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Parents as teachers

Parents have an important role in helping their child to learn. They teach by example, often without realizing it, as well as in a more direct way. For a child with a specific learning difficulty, the parent’s role as teacher becomes even more important. No other teacher can spend as much one-to-one time with a child as a parent. No other teacher has the opportunity to extend what the child has learned in so many different situations. However, a child’s relationship with his parent is generally so much more intense than that with any other teacher, that parents must approach teaching their child with care. Most parents can be good at teaching their child provided that they make this a positive and constructive experience for the child. This means that the parent must be prepared to put some thought into how to become an effective teacher.

Before you teach your child, you should liaise with his teacher. He or she will ensure that what you teach complements what is being done at school. A good teacher will be happy to give you guidance about what to teach and how to go about it. He or she will be only too aware that there is usually insufficient time to give adequate individual attention to each child in the class.

When you teach your child, do not overdo it. Short daily sessions are much better than infrequent long sessions. Attempt small units of work at a time.

Choose a time when you are both feeling calm. You need a quiet environment where you will not be disturbed. It might be necessary to arrange for your other children to be occupied somewhere else. Do not try to have a teaching session while you are doing something else, while the TV is on, or when siblings are around.

Try to make sessions as enjoyable and as varied as possible. Start with revision of previous work, and explain what you hope to achieve in this session and why it is important. Work slowly and patiently. Sometimes your child will seem to have a block, or forget things that he knew the previous day. Take this in your stride. It is perfectly normal for children to progress at a slow rate, with sudden spurts followed by protected periods of little progress. During these slow phases, children are consolidating skills before going on to the next stage.

Always be encouraging, never critical. Avoid expressions such as ‘Hurry up’, ‘Watch what you’re doing’, ‘Don’t be careless’, and ‘You’ve seen that word before’. Instead, use phrases such as ‘You’re really improving at reading’ and ‘You really worked hard on it’. Note that the praise should, whenever possible, make it clear what you are praising. Praise effort, not just achievement.

There are many ways of rewarding good effort. The simplest sort of reward would be to praise what the child has done by making a fuss and saying ‘Good spelling’, and so on. These simple verbal rewards should always be given, and are often more powerful than parents realize. This sort of reward is usually enough but in some children it may be necessary to institute a tangible reward system. This may take the form of a star on a chart, or a ‘smiley’ stamp on the hand. In more sophisticated children, it may be necessary to have a system where a specific number of small tokens earns something a little larger. Beware of the trap of making the reward too expensive. You should not make it too easy to get big rewards, although you should make it reasonably easy to earn lesser rewards to encourage your child. The reward system should be carefully planned before it is explained to him. Stamps, tokens, or charts should be available at the outset.

Whenever you have a teaching session with your child, try to end it with an activity that he is good at and enjoys. At the end, do not forget to say something like ‘That was fun, I look forward to doing some more with you tomorrow’.

When the session is over, try to stop playing the part of the teacher. You are more than a teacher, you are a parent as well. Parents cannot treat every interaction with their child as an opportunity for teaching without the relationship becoming stilted and the child becoming resentful. There must be opportunities for unstructured interaction.

Teaching has to concentrate on a child’s areas of weakness. Most children are aware from an early age of the things they find difficult. Like the rest of us, they tend to want to do the things they are better at. Make certain that you give your child ample opportunities to do those things he is good at, in addition to those he finds difficult. This is essential for his self-confidence.

Some parents do not have the time, or the ability, to teach their child. If this is the case, it is usually best to find a teacher or coach to help your child after school. It is important to choose someone with the skills and temperament to do this well. Support organizations often have lists of suitable teachers. The names of some of these organizations can be found in the Appendix.

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