A logical way to approach this topic is to take a step back and start with a deeper question, who should be in charge of your child’s education? Should it be the school, because it is within their system that your child gets educated? Should it be the parents, because we know what’s best for our children? Or should it be the children themselves, because they are the ones being educated?
Which answer to choose depends on which one best meets the purpose of education. So now we take a further step back, into another, deeper, question—what is the purpose of education?
That question is a can of worms. There is not a standard answer, but if you look at the typical responses you can find a common thread. That common thread is student development.
A quick internet search on the purpose of education will point to various types of student development: Development of knowledge, or of love of learning, or of ways of learning, or of the ability to cooperate with peers. You can find them all and more, from such diverse sources as educational bodies, individual teachers, philosophers, and government councils. And they all link back to student development.
When it comes to human development of any kind, one thing is true. Development is optimized under conditions of autonomy support. People need to feel, and to actually be, in charge of their own lives in order to flourish. It follows from this that education, which is for student development, will be optimized when students are in charge of their own education.
What does it mean for a student to be in charge of their own education? Below are a few different areas to think about. As you read through them, you can consider who is currently in charge of your child’s education, and ways you can empower your child to take more control of their educational journey.
The School System
If your child is already in a self-directed learning environment, then congratulations, your child is already in charge. Many of us lack the opportunity—or the courage—to move from traditional schooling to a project-based learning environment, or to full unschooling. This article is primarily for us, those parents still in the traditional school system.
Even if you are in a traditional schooling environment, recognize that education is not restricted to the walls of a school building. Life is learning. You can always help your child concentrate on what they want to know, and also on what they want to do. There are probably maker spaces, libraries, mentors, and playgrounds somewhere near you. All you have to do is understand how using places like these will help your child meet their own goals, and then invest your time, energy, and resources into helping them do it.
Yet, much of your child’s waking day will still be spent in traditional schools. And there are still aspects of traditional schooling—the pressure to follow instructions, the comparisons to other students through grades, the lockstep nature by which a group of students are each expected to learn concept and facts—that clearly put the school system in charge.
But there are still opportunities to support your child’s autonomy within such a structure. Below we will look at ways to support a child’s autonomy with regard to homework, organization, report cards, and teachers.
The studies are in: Homework is less beneficial to children than we have been led to believe. For small children, younger than junior high age, it is not beneficial at all. In fact, homework can be harmful for small children because it crowds out other things that a child could be (and should be) doing, like playing.
Not only can homework be bad for your child, it can also be bad for your family. It can be a wedge between parents and children. Daily bickering about what has been done, what still needs to be done, or how organized a schoolbag is can replace what could be (and should be) family bonding time.
What does that daily bickering do to a child’s self-esteem, confidence, and sense of self-worth? It doesn’t develop those things, it only erodes them. It also delivers a very clear message—that the parents are in charge of the child’s education.
So what can you do instead of badgering your child about homework? You can assume the role of consultant. What does your child need help with? What are they curious about? What do they have questions on? These are the types of things a consultant helps with. (Note: For a fuller treatment on parents as homework consultants, check out The Self-Driven Child by William Stixrud, Ph.D., and Ned Johnson. Here is the Amazon link.)
You can set aside time where you are available to support your child’s educational growth on your child’s request. You can be available to answer questions, explain concepts, or check logic. And if your child chooses not to consult with you, so be it.
If your child frequently doesn’t take you up on your offer to consult, that may leave them unprepared to handle some school-related obligation. It may be uncomfortable for you to know that your child is inviting this kind of unnecessary difficulty into their life. But it is better to allow them to make and live their choices than it is to coerce them to make your choices. After all, your child is the best person to be in charge of their education.
You can demonstrate your belief in the previous statement by giving your child power of attorney. Does your child’s teacher require a parent’s signature on homework logs? You can write a simple note to let the teacher know that the child’s signature is to serve a record that the child did the work or showed a parent. By granting power of attorney, you are sending a message that you trust the child to make decisions in their own interest, that you believe the child to be capable of doing so, and that the child is unambiguously in charge.
Okay, so you are no longer badgering your child about homework. But they are still dealing with a tidal wave of information every week. There are various communications from various teachers. Some are coming in on paper, some as emails, some as texts directly to you, and some are posted online. There are multiple assignments pertaining to multiple subjects, all having different due dates. How can a child manage this kind of complexity?
A child may not be able to manage every detail. They may need a process that they can use to manage the inflow. That is something you can help with.
You can help by working with your child, taking into account their personality and circumstances, to design a system they can use to navigate schoolwork. The right system may involve lists, folders, or calendars. It may involve a few steps of checking these items on a daily basis, updating calendars with due dates when work is assigned, and dividing papers into categories that can be easily filed. You may not find the right system on the first try, but when you work with your child you will get a chance to see how they operate and what they need.
You can help your child use the system the first few times, or even the first few weeks. But then they are on their own. It is their schoolwork, and unless you want to be the schoolwork police until perhaps they are in college, then you have to let them figure it out, struggles and all.
Many schools now offer you 24/7 access to your child’s grades through online bulletin boards. My advice is to ignore those bulletin boards, unless your child specifically asks for you to check up on their grades. Still, you may be tempted to check up on grades just because they are so easily accessible.
Why am I recommending that you forgo reviewing your child’s scores even though they are only a click away? Try to see it from a child’s perspective. At any moment, parents are able to peer into their children’s world and see the judgments rendered unto them by their teachers—their hundreds of hours of schooling reduced to a few sets of numbers. As they work through every quiz, test, and worksheet, they may consider whether parents will be checking their performance. Rather than focusing on the subject matter, they may be preoccupied with the fact that they are being monitored.
Would you be able to flourish under that level of scrutiny? I know I wouldn’t. I would be more concerned with my score than with actually learning anything. Surveilling someone’s performance is a recipe for anxiety, not development.
But perhaps your child needs the informational feedback. In truth, this is what grades and report cards are actually good for. They provide information on where the child is progressing, excelling, or flagging.
When viewed this way, reviewing grades and report cards can be a no pressure exercise. It can be done simply to gauge progress, to help recognize strengths, and to identify areas where your child may choose to devote more attention. In other words, no pay-for-grades mentality, no gold-star-getting, and no judging. Report cards can be just another way to gain useful insight.
The best way to gain insight into your child’s education is to elicit their perspective directly. Ask questions and have conversations. What subjects do they like? What subjects do they dislike? Which teacher’s teaching style works best for them? Which teaching styles do they have difficulty with? Do they like doing worksheets? Do they prefer projects? How do they feel about doing science experiments? Do they like lectures, or do they just daydream about playing baseball during lectures? More important than the answers to these questions is that the child knows that you know what they think. Having shared their perspective, they will felt understood, and they will know that you respect their viewpoints.
You can even formalize this perspective-getting exercise by introducing a self-assessment card. The purpose of a self-assessment card is to allow the child to evaluate their educational progress, their teachers, the parental support you provide, and the general learning environment. Instead of a school-issued report card, a self-assessment card allows the child to issue the report. A self-assessment card can even be designed by the student, although they may appreciate your help the first time.
The design of a self-assessment card may include categories to be rated, such as whether your child has had sufficient opportunity to explore interests, whether the schoolwork is challenging yet doable, whether they have been enabled to learn from mistakes, whether their questions are regularly answered satisfactorily, and whether they have had the chance to try things out for themselves. Maybe they will choose a 1-5 scale to rate these things, or a simple thumbs up / thumbs down system. This will give some good insight into the educational environment provided by parents and teachers. A self-assessment card could also have fields for each school subject, for your child to write about what they liked, to what they didn’t like, what helped them learn, and to make comments on their learning progress or goals. Such a self-assessment card can be used to supplement, or, for the very brave, replace school-issued report cards.
The value of such self-reflection is that it will allow your child to understand themselves better, and it will allow you to understand them better. Together, you can follow up by taking action on the child’s self-reflection. This may include exploring interests outside of school, applying more focus to certain subjects, setting learning goals, or increasing opportunities to use favored learning styles.
Additionally, you can share your new insights with your child’s teacher—with your child’s consent, of course.
Teachers can be your greatest resource. Remember, teachers are generally on your side. A good teacher wants your child to thrive, just as you do.
Sometimes, they can make classroom adjustments based on new insights that you provide. Sometimes they cannot because they are constrained by their class size or the school system. Either way, they are likely to appreciate the feedback and insight you can provide.
It is important to recognize that feedback works both ways. Your child’s teachers see a side of your child that you don’t, and their perspective is valuable. They as they may be able to offer insights about your child’s learning that you can use to make adjustments at home.
Even though there may be open communication channels between you and your child’s teachers, don’t forget to encourage your child to self-advocate. Your child may have various questions or ideas about assignments, due dates, classroom schedule, or school policies. Just because you have access to your child’s teachers doesn’t mean that you need to use it all the time. You are not the default communication channel for your child to use. In many cases, it is your child that should making the contact, even if reaching out to teachers makes them nervous at first. There is no substitute for a child walking up to the teacher’s desk and asking that burning question or making that request.
The temptation to take control over your child’s education can create a rift between parent a child. It makes learning a battleground instead of the joyous thing that it is. Do not let your child’s education become a war zone. Even if your child misses out on some important subject matter, they can still learn the content later. An adolescent can catch up on math, for example.
But consider the alternative. After ten years of being told that a child must do what their told, how can they as an adult believe that their life is their own? You can add back missing math later, but you can’t make up for an autonomy supportive environment that wasn’t there during the formative years. The time to provide a supportive and nurturing environment is right now, by empowering children to take charge of their own education.
How to Cite this Article: Brian Vondruska, “Who is in Charge of Your Child’s Education?”, The Kind of Parent You Are, accessed [date], https://www.thekindofparentyouare.com/articles/education.