Once upon a time, parents were led to believe that their child’s learning happens only in school, under the watchful eye of a trained teacher. Today, we know this just isn’t true.
“It’s critical for parents, regardless of their own experiences as children, to recognize with a sense of awe and responsibility that they really are their children’s first teachers,” says Jametta Lilly, chief executive officer of Detroit Parent Network, Detroit parent organization founded in 2002 that builds and engages parents and families “to ensure every child has a champion.”
And parents should take this role seriously, Lilly says, because even before birth and in the earliest years of life, a child is learning and processing information about their environment, building trust and a sense of security, and forging pathways in their brain that sets the stage for continued learning once they do get to that classroom.
As your child’s very first teacher, you have the opportunity to create space around growth milestones to prepare your child for later experiences in school and life. And because parenting is collaborative, you don’t have to do it all alone. Rely on your village to help you, Lilly says. “As parents we forget this isn’t about one person, but a collective.”
Here, we share 5 milestones in your child’s development, and important ways you can nurture their best learning at school.
1. Pre-birth. This is a time to make sure mom is healthy and supported, Lilly says. “This is such an important time to pay attention to health, the level of stress, nutrition and social support a mother has, from the child’s father, to the circle of people around her,” she says. “When baby is in utero and mom is humming pleasant sounds and feels happy, baby hears and feels that. On the other hand, if her stress levels are up, chemicals are released in her body that adversely affects the baby.”
2. Early childhood. Through a strong partnership with their pediatrician, parents can monitor development at well-child visits, says Monique Marks, chair of the Community Education Commission and chief executive officer of Franklin-Wright Settlements, Inc., a Detroit neighborhood human service organization. “Doctors have a routine battery of tests at each visit, which help parents know where their kids should be and what to look for. This will really help to make sure their child is on target before stepping into a classroom,” Marks says. Don’t be surprised when the doctor or nurse asks your child to draw a picture or make an animal sound. These simple tests should be part of the physical exam each time, and parents should question their child’s doctor if these aren’t happening, Marks adds.
As with every phase of a child’s development, early childhood is a critical time to be reading out loud. “This really matters, because we demonstrate that we value reading, and we demonstrate the use of words and sounds,” Lilly says. And the parent-child interaction that goes along with the act of reading is just as important. “Parents are busy, working odd hours, and this is part of the joy and the burn of being a parent. Stop for five minutes and put your child on your lap and read or have them read,” she says. Remember, parenting requires many resources, so aunts, uncles, grandparents and even siblings can help out with this important role.
Reading isn’t the only way children benefit from hearing words from birth on. “Through talking, you begin to have a back and forth with your child,” Lilly says. “When your baby is babbling, you talk too. This is what we call a ‘Talking is Teaching‘ model. This is about building a relationship and trying out words through that relationship.” This is a relationship parents should hold on to. “At some stage you’ll ask ‘why won’t my kid talk to me?’ Hopefully, that’s at 18 and not at 8,” Lilly says with a laugh.
Because how you talk is important too, Lilly recommends positive parenting classes such as Love & Logic, which parents can take through Detroit Parenting Network.
3. Third grade. Successful academic learning beyond third grade depends on strong reading skills. During the 2019-2020 school year, the Michigan Read by Grade Three Law will take effect, which means students not reading at grade level may have to repeat third grade. The law also requires schools to provide additional help to students who are struggling. Parents should be aware of their child’s reading abilities before third grade and get help, regardless of their own reading skills, Marks says. “It takes a village; this is not just a cliche. There are people in the village who can support and take over that role,” she says. Quality after-school programs can help identify and support academic challenges.
4. Late elementary and middle school. School tests and standardized tests can give parents information about how their students are performing against grade-level expectations, as well as how much they are growing each year. But these tests can only reveal so much about a student’s skills, and may not be nuanced enough to capture all problem solving abilities, Marks says. “This is a time when parents should sit and talk with their child and gauge intelligence and ability. Ask them questions. See how they solve problems,” she says. Story problems discussed through a one-on-one conversation can reveal information beyond the test score.
5. High school. Now kids should be making plans and talking about the future. “Kids should come out of high school with some sort of proficiency,” Marks says. “What career path has the student selected? What fundamental life skills, like budgeting, financial literacy or cooking can they demonstrate?” While homeroom class teachers should be checking in with students, parents should also be keeping a watchful eye and offering guidance for a child’s next steps to college and career. “Pause, sit, eat at a table and talk. Parents should encourage children to express themselves,” Marks says. “When two parents work outside of the home, it’s tough, but it’s important that parents are doing the best they can. Their kids are doing a great job, and they are getting that from home,” she says.
Parents should challenge themselves to be in-the-know about everything related to their child’s academic development, and that starts with knowing what resources are available, Lilly says. “Parents can look at the Detroit Parents’ Guide to Schools and familiarize themselves with this wealth of resources,” she adds. “That’s a powerful piece, right there.”
For more information on Detroit’s public charter and district schools, visit the Detroit Schools Guide website.