Dear Dr T.,

School is starting! This year, I would like to make my son’s learning a real priority. But, how do I convince my fifth grade son to do his very best in school? He is an easy-going kid and he takes advantage of the fact that because of our many community obligations we are not always around to help with his homework. He seems content with being a B+ student, though we have been told by the rebbeim that he can do better. We have tried the usual positive reinforcement techniques- we even promised him a trip to Europe if he maintained an A- grade- but he usually loses enthusiasm after a while and we are back to square one.

At this point, I am looking for some ways to jump start his learning.  I know the part about making sure he gets a full night of unbroken sleep and eats three healthful meals a day. But are there some other things that I can do to make him do his very best?


Dr T.,

You are so right on in your awareness that optimal performance begins with the physical- healthy diet and enough sleep. This also includes adequate exercise, regular medical/ dental checkups, and attending to the basics like vision and hearing checkups, and speech and orthodontia- when indicated. Children who feel well- and loved and cared for- have a better chance for success.

It is frustrating when a child performs below his capacity-though in truth, you [and his teachers] have no way of actually judging his ability. So many factors go into performance- like learning or attention issues, mood or anxiety concerns, or simply poor teaching- that it is entirely possible that your son is working to capacity. So before you embark on a campaign geared to improving your son’s performance, you may want to consider any of these, or other, factors. Ruling out anything that can impair learning is a must.

Motivation through positive reinforcement is a time honored principle. However, how to apply this method involves understanding many of the laws of learning. So, for example, because immediate reinforcement is most effective, waiting until the end of the year might be comparable to your getting paid twice yearly- not a good plan. The reward also has to be calibrated to the receiver: it is entirely possible that your son would rather go to camp with his friends than to Europe. So, though one can applaud using positive reinforcement, it’s critical to learn the rules of the road first.

Though as parents we have no ability to control our child [‘make him’]- to a very large extent, we can control the environment. Working on creating an environment that encourages learning is your best bet here. Though change may come slowly [Doesn’t it always?]- steady, gradual improvement is what you are looking for.

The environment we choose to create is a reflection of our values. As a most practical example, how would your vacation differ if you valued family, or sports, or knowledge?

Similarly, with our children we get what we pay for. If you value school, knowledge, learning, allow your behavior to reflect those values. Make sure your child goes to school every day, on time, and prepared. Show him clearly that school is important. This may include forfeiting trips, making sure he goes to bed on time so he can wake on time, and having a nourishing breakfast  at the ready each day. Spend time getting him prepared: his school supplies, clothing, and lunch. Help the homework get done by providing time [Can you ditch some of the extra-curricular stuff?], quiet place, and necessary supplies. The hope is that your child will eventually be able to take over these functions himself, but until such time that he is ready, if it’s important to you, make sure you get it done.

We also convey our values in our attitudes- in this case, towards school, knowledge, and learning. When we respect these values, our children learn to respect them as well.

So, practically, what does this mean?

Well, it is no secret that many a parent is disparaging of the school his child attends or the child’s teacher. We may not approve of the school’s philosophy, agree with the teacher’s behavior management, or appreciate the level of learning- but, barring an abusive situation, we don’t want to share that information with our child. We want to convey what we would like to see in our child – a basic respect for school, despite the fact that the child is dealing with an ‘off’ year. It is in your child’s best interest that we deal with our angst on our own, without involving him.

We also want to model for our child the value of curiosity in the learning process. The desire to know, to figure out, to master – all these stimulate the desire to learn. Nurturing this quality of curiosity in ourselves is a start in demonstrating it to our children. Whether it is current events or botany, medical knowledge or coins- share with your child your natural curiosity in how things work. Hopefully, your child can then bring this quality to the table in his own school experience.

Haztlocha with your child in fifth grade. Here’s hoping that by your making his learning a priority, he will make it his priority as well.


Reprinted from Binah Magazine