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Transforming Education: How Teachers and Parents Can Support Learning Differences

It’s no secret that education curriculum has undergone many changes in the last several years. Whether it’s common core math, the focus on STEM disciplines, or the amount of testing required for funding, schools are under more pressure than ever to achieve a certain standard of excellence.

In 2000, George W. Bush enacted the No Child Left Behind Act with the goal to close the educational achievement gap with accountability, flexibility, and choice. However, the U.S. is still facing alarmingly high levels of unemployment and non-graduation rates. So, what is the problem? Why didn’t this act change our society like it was supposed to?

One possible answer to these questions could be standardized testing. In order to qualify for federal funding, school systems are required to administer standardized tests in English and Math to public school students, who in turn must perform at a proficient level or higher. As a result, educators often spend more time teaching these subjects instead of “less academic” subjects like art, music, design, theater, and physical education.

All this has lead to a crisis of creativity in American schools. A focus on STEM education is beneficial for some kids, and the world definitely needs individuals proficient in these disciplines, but not all students are going to excel in STEM. We are sending a misleading message to our youth that if they do not wish to become a scientist or engineer, the world doesn’t need them. When in fact, we most certainly do!

The way in which children are taught information in school has also changed. Children have a natural desire to learn. They are born curious and enthusiastic to grasp new skills and information. Just think about how babies learn to talk. As parents, we don’t “teach” them how to talk. They grasp that information themselves by being exposed to it. So, if kids are such natural born learners, why do a lot of them struggle in school?

One of the key ingredients to learning is motivation. It all stems back to childhood and the importance of play. Play, and hands-on activities, offer many benefits to the brain, including enhanced confidence, conflict resolution skills, and decision-making skills. According to Ken Robinson, author of Creative Schools: The Grassroots Revolution That’s Transforming Education, “the standards movement treats play as a trivial and expendable extra in schools–a distraction from the serious business of studying and passing tests. The exile of play is one of the greatest tragedies of standardized education.”

If kids learn best through play, why is the system placing a higher emphasis on “bookwork” and unexciting presentation of new material? Granted, some students do excel through this kind of study, but what about the more visual learners? With personalization running rampant in our society, we are doing an injustice to young learners to not also personalize education.

As educators and parents, we may not be able to impose changes such as the adoption of play and personalization for education at the state or national level. That is up to policymakers. However, there are many ways that we can improve the school careers of our kids and encourage them to pursue their passions.

What Can Teachers Do?

Educators, you play an extremely important role in kids’ lives. Just think back to when you were in school, and those teachers who made a difference in your life. You felt connected to them and, most of all, they believed in you. Here are a few ways that you can be that special teacher to your students and create powerful conditions for learning:

  • Keep children curious by intriguing them with questions that interest them, by giving them tasks that challenge them, and by engaging them in projects that inspire them. Many students learn best when they are actively doing things and not only studying ideas in the abstract.
  • Visit your students’ homes for parent-teacher conferences. This way you are able to see the student in their own environment. You can gain knowledge of the students’ culture and background, and learn more about who they are as a whole.
  • Offer assignments that are open-ended and projects that involve intellectual risk taking. This keeps students engaged and working hard.
  • Inspire creativity in the classroom with unique learning methods. Check out our list of tools to encourage creativity!
  • Acknowledge that many families in your community are non-native English speakers and use tech to help communicate with them.
  • Keep parents in the loop. With emails and social media, it’s easier than ever to stay in touch with your students’ parents. Give them frequent progress reports and let them know what is going on in the classroom.
  • Learn your students’ learning styles and help them see where they are intelligent. Check out this free, printable survey to give your students!

What Can Parents Do?

Many parents may not realize it, but teachers and schools do not have full responsibility for their child’s education. It is up to parents to encourage their child’s passions, be involved in their learning, and give them all the tools they need to succeed. When parents talk to their kids about school, expect them to do well, and make sure that out-of-class activities are productive, they generally do better in school. Here are some ways that parents can support their children in school:

  • Do not do the work for your children. If your child is struggling with a homework question, help him/her to approach the problem in a different way that they might understand better.
  • Get creative! Look for opportunities to expand ordinary assignments into creative projects.
  • Treat them as individuals by not assuming that they should follow the same paths or be judged against the same criteria in school.
  • Build a positive partnership with your child’s school. Talk with the teachers about your child’s strengths, so they have a better understanding of him/her in class.
  • Do not limit your child’s future by assuming one career path is the right choice. Help your child find their talents and passions and nurture that desire.
  • Make sure they are getting enough sleep. Check out the National Sleep Foundation’s recommended sleep chart.
  • Be sure there is plenty of time for play. This could mean different things depending on what age your child is. While screens are definitely part of your children’s lives, they need much more time in the outside world. Research screen-time guidelines by age.
  • Avoid judgement. When you offer a negative judgement of your child’s expressed area of interest, you run the risk of stealing much of the joy from that pursuit.

Children love to learn. They really do. But not all feel encouraged to do so. Too many students think that they are the problem, that they are not really intelligent, or that they have difficulties in learning. The problem is not that they cannot learn but how they are required to learn.

As Ken Robinson says, “not every child is going to invent a revolutionary technology, make a medical breakthrough, be a chess grandmaster or write a song that lives forever. When education operates on a narrow idea of ability, all sorts of other abilities can go undiscovered.”