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The key to a child’s success at school

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Father hugs daughter as she starts school


Your child’s success in school might be determined by the quality of the relationship between you and their teacher and that journey starts even before their first day.

“The most important people in a child’s life are their parents and their teacher, as they spend the majority of their waking hours with these people,” says Andrew Oberthur, primary school principal and author of Are You Ready for School? .

He explains that the key to a child’s successful educational journey is when the parent-teacher relationship is built on a culture of trust, collaboration and enquiry.

“Parents are trusting teachers to provide high quality education in a safe environment, while teachers are trusting parents to provide a safe family environment where children are fed, clothed and sheltered,” Mr Oberthur adds.

In 1994, Henderson and Berla found, "the most accurate predictor of a student's achievement in school is not income or social status but the extent to which that student's family is able to create a home environment that encourages learning; express high (but not unrealistic) expectations for their children's achievement and future careers; and, become involved in their children's education at school and in the community”.

“We need to collaborate to provide a good learning environment for the child, the common person we are all investing in,” adds Mr Oberthur.

Strategies for a successful parent-teacher relationship from the first day

Parents don’t need to be involved in every reading group at school, or volunteer for every school activity.

But they need to keep themselves informed through, for example, reading the school newsletter, and attending parent-teacher meetings when requested.

“Parents can actually, and should, engage even before the first day of school,” he adds.

“There’s the enrolment process where they meet key school staff, the orientation process where they meet the child’s teacher and then understanding the routines with the first day or first weeks.”

He highlights parents need to communicate honestly with their child’s teacher.

“Don’t hide the fact that your child might have some additional needs, or don’t hide that your family might be going through a hard time, these are helpful for the child’s teacher to know, especially if it impacts on the child’s ability to learn,” he says.

Finally, he recommends parents ask questions.

“If parents are worried about something, or want to raise an issue, it is a lot less threatening to say to a teacher, ‘Can you please tell me about this?’, than, ‘Why did you do such and such?’, which can come across as aggressive,” Mr Oberthur explains.

What if there’s an issue?

“Don’t by-pass the teacher for the principal or deputy-principal,” says Mr Oberthur.

“That parent-teacher trust will just get eroded very quickly.”

Instead, he recommends parents ask the teacher these three questions, which in his experience, resolves almost every issue:

  1. What happened at school today? “This question allows the teacher to give their recount of events for any issues the child says they are having.”
  2. What’s the school’s policy/protocol/procedure on this issue? “This gives the teacher the opportunity to explain the school’s position.”
  3. What are we going to do, together, so that my child can have a good education for the rest of the week/rest of the term/rest of the year? “This invites the parent and teacher to work together, to be on the same page, for the best resolution for the child.”
If parents are worried about something, or want to raise an issue, it is a lot less threatening to say to a teacher, ‘Can you please tell me about this?’, than, ‘Why did you do such and such?’, which can come across as aggressive.
Andrew Oberthur

The role parents play in learning

Mr Oberthur says in his 30 years of experience in the education system, children are starting school with fewer social and life skills than in previous years.

These include: delayed speech development, inability to recognise their written name, little interest in stories and nursery rhymes, attention difficulties, lack of basic directional concepts, eating difficulties, sensory seeking or sensory avoiding behaviours, inability to track movement with their eyes, lack of interest in drawing or colouring-in, inability to hold a pencil, difficulty sitting still, excessive clumsiness, inability or unwillingness to follow instructions, socialisation problems, limited persistence and resilience and fatiguing quickly.

Mr Oberthur identifies three potential causes for the decrease in these social and life skills.

“Children learn through interaction, play and experience and our busy lifestyle doesn’t always allow for parents to be able to engage with their children as they once would have,” he explains.

“Another one is not all daycare centres provide the foundational learning opportunities.

“Some are structured and have goal-driven curriculum which aims to teach social and life skills to children through play, while others don’t have this, and those children can miss out on some of the skills necessary for them to be able to attend to learning at school.

“Finally, the time children spend on screens is a big one.

“The more time they interact with these ‘passive babysitters’, the more it impacts and inhibits their speech and language skills which are the foundation for reading and writing.”

Strategies for school readiness

While parents tend to focus on what age to send their child to school, and the inconsistent school starting age across the country is of no help, Mr Oberthur recommends seeking the advice of their child’s preschool or daycare educator.

“Children need to have age-appropriate skills to cope with the rigours of primary school, and while there are broad statements, like boys mature later than girls, every child is an individual person who should be assessed on where they are at,” he adds.

Mr Oberthur says that there are four areas that can help parents to determine if their child is school-ready.

The first is their independent life skills. Can they dress themselves, go to the toilet independently, or blow their nose?

The second is their communication skills, both their expressive language, for example, can I please go to the toilet? And their receptive language, for example, can they follow instructions?

The third is if they have age-appropriate social skills. For example, taking turns, waiting, listening to instructions and sharing.

Finally, how are their gross and fine motor skills? For example, can they hold a pencil, manipulate blocks, cross their midline, walk, run, jump hop and skip, can they open and close their lunchbox? Do they have core strength to sit on the floor and at a desk with tiring?

“It’s not a case that if they can’t do the above skills, they can’t learn. They will be able to learn,” Mr Oberthur explains.

“But, if they don’t have these skills, then the teacher will have to take time out of teaching the curriculum to teach these life skills that actually can be learnt at home with their parents before the first day.”

Mr Oberthur’s tips to get children school ready:

  1. Less screen time. Instead, get them to engage with the world, their peers and their parents.
  2. Never underestimate the value of reading with your children.
  3. The foundation for reading and writing is oral language, so listen to your child and give them time to answer (even if you know the answer).
  4. Consider involving your child in social settings where you aren’t available, like daycare or preschool. This will give them exposure to being part of a large group and following instructions from an adult who is not a family member.
  5. Practice practical skills your child will need, for example, getting independently dressed in their uniform, buckling their shoes, opening their lunchbox and water bottle, opening and closing their school bag, etc.