Ask an expert: Helping boys learn

Author: Canadian Living


Ask an expert: Helping boys learn

Q: My 10-year-old son is having a very hard time in school. He's in Grade 5 and I just got his report card today -- not good. I would love some advice on how to make his learning easier, especially in math. He feels really bad about his grades and I don't want him to give up. He's a very bright boy, but schoolwork always seems to be a challenge for him. Are their any exercises or tricks I can do at home to help him along? I'm even going to start leaving work earlier to be able to help him with his homework. I'm not the smartest person and I'm having a hard time myself with some of his work.

A: First of all, I'm really sorry that your son is struggling at school. He is one of too many boys his age that are. Teachers, researchers, educational leaders and parents are aware of this problem and are trying to find ways of responding that will make a difference for boys. Your question about how to make his learning easier is an important one.

Isn't it hard being a parent and feeling the pain for and about your child? If only all of life's bumps and mishaps could be easily fixed. We hurt when our kids are discouraged and disappointed. We feel out of control when it's in a domain that we can't really understand.

You have to be a detective and find out what the real problem is. You have observed your child -- when does he get the most frustrated? What does he think the problem is? What is easy for him, what is difficult? Does he have too much difficult homework? What are his work habits like at home? Is he healthy? Are his eyes and ears healthy? Is he getting enough sleep and proper nutrition? Silly questions you say, but.not so. Emotional and physical health are directly connected to success in school. Kids also do better when parents are there to support them, so your move to spend more time with him is a great one! You are a caring mom!

Next, meet with the teacher to see if he or she knows where there might be some concern. It is important to work together with the teacher to help your son. Teachers want the best for kids and generally appreciate knowing that parents are working with them to make learning work for the child. Communication is critical.

The teacher should have some suggestions about how you can help your son. Sometimes kids pretend that they understand concepts, so teachers might not know that they are confused or not understanding. At this age being 'cool' and looking like you understand matters more than really understanding. Boys hate to ask 'dumb' questions for fear of the ridicule that might follow. What are his work habits like at school? Talk with the teacher about your son's learning style and discuss some of things you know about your son that the teacher might find helpful. That will help make instruction more effective. It is important to let the teacher know that there are some concerns and that you care.

There might be an older child in the school that could act like a tutor to help him understand the concepts he is confused about. Mathematics can be difficult for students in Grade 5. It is when math computation takes a leap into double digits and if the foundational learning of numbers and the concept of 10 is missing, we can see problems.

Report cards are tough things to understand (and to write). As a kid I hated getting them myself and seeing myself reduced to a number or letter grade that generally compared me to the rest of my class. The report card seems to communicate that you are 'good' or 'bad'. Evaluating children is very difficult especially when kids are trying hard and doing their best. Reports are intended to communicate how your child is doing so that you, the parent, are in the loop. Unfortunately they communicate some information that sometimes disheartens and discourages the learner.

Let your child know that report card grades do not affect your love and pride. Grades are only indicators of what the teacher perceives to be the achievement at that moment in time and those marks can go up with just a little effort by the student, the teacher and the parent. Let him know that he is not stupid and help him make a list of all the things that he is good at. Also help him to see that math matters in life so he will see the purpose in working on it. Celebrate him as a learner.

Generally boys benefit from doing homework on a computer. If you don't have one at home, public libraries often have them. Librarians are great helpers, too. Homework is an issue. Set a time limit for the amount of time he should have to do homework, taking into account time to relax, play, hang out with friends, do nothing, play sports, etc.

Check the board of education policy on homework and use it as a guideline. Boys need lots of time to be physically active. Discuss a good time of day to block off for homework, choose the best place for him to do it and provide quality tools for him to use: good pencils, markers, paper, books and resources. Being home with him is important.

That said, there is more than one question here. If your child does not understand the homework and it is not clear to you either, then send a note or an e-mail to the teacher asking for clarification before second guessing and doing something that makes no sense. Sometimes a quick phone call to another student might help your child figure things out -- two heads are often better than one. A guide for how much assistance is enough does not exist. You need to inspire, encourage, help your child find resources, provide honest and constructive feedback, maybe an idea or two, a place to work that is not too distracting and a time limit. Kids do need to have some sense of how long they need to work on schoolwork and really need free time. Homework should make sense in every way!
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Dr. Linda Cameron is currently an associate professor of education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education at the University of Toronto. She has taught kids in school at all levels -- from preschool including kindergarten right through grade 12. You will still find her working with children in classrooms whenever she can!
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Ask an expert: Helping boys learn