How can you help your kid to do better in school? You explain a maths concept to your child and he says he understands – but he repeats something totally different back to you. Or worse, he learns something, then gets it wrong in a test.
Just what is going through that little mind? Young Parents sat down with Eric Jensen to find out how kids learn from the ages of six to 12.
1. He remembers less than one per cent
“So what did you learn in school today?” you ask your child. “Don’t know,” he answers. If he does talk, he probably goes on excitedly about a play he saw with his class or a science experiment that exploded. You wonder, how is that going to be concrete knowledge he can use to pass exams?
At this point in life, your child’s brain focuses on experiences centred around social learning, so new information taught in the most interactive and fun ways are the ones he’ll remember most clearly.
A child’s ability to retain information also depends on how important it is right now and if he can use it. The brain, given the limited time it has in each lesson to capture everything, makes its own interpretations and keeps only the bits that it thinks are important.
The brain’s priority system for a typical 10-year-old for instance, places electronic game strategies above science notes on plants. “His life doesn’t depend on the latter, which he has little use for,” reasons Eric.
In a class of 30, there are minds processing at different speeds because they each have their own maturity cycle. Though the teacher teaches the same chapter, one child’s brain may be 12 to 18 months more mature than another’s, which means he’ll be able to absorb more.
“It doesn’t mean that something is wrong with your child,” assures Eric quickly. “Many of the world’s brightest people were famous for being late bloomers.“Parents should realise that, contrary to what many schools think, there is no actual science or benefit behind having 30 children study the same thing on the same day. Individual learning, which lets kids work and think independently, is better for a child’s brain.”
But the big question is, how do you help your child learn better when his social brain is in overdrive?
“Kids remember random thoughts from school and are unable to process them into something meaningful. However, it might be different if there was something unusual they did, like a watching a play or getting some other form of stimulation on that day, instead of just listening to the teacher talk,” explains Eric.
2. He studies better with friends
“Most kids like to learn – they just don’t like school,” observes Eric. And little wonder, since they’re at a stage where they discover new things by imitating others, and build on what they already know through play and interaction.
In many schools, nothing is done to create a memorable experience for the kids, such as letting them socialise and breaking them up into small groups for work and play, he says.
“That’s a big mistake, because kids aged six to 12 are really interested in those experiences, rather than awards given by the school.
“Notice how some kids make up their own ways to stand out if there is no way for them to do that. They become the best troublemaker, the class joker or the kid who can fix gadgets.”
In a recent study, kids aged six to 11 picked group discussions, debates, dramas and the arts as some of the top activities that they enjoyed most about school. This shows that interactive experiences, with a partner or in a group, excite children’s brains most.
3. A happy child learns best
Getting kids to cram more things into their brains doesn’t make them better learners.
Eric explains: “Emotions are a huge part of the learning process. Kids need to find ways to make things meaningful, interesting and important for themselves. Their feelings – about themselves, the people in their lives, and learning – are a lot more important than we realised.”
4. Stress makes him stupid
Parents often think that kids can’t be stressed because they don’t have jobs. “A study done in the US a few years ago on primary school-going children revealed that nearly half of them were stressed out most or all the time,” shares Eric.
“Parents need to know that children who are stressed over prolonged periods can become more stupid, because chronic stress reduces the production of brain cells. They have to manage this stress as it can physically change the brain.”
5. He stores things in rough drafts
“Teachers (and parents) think that if they explain something clearly, kids should be able to understand it – but it doesn’t work that way.” The brain only retains what’s important and if there’s a constant influx of information to digest in little time, it does what an artist does when given 30 seconds to sketch someone’s face: It creates the best possible structure in that time.
“Kids create these quick sketches in their heads all the time to interpret what they learn and experience. When too much information is given, the brain often sees it as too time-consuming to put more detail to the ‘sketch’ and removes those parts that are deemed not as important,” says Eric.
(Also read: Why reading is more important than tuition classes)
6. His memory isn’t foolproof
Studied for the exam, but still can’t make Band 1? Here’s a test to possibly illustrate why: Ask someone to write down 20 items, take a minute to remember them, then recite them back. You’ll probably mention things that weren’t even on the list.
Says Eric: “We used to think that if we remembered something, then it was probably true because our brain stores memories like files. But studies now show that it isn’t so. Our brains are full of false memories, including those that have been eroded or are biased, and lies that we’ve led ourselves to believe. This happens because memories interact with our environment and are susceptible to change at any time.”
7. You can rewire his brain
“The brain doesn’t just make new connections with every new piece of knowledge picked up – it also has the capacity to remap its boundaries,” says Eric.
A child may be born a visual learner, but if the auditory part of his brain is constantly stimulated over time, it can become so active and dominant that he becomes an auditory learner.
The discovery of neuroplasticity, or the brain’s ability to change according to the amount of stimulus received, means parents can remap a child’s brain at any age according to the skills they want the child to learn.
So before you pull your hair out at the next study session, stop to ask these questions: How has my child been feeling? Have I tried different ways to help him like studying? Has he been engaged in the process of finding the answer? Did he just learn something similar?
Perhaps, you’ll discover more than just the written answers.
(Also read: 8 ways to make your child smarter without tuition)
8. Stop analysing
A new study has shown that children aged six to 11 do a lot better when you keep reinforcing correct answers, instead of trying to analyse the task for them by asking “How would you do it differently? or “Why did you do that?”.
Researchers who mapped connections in the children’s brains discovered that at this point in life, the part of the brain that solves problems isn’t fully developed.
“Affirmation at this stage is the key,” says Eric. “When they mess up, don’t put them in a spot. Their brains are not mature enough for them to explain why they did that. What they do is make things up, so you’ll shut up.
“It’s more effective to show your emotion with a disapproving look. Then demonstrate the alternative by saying: ‘Try it this way and see how it works’.”