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Learning to Learn

Familiar dialogue? Most parents have been there. How can parents instill in their children a desire to take responsibility seriously? How can they help their children see the value in developing and maintaining positive study habits? Habits they will carry with them the rest of their lives.

Parents begin this critical training by focusing on the broadest and most important factor: We Christians do “good works” out of thanks to God for all he has done for us. That may seem far removed from “study habits.” However, for Christians, responsible and effective study habits flow out of thankfulness to God. So if we want our children to develop proper motivation, we immerse them in the Word, continuously reminding them of their sin and God’s forgiveness. And we let the Holy Spirit do his work in our children’s hearts—work that will nurture the desire to thank God by the way they apply themselves to their studies and other life responsibilities.

With proper motivation as the foundation, we must also help our children develop the mindset and acquire the tools needed to succeed. It’s a task we begin with prayer and carry out with loving encouragement.

Before focusing on our children, however, we must first take a look in the mirror. Do we reflect responsible study and work habits? Do our children see us continuing to grow as responsible Christian adults? Do they see us admit our failures, ask forgiveness, and confidently move forward? Could our children honestly say, “I want to be responsible like my parents? Obviously, we cannot succeed if our approach is “Do what I say, not what I do.”

But we must do more than model. We also teach. We teach and enforce effective study attitudes and procedures that will eventually become habits.

To instill any new behavior, we must be consistent. As a teacher, I once established a rule that if the class was being noisy or disruptive, they would lose one minute of their recess. When they knew I would carry through on this, it was extremely effective. But when I got caught up in multitasking and forgot to carry through, this strategy began to lose its effectiveness.

Consistency takes effort and self discipline. But it is worth the effort. The seeds we plant as we teach good study skills will blossom into a lifetime of responsible living.

From a very early age, children can be given reasonable tasks for which they must be responsible. Perhaps, for the very young, simply expect them to put their toys away when they are done playing. Then, as they mature, increase the number of tasks and their difficulty. Directly supervise at first; then begin backing off. Consistently check that the task has been completed satisfactorily. Then continue to withdraw your supervision, as the task becomes habit-as your children begin to "own" the behavior. Of course, be consistent each step of the way.

Even though you are working toward independent learning, you can still work with your children, showing your love for learning and enjoying learning together. Your approach to reading is one way to do this. When your children are young, read to them. As they learn to read, have them read to you; and regularly let them see you enjoy independent reading. Developing a love for reading is key to becoming independent learners.

Whenever possible, give your children independent choices. This helps them "own" the task and can lead to confidence in making life choices. Examples: "When you do your homework, would you rather work at the kitchen table or privately in your room?" and "Would you rather stud with music in the background or with complete silence?"

Always let your children know you are there to help them with their homework. But that never means doing it for them or giving them the answers (which today's rushed parents may be tempted to do). Rather, help them learn how to learn: "Having trouble with long division? Here's how you do it. Now you do the first problem and show me you know how."

Know your children's strengths and weaknesses, skills and talents. And adjust your approach accordingly. If, for instance, a child has a short attention span, build planned "interruptions" into the study time. Example: "After 15 minutes of study, get up and get a drink," or "When you've completed the assignment in your spelling workbook, get up and feed your pet gerbil."

At times, you may have to rely on a consequence - "You won't be able to watch your cartoon on TV if you don't do this." But be sure to move away from this as soon as you can, always leading your children toward carrying out their tasks independently with a "Thank you, God" attitude.

For some tasks it's simple: "Just do this." However, others require a workable system. So, as you begin helping your children develop the responsibility for doing their homework independently and well, here are a few things to consider.

  1. Jointly choose an appropriate place to study. Steer your children away from places that have distractions or are extremely casual. For example, studying in front of a favorite TV show and studying while lying on their beds are probably not settings that are conducive to learning.
  2. Agree on a consistent time slot, After school? Early morning? After dinner? After soccer practice? Before a favorite TV show? And I can't repeat often enough, once this choice is made, be consistent.
  3. Help your children develop and organized approach to doing homework. Lead them to identify and prioritize their tasks, and then expect them to follow their own list of priorities. Examples: Check that I have paper, pencils, and correct textbooks. Check that I know the assignment. Rearrange them only when they identify more efficient procedures. And if the student studies better with a drink, snack, or soft music, check that those items are in place.
  4. Consider encouraging your children to do the more difficult assignments first. If they enjoy reading more than math, have them save reading as a treat at the end of the study period.

Children learn in different ways. Some will become independent workers faster than others. But, if you observe the individual needs of your children as you develop consistent systems that work for each of them -- and for you, I am confident your children will grow responsible work habits that will serve them well now and throughout their lives.

By Owen Dorn, from Parents Crosslink © 2013 Northwestern Publishing House. All rights reserved.

Image credit: "Child And Book" by George Hodan is licensed under CC0 1.0.

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