Chitra, the lady who worked as a domestic help in my home was caught in a conundrum. Her elementary-aged son Ajay was struggling in the government educational system. Apathetic teachers, high focus on discipline rather than learning and disruptive, indifferent peers.
She moved Ajay to a low fee private school as soon as she saved up enough. He struggled here too. She enrolled him at a tutoring class run by one of the teachers of the school for all subjects. He would come home from school and leave for tuitions where he would complete his homework.
When this approach failed, she made the bold decision to move him to a high fee private school. He was placed appropriately after extensive testing and the school admin promised to give him extra support after school hours whenever needed. 6 months into the term, grades began the downslide again.
When she approached me for help, Chitra was at her wit’s end. Ajay was barely passing academically despite the private schooling fees and afterschool tuitions.
He seemed to be a healthy child with no discernable learning issues. After digging deeper, Chitra revealed that her husband and his parents aren’t very supportive of her son attending a high fee school as they feel the cost isn’t justified. Family routines centre around television programs and the boy comes home to find the tv switched on and blaring until very late into the night. A small home means there is no escape from the noise and he is consistently interrupted by family members and neighboring friends. He sleeps when adults in his family go to bed when all lights are switched off, sometimes as late as 12 am, and wakes up at 6:30 am, getting only 6-7 hours of sleep a night.
In my experience, the problems faced by Chitra’s son at home. i.e 6-7 hours of sleep, constant interruptions, media-centric household; is seen to be fairly a-contextual, but the symptoms cut across all socio-economic backgrounds. The achievement challenges faced by Ajay are typical to all academically struggling students, irrespective of family income because they share a few defining characteristics- overworked and overwhelmed student with marginal educational support from family. It is a very rare student who is successful without at least one person, whether it is the school teacher or a parent, highly involved and interested in ensuring student success.
Given that most readers of this article don’t share their context with Chitra and want to extend educational support at home, how would you go about it?
Here are some of my go-to tried and tested strategies for afterschooling my daughter and my students.
Establish routines and habits.
The first thing I do with a new student is to insist on a “Homework/Assignment diary”. The student will carry it every day to school and to any other extra coaching she attends. This diary contains daily assignments, homework, a to-do list for all subjects. I encourage my daughter or student to write down the homework, assignment, project along with the deadline exactly as described by the teacher and then get it signed from her/him. It serves a dual purpose, holds the student accountable as well as the teacher and sidesteps any unintentional or intentional forgetfulness.
Establish routines in your home that prioritize learning and rest. One routine or ritual my daughter follows is to get ready for the next school day by prepping her school bag immediately after dinner. If she has forgotten any important task in the evening, the after dinner prepping time gives her the wiggle room to remember and complete the task.
Another routine she follows is reading for an hour before bed. Reading could include non-fiction or fiction but genres such as horror and thriller are discouraged. Before bed reading is meant to decompress and unwind after a busy school day.
Emphasize good sleep habits for an alert child in school- no gadgets an hour before bed, and full 9-10 hours of uninterrupted sleep a night for all children, especially adolescents.
Insist on the automaticity of principles, facts and properties.
Immediate and automatic retrieval of facts, vocabulary, terms, definitions frees up working memory which can then be used for higher order thinking and problem-solving. (A good introduction of the impact of working memory on learning can be found here.) Take an example of a multi-step problem in mathematics that requires immediate recall of multiplication facts, the concept of LCM as applied in fractions, application of distributive property to expand an expression. In the absence of fluency in all of these operations and concepts, a student will either miss the many steps involved in solving the problem or take disproportionate time in reaching a solution.
As a tutor, I make sure my students take 5-minute multiplication, addition, subtraction drills every couple of days and memorize cubes, squares of numbers 1 to 20.
Teach the student in front of you.
One of the many teachers I had the fortune of interacting with explained her strategy of teaching a class of 65 students of diverse abilities and socio-cultural backgrounds. She said she imagined an average student waiting expectantly for her explanations.
Most parents, thankfully, will not be teaching to a class of 65 or 70. Your student is right in front of you with her specific doubts, understandings or misunderstandings. Engage her in a conversation about the concept or topic. Most textbooks are poor substitutes for a live teacher who can guide a student. Either step into the teacher shoes or find a teacher whose energy, personality is compatible with your kid. In an ideal school, students should not have to resort to afterschool tutoring. But most schools aren’t ideal and most students do need one-to-one hand holding in addition to the learning that happens in class, especially in high school. A few parents are hesitant about certain subjects, to these parents I suggest finding a trustworthy tutor for who only limits herself to 2-3 students per time slot for effective afterschooling.
Teach what you love doing and share your interests, passions and hobbies.
Enjoy cooking? Teach your kid basics of cooking. You’re a fine artist? Teach art. Love sports? Play a sport with your kid. Basically, get involved, find the common interest and build a relationship with your child.
Think of it as not only transferring skills but also as a demonstration of enthusiasm, commitment and joy for learning and doing.
Ajay’s story had a happy ending. His grades improved steadily after his mother Chitra and I outlined a list of lifestyle changes and afterschooling practices, some of which were:
1- Move up his bedtime to 9 pm. This implies an early dinner and no television watching.
2- Television turned off, for the whole family, at 10 pm. Family members could watch their program re-runs when Ajay is at school. Initially resistant to this change, the extended family came around when Chitra explained how their lifestyle impacted Ajay’s grades.
3- Reading aloud multiplication tables (1-20), cubes(1-20), and squares(1-20) every alternate morning which takes about 15-20 min.
4- Reading aloud in English where Ajay and I took turns. This helped him observe my pronunciation, gain confidence in spoken English and developed a feel for the language.