Do You Need to Teach Your Child to Study?

So you’ve started a new course or subject for a brand new year homeschooling, but you suddenly find yourself hitting some very unexpected roadblocks with your child. It may seem like your child (who possibly always made good grades in the past) has suddenly encountered a subject that just does not compute.  Maybe you find yourself working together with your child, explaining the same thing over and over, only to have him or her run into difficulties again as soon as the work becomes independent.

There may be several reasons for this kind of challenge, but one that you may not have considered before is possibly the most basic:

Do I need to teach my child how to study? 

Does this predicament sound familiar? If so, this article has some questions you should ask yourself that can help you figure out what’s going on and how you can help.

Questions to Consider:

1. Is your child “too smart”?

In other words, has your child been able to rely on her “smarts” in the past instead of learning how to study?  While being smart is great, there a difference between the value of knowing how to push through difficulties verses being naturally good at something (you can read more about it here). If you suspect that your child may have found everything fairly easy to understand in her academic experience so far, this issue may not be a problem with your child’s ability or the curriculum. It may simply be that, for the first time, she’s encountered material that requires more of her than she’s used to giving. She may sincerely need to learn to study in order to succeed in the future. If that’s the case, it’s definitely something you can remedy!  (Just keep reading!)

2. Is the information too advanced for your child right now?

Another question that’s important to consider is whether you are trying to teach your child something that he just isn’t quite ready for. (An example would be a parent/teacher trying to teach a typical 3- or 4-year old to read. While there are a very few children who are ready to learn to read at that age, most children at that age just aren’t ready for that yet.) There is absolutely nothing wrong with waiting a while if your child isn’t developmentally ready for a certain subject or skill. In fact, it’s much better to wait than it is to push your child too soon. Doing that will probably not be successful, and it is likely to cause him to dislike that subject/skill in the future.

3. Or could it be that your child just isn’t interested in a particular topic/subject?

If that’s the case, you’ll need to carefully consider what’s best to do in that situation. If you have an older student (middle or especially high school), it’s okay to concentrate on subjects that he/she is particularly interested in. Sure there are some subjects that must be covered if your child is going to college, and there are some subjects that we all need to learn in order to live and do well in life. Those subjects must be taught whether our students (or we as teachers) really want to do it or not! But there are others that aren’t necessary. Use your good judgment, for example, when deciding on electives and higher level courses like math and science and writing.

My personal experience:

Both my son and my younger daughter are gifted students in certain areas.

However, when my son was about 15, he encountered some subjects for the first time that were difficult for him. One of those subjects was math, and the other was science. Part of the problem was that he wasn’t particularly interested in either of these subjects. The other part of the problem was that, because learning has always come so easily to him, he was totally unprepared to deal with it when these subjects became a challenge for him. He had always managed to do well without really studying until then, so he was a little upset when he began making unsatisfactory grades.

The same thing happened to my younger daughter. The first time it happened to her was when she was first beginning to homeschool. When she reached first grade level, she just didn’t seem to “get” math. Other kids her age could count, understand 1-to-1 ratio, do basic addition, write a few numbers, etc. But my daughter just didn’t understand any of it! I was so worried! I was afraid there was something wrong. But I decided to set math aside for a few months and try again later. The same thing happened. I tried again a few months later. This continued until she was about 8 years old, at which point it finally “clicked” with her! I’ll never forget that day! Until then, I had worried that she would never understand math, but the truth was that she just needed some time to mature.

The next time it happened was when she was about 9 or 10, and she took her first Spanish class. The class was absolutely not too difficult for her. However, since she knew very little about Spanish, she really had to study to learn it.

With both my son and younger daughter, I was really not sure of the problem when their grades first began slipping. I didn’t know if the material really was too difficult or if there was a problem with the curriculum or what else might be the issue. (Of course, my children assured me that the material was just too difficult.)

As I began questioning them, though, I realized that the problem was that they were no longer able to learn without studying. They honestly didn’t know how to study because they’d never had a need to do it before! They didn’t even know that they needed to study. And they certainly didn’t know how to study.

Years ago, when I was in high school, I met the man who later would become my husband. I remember that Scott never had to study. He read things or heard things and just remembered them. I, on the other hand, had to study to learn things. I never had to study really hard, but I definitely did have to study and put some effort into it. Because of my own experiences, it didn’t occur to me that being able to learn without having to study could actually cause problems!

I explained this to my children so they would know what was going on. They hesitantly agreed that my assessment was probably correct. Neither of them was too thrilled, though, because that meant they were going to have to learn to study! They knew that they couldn’t always avoid subjects that were difficult for them and that they had to learn to study, but they still didn’t know how to go about it.

While it is a wonderful blessing to have children who learn easily, the fact is that most students do eventually have to learn to study. There may be a very small number of students who always learn easily and never really have to study, but the majority of students (at one point or another) must learn to study in order to learn and make good grades.

An important thing to do as parents and teachers is to let our children know that this is okay! In fact, we need to let them know that it’s absolutely normal. They need to understand that, while studying may not be a lot of fun, and it’s not necessarily something they will want to do or love to do, it can be very rewarding. We don’t want them to think that studying is punishment or that it’s something to be avoided.

But it’s also not something they will necessarily know how to do without a little instruction from us. If you’ve never really thought about it, studying is something that we can and should teach our children how to do! I recently wrote an article that explains how to teach your children good study skills.  

If you take the summer off to get prepared for your next school year, now might be a great time to think about and get prepared for teaching your children to study. If you homeschool year round, it’s probably a good time to go ahead and get started too! You don’t want to make the same mistake I did and wait until your children have problems to start teaching them good study skills.

Our children are all so different! Some may need to study from a very young age, and others might not need to study until much later in their school years. How about your children? What are their ages/grade levels? Do they have to spend time studying yet, or are they able to do well without it for right now? Do you see signs that they may need to start studying soon? 

And don’t forget to take a look at Helping Your Children Develop Good Study Skills to help you prepare to teach them to study!

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  1. What a timely reminder this article is! I never had to study until I went to university and it was BRUTAL! Quite the shock. I still can’t believe I didn’t fail my first year. This is a great reminder to me to teach my children this important skill BEFORE the risk of “failing” or before they get just downright frustrated.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Rebecca! I think that is a wonderful idea and will probably help save your children (and yourself!) from lots of frustration later on.

  2. What a great topic! I am just starting my journey with a 3 year old so we are playing more than studying but I’m so interested to log this away for later.

    1. Cindy, that’s great! I wish I had known more when I was first starting out. I hope this information comes in handy and helps you on your homeschool journey! In the mean time, have fun playing and learning. 🙂

  3. I absolutely agree with your assessment. My oldest daughter [because of other issues she was dealing with] underwent a variety of tests and one of them showed she was really gifted. She behaves exactly as you’ve described. As long as she can catch on to something easily, she does great. The very minute she hits a challenge she falls apart. My goal for the past several years has been to teach her how to study and overcome challenges, but it is a long, hard road for her.

    1. Anaise, I’m so sorry to hear about your daughter’s trouble! It really is very stressful for both the child and the mom/teacher. I hope that, since you know what the problem is now, perhaps she can understand and begin to learn to handle it better. It is definitely a long hard road!

  4. I know where your children are coming from. I have always been “gifted” and, like your husband, I just absorbed things. I think it was college before I had to study. I remember HATING physics in high school because it required me to work. I’d never experienced that before. I told my chemistry teacher that I would never do anything in science or math, I was a history/English kinda girl. Last year, 10 years after graduating high school, I finished my BS in physics with a minor in math. It wasn’t easy, but I found that I like the challenge I hated so much in high school (I was a public school kids, btw). Keep with them and you’ll see them do excellent things. Let them know that even though they may hate the subjects now, it may become their chose field of study after high school. You never know! ;oD

    1. Kristen, thanks so much for your comment! I will absolutely tell my kiddos about this! I’m glad to know that you were able to begin to enjoy being challenged. I’m hoping that, by teaching my kids good study skills, they too will learn to enjoy a challenge instead of feeling frustrated and giving up.

    2. I was the exact same way. It wasn’t until I got into graduate school that I couldn’t just skim the textbooks and ace the tests. I had to read it again. Sometimes three times. I’d graduated college at 19 with not too much effort and graduate school was a RUDE awakening. I did make it through but it would have been easier and I’d have done better if I learned to study earlier, like your kids. As someone who now teaches statistics to graduate students, I see how tough math can be because it is cumulative. If you skimp on learning about Jane Austen you can probably still analyze the text by Charles Dickens okay. If you don’t understand fractions and decimals, forget learning probability. Buckle down and learn that math NOW or be sorry later!

  5. Yes, we’ve had experiences like that too. Sometimes the material was too hard, sometimes too easy, and sometime the kids just needed to learn how to learn. I wrote about it a few years ago:
    There’s also a neat free resource that has helped our older ones understand more about studying and learning. They loved it!
    I hope these thoughts help.

    1. Annie Kate, thanks for sharing your information and links! I’m going to take a look at both your post from a few years ago and the studying/learning resource too. I’m surely hoping that my kids will understand more about this and will begin to enjoy being challenged.

    1. Pam, I’m sorry that you are having a similar experience because it’s really not fun! I hope that by learning more about the problem and more about teaching your children good study skills your situation will improve greatly! Be sure to take a look at Wednesday’s post which will give more information on helping your children develop good study skills.

  6. Thank you so much for this! I have had this problem myself, and with my children. I wonder if you know about the research of Dr. Carol Dweck? She wrote a book called Mindset, which discusses this exact problem.
    I think it’s a wonderful lesson to learn how to learn — and I love the way you have written about this. I want to add a link, that happens to be from my own blog (I don’t usually do that, but hope it is okay in this case) that talks about Carol Dweck and her ideas — I’d love to know what you think!!

    1. Wendy, I do not know about Dr. Dweck and her research! I’m going to try to find her book. It sounds like it would be a great resource! Thanks so much for mentioning it. 🙂

      I don’t mind your posting a link to your blog at all! In cases where readers are sincerely interested in leading other readers to helpful information (as opposed to “advertising”) it is perfectly fine to post your link.

      Thank you for sharing this information!

      1. Oh, awesome!! I just love Carol Dweck…if you are interested, she’s a professor at Stanford, and her work is on her website. We have definitely noticed an enthusiasm for learning in our house that I think is a result of knowing that if you practice, you will improve.

        My only problem is that *I’m* not fully on board because of how I was raised : ) I keep catching myself thinking I can’t do something “because I’m not good at it” never thinking to myself that maybe, if I practiced, I’d get better and “be good at it” : )

        Ah, well…we’re all learning all the time, aren’t we?

        1. Yes, we sure are! That’s one of my favorite things about homeschooling–learning along with my children. Sometimes we have to stretch ourselves and get out of our “comfort zones” just like they do!

  7. Can’t wait to read the next post too! I never had to study much either and really struggling in how to teach my children to study. I assume they should just get it. So I am always looking for new ways to help them. Thanks for a great post!

    1. You are welcome! I’m glad you enjoyed the post. I hope you’ll come back to read the one for tomorrow about teaching study skills. Maybe it will be helpful to you as well.

  8. Wendy, you might also want to teach them that intelligence is not innate. I started teaching my students about intelligence as an intro each year. I’ve done some research and found that a lot of U.S. kids think that intelligence is innate, so when something is hard it obviously means that they just aren’t able to do it. (I think girls are especially likely to believe this) I had to talk about effort and practice leading to intelligence. I had to train myself to stop saying you’re smart (and I don’t with my one year old) and start clarifying what they did well (you must have practiced writing that to get it to look so good or wow, all those hours you spent on the problems really shows in how quickly you finished). Here’s some basic research info I found on great website:

    Good luck with this journey!

  9. Great article! I was never a studier at school, I remembered everything and flew through exams easily. But both of my children have ASD so their learning has been a bit different. We don’t do exams but we do a lot of ‘disguised’ study via discussion, TED Talks and visual note taking practices. My son is unable to write so I spent a lot of time researching different learning practices and discussion, visual note taking and teaching others were the best options.

    For us it’s worked really well but like everything it is so individual to each child isn’t it?

    1. Ellie, thanks for your comment! Yes, one of my very favorite things about homeschooling is the ability to teach/evaluate each child in a way that fits that child. I have an autistic child, and the way I “do school” with her is very different from how I do it with my other 2 children. I don’t know about visual note taking. I’ll have to look into that and see what it is. My autistic daughter is non-verbal and can’t write either (She has extremely poor motor skills.), so I’m wondering if that might be something useful for her.

  10. Hello to all. I am new to homeschooling. This will be my first year teaching my 5th grader and a Kindergartener.
    I was very anxious at first but after working on curriculum for my 5th grader and actually starting on some science subjects, I feel like we will cover all the subjects before regular school is over. Am I being naive? :)) any advice is greatly appreciated!!

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