Giving Your Child A ‘Leg Up’: A Short-Term Boost With Long-Term Consequences

As the school year winds down, many teachers assign thought-provoking, topical projects and year-end tests to allow the students to both synthesize the semester or year’s learning and also demonstrate an ability to articulate new knowledge. While assessment itself is a fiercely debated topic and is the subject of many ongoing studies, the essential goal for any type of assessment is to allow the student to demonstrate her or his understanding. Key word: student. While I feel confident that many parents can make a lovely model of Mission San Juan Capistrano and write some excellent paragraphs to accompany the fourth grade project, that is not the point.

Unfortunately, there seems to be widespread angst about these final challenges. Performance on any particular task is perceived to either ‘make or break’ the year’s learning. Concerned parents want to be sure that their daughter or son’s work is the best it can possibly be, and here is where they veer from being supportive to being over-involved: they begin doing the work. It might be anything from lettering on the poster board to heavy editing of the final paper. While the parent feels she or he is giving their child a boost by smoothing any rough edges, they are, in fact sending some powerfully negative messages to their child. Among these are two that concern me the most:

  1. I do not think you are capable of doing this yourself, so I will do it. The parent could be right – their child may not have mastered design layout or persuasive argumentation. However, the only way they will master these skills is through practice. Years of practice can lead to mastery; years of parental intervention can lead to learned helplessness.
  2. The final product is more important than the process of learning. Academic integrity, improvement, and persistence, among other qualities, are devalued in favor of a disingenuous, but lovely, final creation. The symptoms of this focus on product can be seen in a wide array of disconcerting news, from reports of the SAT cheating scandal in New York to myriad articles about teen stress and health.

When this topic comes up in parent meetings, parents tell me, “Well, I did do a lot of the project, but that is only because I know all the other parents were doing it for their kids!” Parents, the teachers know. We, who are lucky enough to spend part of each day with your children, have observed the way each student writes, draws, solves, and collaborates. We know when the work is not your child’s. Rather than giving your child a boost, you are demonstrating that you can complete a project at a grade level you probably completed long ago. Trust your child’s educator and, more importantly, trust your child. Picture him at age thirty – will he have had enough learning opportunities to feel confident about tackling new challenges, or will he still need a boost from you? 

Stephanie Rafanelli is both a school coach and a parent education facilitator for Challenge Success. Stephanie has been a middle school science and math teacher for nineteen years. In addition to almost two decades in the classroom, she has served as department chair, both academic and also grade level Dean, a parent and faculty educator, and a leader of curriculum reform. She has founded and run several summer and afterschool programs such as Sally Ride Science Camp for Girls and Menlo Summer Explorations. Stephanie is an educational consultant for multiple organizations. When she is not thinking about education, Stephanie is usually creating chaos with her three children.

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