educators.
"The parent being able to talk and communicate with the teacher is one of the most important things to making sure that when issues comes up the child gets the support that they need," says Stein.
Apply lessons at home
One great way to help augment in-school teaching is to apply the lessons they learn in the classroom in their everyday lives. "The learning doesn't stop when the child walks out of the school," says Raye.
"Talk about how you could use that skill in everyday life," Adair suggests. "If your child is learning about money, when you go to the supermarket with your child, you can talk about it in a real-world context."
Playing educational games together-in moderation-is also a plus.
Talk about school
It's crucial to hear from your child about school, but it can sometimes be tough getting kids to talk about their days. One good way to get around terse answers is to start by asking about things the kid loves-even if it's games at recess-and transition into discussions about what they're learning.
Stein suggests starting with very open-ended questions. "For many kids this works; for others it's often useful to ask specific questions and direct them," he says.
And another benefit of frequent communication with the school is that you can be briefed in advance on what your child is learning about. "If (parents) know what's going on in the classroom, you can say, 'well, you were working on multiplication skills today,'" suggests Adair.
Help with homework
For preschoolers and kindergarteners, tests and homework probably won't be an issue. But as children transition into higher grades, they may need your helping hand when it comes to out-of-classroom work.
This is a good thing, says Stein, in moderation. "You don't want your child too frustrated by homework, but at the same time it's important that the homework is there for the child to learn," he says.
Walk kids through a few easy problems, then have them do their own until they get stuck. For tests, try creating a practice exam tailored to the areas your child still needs help with, then go over their work to identify patterns of error.
And when all is said and done, a special treat for good grades isn't a terrible thing. "It's OK if you have a small reward system," says Raye. But be careful not to overdo it-you don't want kids learning only because they want an external reward.
Keep kids healthy and rested
Physical health is crucial to mental health and development. That means kids need their exercise (often in the form of outdoor play), a balanced diet that includes breakfast and a good night's sleep. Sleep needs vary between ages and children, but at least 10 hours is usually recommended up to teenage years.
And finally, don't forget about emotional health. Kids will be upset on occasion, and some may never really love going to school, but a pervasive negativity or depression should be addressed as soon as possible.
Keeping your kids healthy and happy will help make sure they're building a strong base of knowledge for the rest of their lives.
Darren McRoy is a former Chicago Parent intern.