Learning, it’s no child’s play

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Our children’s learning starts early. These days, preschoolers are not only learning the fundamentals of maths and science, they’re learning to code. Parents who advocate the role of play in children’s development are likely to find themselves a somewhat rare and endangered species. Even though there are numerous benefits to encouraging children to play. Social and communication skills are some good examples.

But let’s not get distracted. Parents want to their kids to do well in school. And we know the home environment does contribute to children’s academic achievements.

It’s also important for parents to have high expectations of their kids.

Only thing is that, well, that might not be entirely true. A study hot off the press finds that unrealistically ambitious aspirations of parents can adversely impact their children’s academic performance. The findings of this 2015 study of 12,000 US school-aged students mirror those from an earlier study conducted on 3,530 school-aged students in Germany. So apparently, unrealistically high aspiration may hinder academic performance“. And parental academic pressure appears to be leading to more and more children and teenagers experiencing chronic stressburnout, and depression.

So, what else are parents to do? Well, we can suggest a few relatively painless ways to boost your child’s performance:

1. Help them develop a homework habit 
A 2015 study finds that school-age students in Spain perform better on a standardized maths test when they complete their homework on their own and when their teachers set homework on a regular basis. In fact, these high achievers only spent 1 to 2 hours a day on their homework.

So, less is more (but only if homework is also a daily habit).

2. Encourage community and sports participation
It’s no surprise that exercise helps children learn better. Children concentrate better when they’re physically active, and their academic performance improves when they play sports. A more recent study finds that children who are lean and active perform better on cognitive tests.

But it may not just be about the physical health benefits of exercise. Even though exercise does help children sleep earlier and get better quality sleep (because tired children stay up late less, which according to a 2015 study, costs teenagers as many as 9.3 GCSE points per hour spent on youtube, TV, and computer games.

It could be that gaining better body awareness somehow helps our brains retain information better. In fact, a recent study finds that dancing not only alleviates depression, stress, fatigue, and headaches, but boosts self-esteem and self-confidence about solving everyday problems among young Swedish teenagers.

But there may be another reason why children involved in extracurricular activities in the community perform better in school. Experts argue that extracurricular opportunities work because they give children a chance to experience “a sense of accomplishing something“.

3. Eat breakfast with your kids
A 2015 study on 5,000 children 9- to 11-year-olds provides unequivocal evidence that healthy breakfasts make a difference to children’s academic performance. Having breakfast was found to be better than not having any. But having a breakfast of diary foods, cereal, fruit, and bread produced better students than a breakfast of empty calories — sweets (candy) and/or crisps (chips). And having fruit and veggies during the day was also associated with better school performance.

4. Spend time with your kids
It’s common sense. But there’s research evidence to back this one up. A 2015 study finds that successful children come from families who recognised their children’s talents early, but also helped to motivate their children to work hard at practising and improving their skills.

Conversely, another recent study finds that children’s mental well-being is associated with time pressures experienced by their parents — children whose parents have difficulties fitting everything they need to be do into their day, are more likely to have mental health concerns.

Spending time with children, especially teenagers, also helps parents understand their children’s daily experiences. As a result, their children have less likely to have behavioural problems and more likely to be better psychologically adjusted.

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Sleep is key to doing well in school

Sleep is important for examination and academic performance

We think of being exam smart, having the right study techniques, studying for longer hours and more frequently as being the key to academic success. But one of the ways to boost school performance is rooted in doing the opposite: nothing. More exactly, sleeping.

A study on medical students in 2012 showed that those experiencing more stress and poorer sleep before exams, performed more poorly than their peers, while a 2010 meta- analysis of 17 studies found that children and teenagers who reported feeling sleepy were those with poorer academic performance. In short, inadequate sleep either from not sleeping adequate durations or having interrupted sleep can spell trouble for maintaining learning performance at school.

And sleep quality has a profound effect on our daily functioning. Studies suggest that getting adequate dream sleep (also known as rapid eye movement or REM sleep) maintains our mood, mental wellbeing and problem solving abilities. These websites offer a detailed explanation of how sleep is crucial to our cognitive functioning: NIH, Harvard Medical School, American Psychological Association (APA), WebMD, Harvard Business Review, the Guardian, Huffington Post, Mayo Clinic.

In keeping with the existing literature on the importance of sleep, as this article explains, recent studies show this to be true. Sleep research published in last year demonstrated that sleep is critical to maintain a healthy lifestyle – specifically, not having adequate sleep impacts us both physically and mentally (Science Daily, 15 Oct 2013).

A recent Swedish study found that missing just one night of sleep is associated with signs of brain tissue loss (Science Daily, 31 Dec 2013) – a conclusion shared by other researchers. A literature review published this year explains that sleep allows the the brain to strengthen neural connections (“SHY hypothesis explains that sleep is the price we pay for learning”, Science Daily, 9 Jan 2013).

In short, not having enough sleep impairs our ability to make decisions, remember things, and learn new things. And school’s about learning new things and remembering them.

Here’s a few things you can do:

1. Cultivate good sleeping habits

Discovery Health has 10 useful tips. Not every tip may be appropriate or useful to everyone but we need to start somewhere. And a dark room can help: here’s why. And here are few more ideas for boosting your sleep efficiency.

2. Read about sleeping

Try the book Why We Sleep: The Functions of Sleep in Humans and Other Mammals. You might find yourself soon extolling the virtues of sleep to other busy bees.

3. Sleep the sleep

Children will do as they see. Parents who don’t practice good sleeping habits or play an enabling role for their children to have poor sleeping habits, probably aren’t going to have children who get enough rest (to do their bestest at school)!