School Sense : How to Help Your Child Succeed in Elementary School

School Sense : How to Help Your Child Succeed in Elementary School
Tiffani Chin, Ph.D.
June 2004

Twenty-six million American families have elementary school-aged children. Many of these parents are plagued with a wide range of questions and doubts about how to help their children succeed in school: How do I choose the best school for my child? Do good parents have to join the PTO? What's the best way to request a particular teacher? What should I ask in a parent-teacher conference? How can I convince my child not to do homework in front of the TV? What do I do if my child isn't being challenged at school? How can I help my child get organized so he doesn't forget to do his homework?

Some families eventually learn the answers to these questions through trial and error, but for many, this information trickles in too slowly to optimally benefit their children.School Sense: How to Help Your Child Succeed in Elementary School gives parents a head start by providing them with the information they need to make the most of their children's elementary school experience.

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We all attended elementary school, but by now, most of us have only vague and fuzzy memories about what it was like. And, let’s be honest. How much do we really remember-or did we ever really know – about the struggles that our parents went through to make sure we did our homework or got the best teachers? And yet, it’s often precisely these hazy memories that parents draw on while trying to help their children succeed in school. As adults, we try to remember how we learned to add fractions, which books we liked to read in the third grade, what we did our science projects on, and how we ended up in “a good school.” But, these memories often don’t seem sufficient to help today’s twenty-first-century students succeed in school (especially if our science projects weren’t that wonderful to begin with!). That’s where this book comes in.

Having spent over 3,000 hours observing in classrooms, tutoring students, and interviewing parents and teachers, I’ve found that although most parents want their children to get the best education possible, many don’t quite know how to make that happen. How do you know which school is the best? How do you get your child to do homework without battling every night? How do you approach a teacher if your child isn’t being challenged? How do you request a teacher or some kind of special service for your child?

Even when parents have a sense of how to “help,” they often waste a lot of time and effort-fighting with their kids overwhere to do their homework, buying workbooks that their children will never use, and struggling with teachers over avoidable misunderstandings. The point of this book is to show you, as a parent, how to make the most of the hard work you put into your children’s education-to show you how to get the greatest payoff, in terms of your child’s grades, test scores, and love of learning, from every single hour you spend helping your child with homework, attending parent-teacher conferences, and even helping out at the school car wash.

I designed this book to do two things: to show you how schools “work” and to show you how to “work the school.” By “work the school,” I don’t mean anything sneaky or unethical (or illegal), but simply how to be an effective part of the school system and how to make it work for you and in your child’s best interests. This book recognizes that the vast majority of U.S. parents work as a “teaching tag-team” with their child’s teacher. They hand their kids off to school at 8 o’clock in the morning and then are expected expand on what their children have learned (in the form of homework, projects, and enrichment) after the three o’clock bell rings. And yet, most parents know very little about what actually goes on in the classroom. They have to rely on their kids (even their kindergartners!) to keep them informed. This book removes the guesswork. It tells you precisely what teachers expect from you, what you should expect from your child’s teacher, what you should expect from your child, how to recognize when the whole tag-team system is breaking down, and what you can do to fix it.

This book begins with three assumptions. First, it assumes that you know your children (what they like, what they don’t like, their strengths and weakness, their personalities, etc.). Second, it assumes that you know your own family’s priorities and values. Third, it assumes that you, as a reader and a parent, want your children to do well in school.

The first assumption-that you know your own child — is important because no book can tell you which school is best foryour child. No book can tell you what time your children should start their homework in order to be done before your family’s dinner time. No book can tell you exactly which free reading books your child will love. Instead, this book gives you the information you need in order to answer these questions for your particular child yourself. As a competent adult, you make good decisions all of the time, using your own common sense. But schools often seem to defy common sense. Whether it’s the “unspoken” process of requesting teachers or the “new” ways of teaching reading or adding fractions-schools and homework can seem daunting even to parents who were very successful students themselves. The goal of this book is to provide you with information that will help you to develop your own common sense-or “school sense,” if you will-to help you navigate the elementary school years.

This book also assumes that you and your family have your own political, moral, and religious values. In the tips and advice given throughout this book, I don’t try to shape or change those values. My sole goal is to help you achieve the best elementary school education that you can for your children. That means, for instance, that I tell you how to assess all kinds of schools, from neighborhood schools to charter schools to private schools. I leave it to you to decide how much you value having your child in an ethnically diverse school, a neighborhood school, or a religious school. I also assume that by the time your child has begun elementary school, your family has developed its own disciplinary style. Although I discuss instances your children should face the “consequences” of their behavior, I leave the particulars to you.

As you read through this book, some of the advice may seem selfish. I walk you through how to choose a school that is the very best match for your child. I discuss ways to make sure your children get every available school resource that they need. I explain strategies for working with teachers to create a maximally challenging curriculum for your child. I believe every parent should have this information, although how much you choose to use it is up to you. Of course, every time you succeed in getting “the best” teacher or extra services for your child, you may prevent another child from getting that teacher or those services. When you put your child in private school, you may be depriving your neighborhood school of the leader and role model that your child might become. But, I leave it to you to decide how to weigh the benefits for your child against the costs and benefits for the school or the community as a whole. My aim, with this book at least, is to give you the insights you need to make good, informed decisions based on your own personal values.

This book’s final assumption, that you want your child to do well in school reflects my personal bias: that your child’s education should be your first priority. You may not agree. For instance, if your child has the potential to play World Cup soccer or become a world-class pianist, you might want to take my advice that they put schoolwork before extra-curricular activities with a grain of salt. But, even if you disagree with the notion that your child’s education should be a major focus in your family, most of the advice in this book should help you to make the most of any effort that you do put into your child’s education.

Before you dive into the chapters, you should bear one important caveat in mind. This book proposes hundreds of tactics and strategies that you can use to build good relationships with your children’s school and teachers, help your children get organized and do homework efficiently, and help your children develop and use their natural curiosity… and much more. I subscribe to the theory that more is actually more-especially when parents are trying to find the style that works for them. But more (and more and more and more) can be overwhelming. Treat this book as you do the good advice you receive from family, friends, neighbors, and colleagues. You’ll use a lot of it. You’ll dismiss some of it as “not right for me.” You’ll store some of it in case you need it later. The book is designed to give you a range of tips, activities, and ideas-so you can choose the ones that best fit your lifestyle and will best benefit your child.

Because most parents have very hectic lives, I’ve tried to organize this book so that you can use it in several ways. Some of you may want to sit down with this book and read it from cover to cover. But, you should also feel free to skip around. If your child hasn’t started school yet, you may want to start with the appendix on what you can do now to help your child get ready for school. If you are about to move to a new city, you may want to start with Chapter 1 and learn how to assess the schools in your future neighborhood. If your child is already in school, or you’re already thrilled with the school that your child is going to attend, then skip ahead. Read chapter two if you’re coming up on your parent-teacher conference or are struggling to find out more about what your child is learning in school. Skip to chapters three and four if homework and projects are causing you headaches. Skip to chapter five if you want to find fun, stimulating activities you can do with your child at home. Read chapter six if you think your child might be gifted or might have a learning disability. Or, use the index to find the information you need when you need it.

Once you start reading, you’ll see that each chapter begins with several guiding principles and then presents specific information as answers to common parent questions. You can read the questions and answers straight through, like an advice column, or skip around to find the questions that you might someday need the answers to. My hope is that this book will become a reference for you and your children-a reference that will help you make the most of your children’s elementary school years.

Author Information

Tiffani Chin, Ph.D.

is the coauthor of Tutoring Matters: Everything You’ve Always Wanted to Know About How to Tutor. She is the recipient of the Spencer Foundation Fellowship for Research in Education. Her research focuses on children’s experiences in schools and has led her to spend 3,000 hours observing in elementary school classrooms, interviewing parents and students, and observing parent-teacher conferences.Tiffani is also the founder of EdBoost, a nonprofit corporation that provides educational services to families. She lives in Los Angeles.


“A valuable book . . . [Chin’s] extensive knowledge adds an authoritative edge . . . [School Sense] explains virtually everything parents need to know to help their kids flourish from kindergarten to their departure for middle school. . . . If they adhere to just a portion of her sage, sincere advice, children will benefit.”
Publishers Weekly

“In School Sense, Chin tries to reach parents who have few resources, minimal time, and a small budget. The index and detailed table of contents make searching easy. Chin’s considerable insight comes from 12 years of tutoring and many hours of classroom observation and research. Chin’s book is highly recommended for all public libraries.”
Library Journal

“This is a readable and comprehensive guide for parents about everything that is important to know about their children’s schools. With clear writing and good examples, Tiffani Chin helps parents understand positive ways to communicate with teachers, volunteer, get involved in school decision-making, help students solve school and learning problems, and more. This information will help parents support their children as students and help students succeed in school.”
JOYCE L. EPSTEIN, Ph.D., Director, Center on School, Family, and Community Partnerships, Johns Hopkins University

School Sense is the best ‘how-to’ book on education available. Even the most savvy parent can learn a lot from this book. Providing concrete suggestions and ‘insider tips’ on how to get the most out of your child’s school, Tiffani Chin offers advice that is based on the most up-to-date education research. This book covers everything-from how to structure a science fair project and cope with last minute assignments to what to make sure to talk about in parent-teacher conference and the best gifts to buy for teachers. School Sense is a pleasure to read and provides essential information for all parents with a child in preschool or elementary school.”
Meredith Phillips, Ph.D., Assistant Professor, School of Public Policy and Social Research, University of California, Los Angeles

“Exciting, informative, insightful book for parents showing how schools work and ways to get the most out of the schools for your child’s benefit. Even gives ideas on what to do when your child says to you, ‘I have a project that is due tomorrow!’ Panic? No-o! Help is only pages away!”
Sue Shultz, 40 years teaching experience, retired from LAUSD