Success at school comes down to how hard you work and, of course, the brain you’re born with. But whether they’re aware of it or not, the best students also follow these strategies—and your kid can too.
1. They…Eat Breakfast
You’ve heard it before, but it bears repeating: Kids need breakfast in order to perform at their peak. “If your child doesn’t eat within an hour of waking, they’re not getting the energy they need to think,” says Dr. Wayne A. Yankus, a senior member of the American Academy of Pediatrics Council on School Health and a pediatrician in Midland Park. Study after study have shown the connection between a healthy breakfast before school and improved concentration. Make sure you’re offering kids a meal that’s high in fiber and protein (such as oatmeal made with milk or yogurt with fruit), since that’s what will help them stay full until lunch. And even though it’s convenient, skip the snack aisle: “Breakfast bars and other grab-n-go snacks usually aren’t enough to keep your kid satiated all morning, plus most of them are filled with sugar,” says Yankus.
2. They…Sit Up Front
Where students sit in the classroom has a lot to do with academic performance, experts say. And it makes sense: “A kid who sits in the way back might have a harder time seeing the board or hearing what the teacher is saying,” says Yankus. Plus, a front seat sets your child up for a cycle of success—they participate more and see the kids around them doing the same, says New Jersey child psychologist Resa Fogel, Ph.D., a former supervisor at Hackensack University Medical Center who specializes in education and gifted students. Don’t hesitate to speak up, either, she says. Let your child’s teacher know that she does better when she’s closer to the board.
Wherever she’s sitting, make sure her vision is 20/20. New Jersey schools regularly test for hearing, but not for vision, says Yankus. “If a kid can’t see or hear what’s going on in class, they’re set up to fail.”
3. They…Go to Bed on Time
A regular bedtime, a good night’s sleep and a consistent wake-up time all pay big dividends in school. While the American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) recommends kids ages six–18 get at minimum nine hours of sleep a night, the average for most is only slightly more than seven hours. And that’s bad since lack of sleep can directly affect school performance. A 2013 study published in the journal Sleep Medicine found that in elementary school children ages seven to 10, 25 percent of poor sleepers had failing math grades compared to only eight percent of well-rested students. Set kids up for success by establishing good bedtime habits. Once dinner and homework are done, give them time to wind down with a warm bath or shower, light reading, low lighting and soft music. Their bedrooms should be dark and TVs, tablets, video games and phones should be shut off at least an hour before bedtime, since electronics can stimulate the brain into thinking it should be awake.
4. They…Walk to School
The tremendous benefits of regular exercise are well-known, but walking or biking to school has particularly positive effects on concentration, according to a large-scale 2012 Danish study of nearly 20,000 students ages five to 19 years old. Researchers found that when kids are active right before school (for example, by walking there) they were able to concentrate and focus better—benefits that stretched for at least four hours afterwards. But nationally, as of 2009, only 13 percent of children in the United States walked or biked to school, down from 50 percent in 1969, according to Safe Routes to School National Partnership, a national organization that studies how kids get to school. If there’s a way for him to get to class safely walking on his own, make it happen. If not, walk around the block a few times before settling down at the bus stop.
5. They…Play Sports
Academic performance is generally better among kids who play sports competitively. A 2013 study found that adolescents on sports teams do better in school and have better study habits than their peers who aren’t athletes. “Healthy competition coupled with excellent coaching teaches kids to schedule their time and encourages academic competition among teammates, all of which translates into helping build good students,” says Yankus.
6. They…Have a Happy Home
It’s no surprise that kids with a happy home life and involved parents who don’t argue all the time in front of them are better students. A 2007 study published in the Journal of Child Psychology and Psychiatry zeroed in on a link between marital conflict and academic performance among school kids ages 11 to 13 finding that children blamed themselves for the arguing, and ultimately, their schoolwork suffered. “When a child feels safe and supported by a grown-up, they’re going to be on top of their assignments and feel confident about their abilities,” explains Yankus.
But don’t get hung up on an extreme definition of “happy,” cautions Fogel—shoot for it most of the time. Yankus stresses that a happy home is still a real one, not some lofty, utopic ideal. “We mean functional and available: not arguing and screaming all the time, enjoying some free time together—a supportive environment where the child feels safe,” he explains. Of course, you’re still going to nag your kids and spouse, you’ll still bicker—all that is normal and expected. “But the point is to encourage bits of happiness—make breakfast together, make jokes, laugh,” he says.
7. They…Visualize Success and Set Goals
Kids who believe they’ve got a bright future ahead of them are more likely to do well than those who don’t have a clear idea about what it takes to succeed. “That’s because they’ve set a goal—whether that’s acing the math final, landing a part in the school play or going to college,” says Yankus. “They can visualize it happening, so it’s easier for them to achieve it.” Encourage kids to write down their goals once they’ve made them. A study of Harvard MBA students showed just how big an effect goal-making can have. The authors looked at the economic success 10 years later of students who had no goals, students who had goals but did not record them and students who had goals and went so far as to write them down. The 13 percent who had goals but did not write them down were earning twice the amount as the students with no goals 10 years later. The three percent of students who wrote down their goals were earning, on average, 10 times as much as the other 97 percent of the class combined.