Courtesy of PCG

I enjoy the summer. It is a good time for family outings, more relaxed schedules (relatively speaking), and no homework. As summer winds down and Fall approaches, it’s time to turn our attention to school matters again. It’s fun—full of hustle and bustle. There is the excitement of new school clothes, getting those school supplies, and making sure all the school-assigned summer reading has been completed. And, then its finally here, the first day of school.

I have a routine with my daughter, Kyrsten, now a high school senior. The first day of school is always a picture in front of the house.  It’s a fun few days with the feeling of another “new beginning.” But, preparing your children to return to school is more than a new hairstyle, shiny new boots, and a backpack. Too often in our zest to check items off the “Back to school” list we miss the one most important element—attitude. We need our children to return to school with a success mindset. The mindset is the difference between excellence and average. Though it can be difficult with our harried lifestyles and often disinterested kids, every parent has the responsibility to fully invest in the child’s success mindset for school. What grade would you give yourself?

I have two children. I’m proud of them. My kids are very different in personality, extracurricular interests, academic strengths, and study habits. I play around with them a lot—acting silly. But, they both know when it comes to education I’m a dictator. They think I’m crazy. They’re right. But, the right kind of craziness pays dividends.

My son, Quilan, is a graduate student at Ohio State University. During his secondary school years, my son was the athlete with a penchant for science and math. He was selected by Concerned Black Men as their Student of the Year during his senior year. He graduated high school with a 3.8 GPA and a full merit-based scholarship to Penn State University. Now he is on a graduate assistantship at Ohio State University that pays his tuition and gives him a monthly stipend.

My daughter, Kyrsten, is artistic (writing, photography) with a more liberal arts bent. She has a 4.1 GPA. She’s ranked in the top 11% of her class in a highly competitive class in a Philadelphia suburban high school. With one year of high school left, she has already been captain of the dance team and active in several other extracurricular clubs. She’s been selected twice to represent the Philadelphia chapter for National Black MBA Leader’s of Tomorrow business case competitions held in Boston and Houston. She has already identified her preferred college (Bentley University) and has been cultivating a relationship with the admissions representative. She will get a full academic scholarship somewhere (hopefully Bentley).

I give you this background on my kids to make a single point—academic excellence is a priority in our home. My wife and I have worked since they started elementary school to instill a success mindset in our children—particularly as it applies to school performance.

So, as we start another school year, I encourage all parents to reinforce these 10 habits into your own home. I believe that most of these habits are important for all homes. But, they are particularly important for those parents who have college aspirations for their children.

#1: Set academic expectations

Education studies clearly show that children tend to rise to the level of expectations set for them. The same principle is at play in the home. Parents are responsible for setting the academic expectations. Many parents errantly assume that children know what is expected of them at school. This isn’t true. I’ve talked to many students who believe that being at or above average is success. They believe that as long as they aren’t below average that they are doing their job. My son said this to me when he was in elementary school. Parents have to debunk this mindset as early as possible in the child’s academic journey.

I encourage all parents to communicate an expectation of academic excellence. In our home, the expectation every single year is that my child will get an “A” final grade in every subject. But, in order to do this, I insist on an “A” grade in every subject in every marking period. See why my kids think I’m crazy?

Here is the reality. My kids, especially my son, often did not get straight A’s. But, then they have to explain to me in terms that I accept why an ‘A’ was not achieved. With my daughter, math and science classes are not her strength. But, I still expect her to get an ‘A’. Therefore, I insist on seeing an ‘A’ effort. If she puts forth an ‘A’ effort but ends up with a lower grade, then I accept that. What I will not accept is less than an ‘A’ effort.

For most students, an ‘A’ effort requires good study habits.

Do your children know what grade you expect them to achieve this marking period? Do they clearly know the level of effort you expect of them?

#2: Communicate directly with the teachers

Do you trust your children? I trust mine—most of the time. But, you can’t believe everything that they tell you. I know you want to. But, you can’t. Sometimes they are intentionally trying to deceive you. Other times they just don’t know. You have to have an effective channel of communication directly with the teachers. I encourage parents to have direct contact information for every teacher.

I go to Back to School Night every year. I don’t just go. I make sure that I introduce myself to every teacher. And, I make sure that they know that I expect them to reach out to me if there is an issue with my child. I obtain the phone number and email address for each teacher.

It is not only important to get the information. But, you have to let your child know that you have the information. And, your child needs to know that you have no problem using it.

My children know that I will contact their teacher in a minute. Sometimes, you have to just contact the teacher so that your child understands that “the threat” is real. Most kids are less likely to try to pull the wool over your eyes if they know you will contact the teacher directly yourself.

#3: Escalate issues above the teacher, when necessary

This may be a controversial point. But, I give teachers the benefit of the doubt. When experience difference of opinion between my child and the teacher, I assume the teacher knows what he/she is doing. But, then I follow up with the teacher and try to understand why my child is having the issue. If I believe that this teacher is indeed wrong and unwilling to remedy the situation, I will escalate the issue immediately. I’ll go to the principal or the superintendent of the school district if I really had to.

The key point is that I hold my child, the teacher, and the principal accountable. I want answers that make sense to me. I can be objective. But, don’t try to fool me.

#4: Regularly monitor academic performance

Parents have to monitor kids’ grades. You can’t just take their word for it. Here are a few tips:

Ask direct questions and keep probing (yes it can be difficult during some of those adolescent years to get more than one-word answers)

Watch for and question any changes in their demeanor, behavior, and grades (if something really feels wrong for more than a few weeks, something is probably wrong)

Ask for confirmation that homework is being done

Keep a sense of when tests are taking place and inquire about preparation beforehand and performance afterward

Vigilantly monitor grades at the beginning, midterms, and two weeks before final grades (if your school district has a “Home Access System” that you can access online to monitor grades, sign up immediately)

The monitoring will change depending on the grade of the child. But, I access our Home Access account for my daughter every few weeks. I ask questions about any grade that isn’t an ‘A’, and any homework that is missing. My daughter knows that I’m watching. When the child knows you are paying attention, they are more likely to pay attention too. This goes for social engagement also.

Even if you have a very busy schedule, it is important to pay particular attention at three time points. First, check in early in the marking period to make sure that things are getting off to a good start. Then you look again midway through the marking period because it will be easy to discern patterns, and then check in a few weeks before the end of the period so that there is some time to remedy any situation before the marking period is over.

I am focusing a lot on grades in this post because this is the most quantifiable and empirical measure of performance. But, it is important to understand that academic performance isn’t just about grades. It is about being a well-rounded student. My experience, however, is that when kids are performing poorly academically they tend to struggle in many other areas as well.

#5: Scrutinize core subjects

While your child, particularly in junior/high school, may have six or seven classes, they are not all created equal. Your state knows this. They have state assessments to monitor performance in the core subjects. The school district knows this. They have multiple tracks to account for these core subjects.

Too often, parents are not aware that Math, Science, English, and Social Studies are the core competencies. Your child’s performance in these classes matters more to the state, the school district, and the school. They have tutoring and other incentives to encourage performance in these subjects.

As a parent, you have to pay attention to all of your child’s classes. But, here is the reality, you have to scrutinize these three core subjects. You have to make sure that your child is in the right track for him or her. When they are in junior and senior high school they go into what are called tracks. Depending on the transparency of your school, these tracks may be hidden or obvious. But, believe me. They are there. You need to know which track your child is in.

Once in senior high school, there are generally four tracks for each core subject. There is a vocational track (for those who are not necessarily college-bound), a college prep track, an Honor’s track, and an Advanced Placement (AP) track (in most schools these days). This is important because the Honor’s and AP tracks are what they call “weighted”. They are more demanding of the student. But, they also offer higher credit. This is how many students obtain GPAs that are higher than 4.0.

It is important to make sure that your child is in the highest track that they can handle. Don’t let this become an ego thing. But, fight for your child to be in the highest track that he/she can manage. An “A” in a College Prep class is not as impactful on GPA or as impressive to college admissions officers as an “A” in an AP class. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

This is especially important for minority kids because honestly our children are often placed underneath their capability. However, I have to stress the importance of knowing your child. In senior high school, my son had Honor’s or AP classes in nearly all his Math and Science classes because he was naturally gifted and had interest that way. My daughter, however, dislikes Math and Science and struggles with them to some degree. So, we have to be more selective in which Math and Science classes in which she does Honor’s or AP. However, she excels in advanced History and English classes.

#6: Understand it’s a Competition

Yes, I know this is a controversial way to look at it. But, I believe it is important for our children to understand that once they are in senior high school, it is a clear competition. They are competing for high school leadership opportunities, college admission, and scholarships.

Since my children were in primary school, I’ve reinforced the point to them that they have one job—to obtain a full college scholarship.

Obtaining this scholarship requires four pillars: academic excellence, extracurricular leadership, outstanding recommendations, and great scores on standardized achievement tests (e.g, SAT, ACT). Their job from junior to senior high is to maximize each of these three areas. They don’t have to work any other job. By doing chores, they earn a very modest allowance so that they have a little spending money. They can do whatever extracurricular activities they want. But, it cannot compromise any of the pillars.

We live in an increasingly global culture where the competition isn’t even just in the U.S. International students are attending our U.S. institutions at an increasing pace. These students are submitting excellent applications with outstanding credentials and academic achievements.

Our kids need to understand that life is a competition. Yes, we pray for favor. But, we also prepare with rigor. And, it starts in school.

As parents, we have to take the time to support our children in each of the four pillars. Don’t compromise on any of them. Give them options. But, insist that they participate in extracurricular. Don’t be cheap either. A full college scholarship can save you or the child in excess of one hundred thousand dollars. If you have to spend one thousand on an SAT course, then you’ll likely get a great return on that investment (ROI).

#7: Create a positive, stable atmosphere

One of the most important things that you can do as a parent to encourage your child’s academic success is to create a home atmosphere that is positive and encouraging. Many children have so many socioeconomic challenges at home that it is practically impossible to focus on being positive at school. Sadly, so many kids are in survival mode.

I think it is sad when school districts are celebrating that half of their students are graduating. Call me crazy (my kids do) but I don’t think this is as much a problem with the school system as it is with the home system.

Children are part of a system. Home, community, school engagement are all part of the system. They each influence the other. Helping your child at school requires a healthy community and a healthy home.

Help them develop responsible habits in the home and community. In an age-appropriate fashion, monitor the media that they consume. Show them things that enrich their core personality and interests.

You may be going through life challenges. But, to the extent possible, protect your children from the full brunt of it. Be positive with them. Tell them that they can do it. Make them feel like champions at home. If done authentically and consistently, I have no doubt that you’ll see an impact on their academics.

#8: Monitor with whom they spend their time

As your child gets older, it becomes increasingly difficult if not impossible to control with whom they will become friends. But, do your best to monitor it. Try to embrace their friends. Invite them over. Yes, part of the goal is so that you can get to know the friend. As you better understand them, you can better anticipate how your child and the friend will influence each other—positively or negatively.

Socialization is a huge issue in school. Your child will look to fit in. You don’t want to establish an adversarial relationship with your child. But, try and offer helpful suggestions.

You can’t control who they choose as friends. But, you can usually control the time that they spend with them.

People tend to gravitate to the level of those with whom they spend the most time. If your child spends a lot of time among kids who shun school responsibilities, your child is likely to trend in that direction. Conversely, if the child hangs with good students, he is also likely to be a good student.

#9: Reward performance

Well, this may be another controversial point. But, my wife and I reward academic performance. In our case, we give financial incentive. When the report card comes, we give $5 for every “A” and an extra bonus if there are straight A’s.

Some parents think that the child should be self-motivated to perform academically. Maybe they should be. But, most aren’t as motivated as we parents would like them to be. There is an adage, “What gets rewarded, gets repeated”. I expect “A” grades. When they come, I put my money where my mouth is.

While some kids are more motivated by money than others, every kid likes some kind of rewards. In fact, my daughter is much more motivated by money than is my son. But, I’m convinced that this incentive plays an important role in their performance. For me, I believe it is a good investment.

Figure out what motivates your child and tie that to their school performance (academically and socially). Remember, you have to be willing to withhold the reward if they don’t perform.

#10: Be Consistent and Prayerful

The final two things I’ll say may in fact be the most important. Parenting is really about consistency in encouraging the desired behavior. I see many parents start off with zeal and good intentions. But, as life gets busy it just becomes too difficult to keep up with everything. Children see inconsistency a mile away. Many of them will get away with whatever they think they can get away with. We have to be consistent.

The most important thing that we as parents can consistently do is pray. All of the other things that I’ve mentioned are only optimized in the context of prayer.

We pray for our children every weekday morning. We pray for favor for them. We pray that they are wise in their selection of friends and their decisions. We pray that God protects their mind, heart, and body.

Even though my son is hundreds of miles away, we pray for him. When we have a Skype call with him, we pray over him. When I take my daughter to the bus stop, I hold her hand and pray.

Ultimately, we want to place all of our parenting in the Lord’s hands because that is ultimately that is what we want our children to do—regardless of grades, scholarships, or anything else.

I hope that these 10 habits are helpful to you as we embark on yet another school year. Please let me know what other habits you’ve found successful or if any of these don’t make sense for you. Can’t wait to hear your thoughts.

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