Dos and Don'ts When Encouraging a Child in His or Her Academic Endeavors

By Eileen Huntington

Without a doubt, students flourish when they have the support and encouragement of their parents, but there are a number of ways that well-meaning parents unintentionally discourage their children. Eileen Huntington, co-founder of Huntington Learning Center says that providing children the right type and level of support can make all the difference in their motivation and self-esteem. “Encouragement must be genuine and positive, and although a parent’s intentions might be good, certain types of comments can send the wrong message,” says Huntington. She offers several dos and don’ts for parents when encouraging their children in school:

Do celebrate progress and successes. There are subtle differences between praise, which is more of a subjective expression of approval, and encouragement, which inspires a child’s self-confidence through fact-based observations. Instead of complimenting your child for earning that A, point out that his or her hard work and diligent studying paid off. Always focus on your child’s efforts, which will help build your child’s self-assurance and pride.

Don’t overreact about mistakes. Keep in mind that for every mistake your child makes, he or she has done many other things right. On a 25-question test where your child answered four wrong, you might be tempted to jump right into dissecting incorrect answers, but don’t forget to congratulate your child for any successes or improvement. Also remember that mistakes are an essential part of life and learning.

Do believe in your child. Studies show that children do better in school when their parents and teachers expect them to and communicate those expectations to them in positive ways. Tell your child regularly that you believe in his or her ability to learn and you’ll always be there for support.

Don’t be unrealistic in your expectations. High expectations are good, but holding your child to a standard that he or she is unable or unlikely to ever reach does more harm than good. Similarly, comparing your child to another student may only cause feelings of inadequacy or embarrassment. Children generally lose motivation when they feel they have no chance of achieving parental expectations.  

Do give your child tools to problem solve. From an early age, children should be encouraged to attempt to solve their own problems. When a challenge arises—whether a math problem or another dilemma—you can help your child think through solutions or next steps by asking reflective questions, soliciting ideas and encouraging your child to try out different solutions.

Don’t take the driver’s seat on homework or projects. Giving your child too many tips and suggestions on how to solve a problem or do an assignment is not only aggravating, it tells your child that you don’t trust his or her ability to do things. Step back, and give your child the chance—and the support—to attempt tasks independently.

When you encourage your child the right way, you build your child’s self-esteem and positive attitude. Just as importantly, you teach him or her that school takes effort and persistence. Huntington adds, “Parents can make a tremendous positive impact by pointing out to their children when they are working hard and making progress. Those children will believe that learning is their responsibility, and if they also feel encouraged but not overpowered by their parents, they will be far more likely to give school their best effort and actually enjoy learning.”


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