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Help Your Child Shine

4 strategies for success in school—and life
Help Your Child Shine

When our six-year-old son, Justin, dragged through the door, dropped his backpack, and looked up at me with a discouraged frown, my heart sank.

"How was your day?" I asked, setting some graham crackers and apple juice in front of him. Normally talkative, Justin muttered "Okay," munched his snack, then flopped down in front of the TV.

This wasn't the first time school had been tough for our oldest son. Although he tried his best, comments on progress reports such as "needs to work faster" and "needs improvement in math skills" only added to his—and our—discouragement.

Maybe your child has faced school struggles, too. Perhaps he has a learning disability, or she just doesn't shine at school. Unfortunately, it's easy to get caught up in the negative labels placed on our children: underachiever, learning disabled, poor student. But negative labels create a downward spiral; low expectations lead to less effort on our children's part, which results in less achievement.

Thankfully, the reverse is also true. As pastor and well-known author Norman Vincent Peale once said, "When expectancy turns the key, great things will happen."

Curtis Pride, a pro baseball player with the Montreal Expos, is a good example. Despite a 95 percent hearing loss, Curtis never let his disability deter him from pursuing his dreams. His parents told him that with hard work, he could do anything—and they educated themselves on how to create an environment that would enable him to succeed academically and socially. Through years of speech therapy, Curtis learned oral communication, and his parents mainstreamed him from seventh grade on—against the experts' recommendations. Curtis became a top-notch student and gifted athlete who went on to make it in the professional ranks.

Research shows that every person has the potential to do something better than 10,000 other people. What makes the difference in the late bloomer who blooms and the underachiever who achieves often is the parent or grandparent who doesn't give up, who gives support, who helps them find their God-given gifts.

If you want to bring out the best in your child, try the following four strategies.

1. Build on Strengths

Instead of focusing on negative labels, ask: What are my child's strengths? For which weaknesses do I need to help her compensate? Then develop an action plan—and implement it.

In Justin's case, we contacted a learning specialist who pinpointed Justin's visual discrimination and computation problems. He recommended we read aloud more often to Justin and use hands-on manipulatives to help him with his math homework.

But what made the most difference was uncovering our son's true talents: communication skills, people smarts, contagious enthusiasm, determination, and a creative way of synthesizing ideas to come up with new ones. While we encouraged Justin in his assignments, we also helped him learn to capitalize on his strengths. We wanted Justin to see that "school smarts" and "test smarts" are only part of the picture.

It wasn't all smooth sailing, of course. Math and science courses continued to be a struggle, but Justin began looking for the things for which he had a passion. By his junior year of high school, he'd found them: English (especially writing) and history.

I showed him how to tap into his verbal strengths by using a tape recorder and blank cassette tape as a study aid. He'd record a Shakespeare passage he had to memorize, then recite the lines along with the tape as he drove to tennis practice or his part-time job. Realizing he remembered more information when discussing it orally, Justin would hold study groups at our house, where he and the other guys would hash over the key issues of a chapter, try to outguess the teacher on history questions, or take a practice test they'd created. Eventually Justin began getting As in English and history, and the momentum he built helped him in his tougher courses.

Although Justin's SAT scores didn't earn him an academic scholarship, his interview at a small Christian college went so well that the school offered him almost full tuition to attend there. I call it his "interpersonal scholarship."

Justin maintained over a 3.0 average and was involved in leadership activities on campus. Today he is a successful medical sales rep, excelling in a field that was once his nemesis! He also tutors a middle-school student. Justin now loves to encourage, motivate, and teach other kids. Our high expectations for Justin paid off.

2. Share "Snapshots"

Having high expectations for your child doesn't mean pushing, taking control, or doing your kid's assignments for her. On the contrary, it means giving your child a "snapshot," or verbal picture, of how far she can go. For example, you might say, "You have such a wonderful ability to listen to and counsel your friends. You could really help hurting people someday," or "You pitched in and did whatever needed to be done on that mission project last summer. God sure can use people like you who are willing to serve others!"

When my friend Margaret's son, Brad, was a second grader in private school, he received an F in math and low grades in reading, despite lots of effort. The school wanted to drop him into a lower-level class. His mom knew Brad was bright, so she hired a teenaged neighbor to be Brad's "study buddy" once a week, had Brad tested to determine in what areas he needed help, and found a local school where he could get individualized teaching in those areas. Margaret had high hopes for Brad, and convinced the school to give him another chance.

Margaret knew Brad could set goals and work doggedly to achieve them. What others saw as stubbornness, she saw as one of God's gifts—and shared that "snapshot" with him. "God's given you the ability to take what looks negative, Brad, and turn it into a positive," she encouraged him. "Your determination will take you a long way."

Although Brad didn't test well at a young age, his perseverance helped him press on when things were difficult. While he's had to work hard at his studies, Brad received his bachelor's degree in psychology last spring, and is working toward a Ph.D. in industrial psychology. He's on his way to a wonderful career.

"If you know what your child's capable of, keep encouraging him—no matter what the school says. You know your child better than anyone!" Margaret advises. Positive words can pass on an inheritance of faith and hope concerning the future.

3. Take Prayer Cover!

When Claudia, a young mother I know, enrolled her daughter, Katie, in first grade, she was put in a learning disabled (LD) program because she had difficulty learning to read. The family had to move several times, and by the time she entered third grade, Katie tested at a first-grade level. Claudia hated seeing her daughter struggle in school, and felt all alone in their new location.

Then Claudia heard about the mothers' prayer group at her school and began attending weekly. The other moms joined Claudia in praying for Katie not only once a week during their group, but each day in their own devotional times.

When Katie had to undergo diagnostic testing, the group prayed earnestly for God to provide wisdom for the testers, that he'd guard them from stereotyping Katie. They prayed for God's help in every aspect of Katie's learning. They wept with Claudia when things were hard, and rejoiced when Katie's schoolwork slowly improved.

After months of prayer, Katie was tested again. She'd made remarkable progress, going from a first-grade reading level to a fourth-grade level!

"When school started last fall, the teachers and principal said she'd done so well they were assigning her to regular classes instead of the LD class," says Claudia. "It meant so much to know I wasn't alone, that my friends were praying for Katie, too."

Prayer helps you release your child to God's plan for her instead of yours. It's also an important way to keep yourself encouraged—and your child supported.

4. Never Write Your Kid Off

Don't think lack of early success spells out your child's future. Some who've achieved the most as adults gained their drive from the struggles they faced when young, such as evangelist D.L. Moody. In Moody's early years, no one foresaw how God would use him later in life. Moody didn't have much formal education; his appearance was rough, and sometimes he stuttered.

As a young man he applied for church membership, but the committee rejected him, saying it was unlikely he'd ever serve in any public arena or become a Christian with strong convictions. How wrong they were! Because of this young man's zeal for Christ, Bible schools were started and thousands were won to Christ.

Even someone with big challenges can achieve much with a parent's encouragement. Valerie's son, Brian, was born with a genetic disorder known as Williams Syndrome, which causes retardation. By age eight, Brian hadn't mastered the alphabet or learned to read—but Valerie kept reading to him at night. When she realized Brian was fascinated with the car wash, she used that interest to open a world of learning for her son. She put simple words such as car wash, soap, and enter on flashcards around the house. After Brian learned those, she asked him to pick a word out of their "car wash" word box and use it in a sentence. Together they compiled his sentences into a book. Brian was able to read it back to his mom—his first book ever!

As Brian learned more words, his interest in reading took off. His parents had the cleanest car in the neighborhood, and Brian had lots of new friends—car-wash owners from far and wide who'd heard about him and wanted to encourage him. His love of the car-wash industry culminated a few years later when at age 11, Brian was asked to be the keynote speaker before the 6,000 members of the International Car Wash Association at their annual convention!

God tells us he has plans to give our children hope and a future (Jeremiah 29:11). By communicating your high expectations for your children, building on their strengths, encouraging them, and praying for them, you'll be surprised at—and grateful for—what they can accomplish.

Cheri Fuller, a TCW regular contributor, is the author of numerous books, including When Families Pray (Multnomah) and Quiet Whispers from God's Heart for Women (J. Countryman).

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Read more articles that highlight writing by Christian women at ChristianityToday.com/Women

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