As kids rise through the grades, even straight-A students can be tripped up by poor study habits. Maybe procrastination is the reason for your 3rd grader’s disappointing report card, or your 6th grader gets easily overwhelmed by the bigger projects in middle school. How can you help your kids develop good habits and set goals for school success? We asked several experts for their ideas. Here’s what they suggest.

Choose One Key Goal

Although it’s tempting to tackle five new habits you’d like your child to adopt, taking on too much at once is unproductive, according to Ann Dolin, owner of Educational Connections tutoring company in the Washington, D.C., area and author of Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools, and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework.

Kids need to be invested in order to set goals, and that starts with developing self-reliance. Dolin recommends that parents ask themselves what one thing they’d like their child to be able to do independently by the end of the year. “Think about the long term instead of the daily grind,” Dolin says. That will be different for every family, but it might include reducing procrastination, limiting screen time, lowering morning stress, or getting more organized. Choose a family habit to change, or help kids decide on an individual goal for the year.

Have a Routine Check-in

Whether your child is entering 1st grade or 7th, communicating about the week ahead is key for success, Dolin says. Creating this routine when your kids are young will get them in the habit of thinking ahead about their homework, a crucial skill when they’re older and have heavier loads. A parent herself, Dolin likes to meet with her children on Sunday evenings after dinner.

“Set an appointment with each of your kids, not just the child who is struggling,” she recommends. “Each child should come to the meeting with their assignment notebook to discuss the week ahead and note whether there are any long-term assignments due that week or the following week.”

If a child isn’t sure of his assignments, have him go online to the school’s homework portal to look them up. Once you know the workload, your role as parent is to ask questions to help him map out his week rather than tell him how to handle it. For example, for a book report due Friday, ask your child what he needs to do first, and then what he’ll do on Tuesday and Wednesday. Have him write daily tasks in his notebook that he can refer to each evening.

Focus on the Process

We love it when kids bring home top grades because that means they’re doing well, right?

But when parents focus on the product of good grades rather than the process of learning, the learning may get lost to anxiety, especially if the child is a high achiever who fears disappointing his parents. It’s more important to support your child’s process; good grades will naturally result.

How do we support process? Make sure kids have a set study time, Dolin says, as well as a distraction-free place to do homework. Eliminate easy access to electronics and make sure children know what the homework requires. For young kids, check to make sure they know how to do a task before walking away. If they don’t know how to get started, they can feel overwhelmed and they’ll avoid doing the work.

To help a procrastinator, it’s important to empathize first. Then have your child show you what she’s working on. Ask questions like “Did your teacher show you how to do this in class? Do you have notes you could look at? I wonder if your teacher posted something on the resources page? Could you ask a friend?” The goal is to help kids figure out where to go for help rather than do the problems with them—or for them.

Go for Good Study Skills

It’s normal for kids to blast through homework, but the whole point is to practice topics taught in class and master concepts daily. Completion doesn’t guarantee understanding. It starts by asking questions in the classroom, says Jackie Gross, owner of One-on-One Tutoring in St. Louis, Mo. “That’s really hard for kids to do because it might be embarrassing,” she says, “but I tell kids if they have a question, chances are someone else does, too.”

If your child doesn’t understand her homework, try a website like Khan Academy for help or check the teacher’s homework portal on the school website. Kids also benefit from seeing a model of the assignment, such as a 6th grade lab report. If the teacher hasn’t provided one, try an online search for a model.

Other strategies for being a good student include being neat, mastering concepts daily, and staying on top of the subject’s details, like learning math formulas. Bear in mind that study skills are developmental. Kids don’t understand the importance when they’re young but will begin to appreciate good study habits over time.

Break Down Long-term Projects

Learning how to manage long-term projects and not procrastinate is difficult for most kids. The most important thing is to break them down with your child and serve as a sounding board, Gross says. Using a paper planner or dry-erase calendar, start with a due date and then pencil in a personal due date a couple days ahead. From there, plot out each day going back and have kids write down tasks. The goal is to achieve a little every day once they start the project.

It can be tempting to make a diorama more attractive (parents often think teachers have an expectation of a project’s final look, Gross says), but it’s much more important to help your child with the planning than with the work. Help her sketch out ideas and get supplies, then bow out.

Meeting goals takes time. Dolin advises parents to keep the relationship with their child positive and to be their safety net when they hit bumps. “Know when to let the little things go,” she says. Kids’ confidence will grow as they experience school success on their own terms.


4 Tips for Self-Reliant Students

  1. Avoid micromanaging. It sends the message that your child isn’t competent. There will be bumps, procrastination, and forgetfulness, but that’s part of maturing.
  2. Help kids learn to study on their own. Show them how to use a note card with a study guide, covering up the answers as they ask themselves the questions.
  3. If you provide any feedback, keep it short. Research shows that kids stop listening after 11 to 15 words.
  4. You may need to explain expectations such as neatness to young students, but then leave the work to them. Leave concerns about quality to the teacher.
Joanna Nesbit writes about education, parenting, and family travel for online, national, and regional magazines. She lives in Bellingham, Wash., with her husband and two children.