What’s your role?

When it comes to education in the U.S., teachers lead the way in molding young minds.

But it’s a huge job. One might argue it’s actually too much for teachers to do alone. 

After all, learning doesn’t stop when the school bell rings. And support at home can make a big difference in a child’s educational experience. 

How exactly can parents and caregivers most effectively and efficiently help kids with the task of learning at home?

Here’s what five Twin Cities educators had to say: 

Read at home.

Reading is one of the simplest yet most effective things a parent can do to support a child’s education. 

Whether you stock your home collection or visit the library frequently, be sure to read to — or even alongside — your child. 

Make reading a part of your everyday routines. Go for books, magazines, newspapers, toys manuals, LEGO instructions, anything that encourages the act of reading. 

“I cannot stress this enough: Reading must happen at home every single day for at least 20 minutes,” said Erica Larson, a second-grade teacher at Benjamin E. Mays IB World School in St. Paul. “Listening to an adult read helps a child at any age to hear and see what fluent reading sounds and looks like.” 

Larson also noted that going beyond reading to discuss a book can help children build comprehension and conversation skills, too.  

“If time is an issue, break the 20 minutes into two 10-minute sessions,” Larson said. “When you set time aside each day for reading, you reinforce the importance of reading. You also create a wonderful and magical bonding time for you and your child. Practice, repetition and the positive emotions that come from parent-child reading experiences prepare your child for a lifelong love of learning.”

Create routines.

Set a regular wake-up time every day, followed by a wholesome breakfast. After school, set time to get outdoors and exercise before preparing a meal together. A nighttime routine might include bathing, story time and then lights out early enough that kids get plenty of sleep.

“Of course, there will be times when this is not possible, but consistency is key,” Larson said. “If you can maintain a balanced lifestyle and schedule most of the time, your child will get more out of school and life in general, and so, too, will the whole family.”  

Encourage problem solving.

“In most elementary school classrooms there is a large focus on building students’ number sense — and less of an emphasis on memorizing procedures and basic facts,” said Kimberly Henke, an academic support specialist for the Robbinsdale School District.

Henke said teachers want children to be able to compose and decompose numbers in a variety of ways. For example, when adding two-digit numbers, students aren’t taught to just add the ones column and then the tens column. Teachers want students to see numbers from all angles. They want to encourage numerical flexibility and investigative thinking. 

“These skills are essential to prepare students for the future where they will need to think in different ways to solve complex problems,” Henke said. “When helping with homework, encourage your children to share their thinking and have them draw a picture to help them solve a problem they are struggling with.”  

Parents can try asking questions that require mental math strategies in everyday situations. Henke provided a few suggestions:

  • See numbers in a variety of ways: 7=5+2; 7 pennies; 10–3; or 2+2+2+1
  • How many more do you need to make 10? Or 100? 
  • Counting coins: How much more do you need to make a quarter. Or a dollar?
  • Money: How much change will I get if I pay with a $100 bill?
  • Fractions: When cutting food into equal parts, ask your child share a specific fraction of the food.  
  • Measurement: Find the area or volume of something tangible. 

One thing Henke stresses is the power of language. 

“When sharing your own experiences around math or reading, be careful not to say things like, ‘I am not a math person,’” she said. “This can send a negative message about a child’s own ability.”

Henke also stressed the importance of building kids' ability to persevere when things are challenging. 

“No one is born bad at reading or bad at math,” Henke said. “All our brains work in different ways, and if something is hard, we just need to find a way that makes sense. Help your children by allowing them to struggle and work through challenges independently.”

Walk the walk.

It’s said that little minds are like sponges, absorbing everything they see and hear. Retired educator Joe Schreifels saw this phenomenon firsthand through his experiences as an elementary school teacher in South Washington County School District, where he worked for more than 33 years. 

“To me, the most important job of a parent is providing the right environment for the child as he or she develops,” Schreifels said. 

Part of this includes tangible steps like providing healthy meals, having adequate school materials, setting limits on technology and providing a proper place for kids to do homework. 

Other aspects of a supportive environment come from the attitudes parents exhibit and the actions they take — all of which kids observe and mimic, no matter their age.

“Provide an atmosphere in which a child sees how parents show respect, support and care for others. Do volunteer work, respect the environment and accept responsibility for actions without blaming others,” Schreifels said. “The child can learn as he sees the actions of his parents, and he, in turn, does the same actions.”

In addition, Schreifels said, parents should encourage kids to explore their own interests. 

“Provide an atmosphere where the child can expand his world, try new activities, learn new skills,” he said. “These can vary from sports to music, from dance to taking a class at the science museum in virtual reality.”

Allow independence.

Resist the desire to discover every detail of your child’s day. Keep in mind school is a big step toward independence, and parents can use it as an opportunity to let their children spread their wings.

“The top way parents can support a child’s education is to let children experience school,” said Betsy Osterhaus Hand, principal of Saint Ambrose of Woodbury Catholic School. 

Having worked as a teacher and then in administration for 17 years, Osterhaus Hand understands the tendency of parents to want to know the day’s happenings the minute kids get home from school. 

However, firing off questions right away is overwhelming to kids. They tune out — and turn off.

“I often heard more about my children’s days when we were playing catch with a Frisbee or making dinner together. It didn’t feel like I was grilling them,” Osterhaus Hand said. 

She recommends encouraging kids to focus on the positive. 

“I would usually let my own children have 30 seconds to be negative, and then I wanted to hear positive things about school,” Osterhaus Hand said. “It is easy to focus on what is wrong with the teacher and with other students, but much healthier to discuss intellectual pursuits and funny things that happened.”

By talking with your kids, you may discover some stories that bother you. If you do, reach out to the school to try to get the facts before jumping to conclusions. 

“If you are worried about what is going on at school, check with the teacher,” Osterhaus Hand said. “I recommend getting the adult side of the story. Showing your child that you and the teacher are a united front is a great approach.”

Get involved.

“The No. 1 way parents can help support their child’s education is to become involved,” said Jamie Groth, an instructional support specialist in literacy at Northport Elementary School in Brooklyn Center. 

Groth said this can happen in many ways. Try building a relationship with the teacher through emails, phone calls or even a notebook sent back and forth in your child’s backpack. Consider joining the PTO or volunteering in class. Attend school functions with your child.

“These opportunities are not always just for the students, but for the parents to connect and show support of their child and also the school,” Groth said. “Any way that parents are in the loop on their child’s education is a win-win for everyone involved.”

A parent herself, Groth knows the value of open communication with her children’s teachers. “Being present and sharing with their teachers is so much easier because we communicate and have open dialogue,” she said.

Having a positive attitude about the school is also very important. 

Groth said: “Parents may not always understand or even agree with what kind of work the student is bringing home, but showing that they back the school sends the right message to the students on how to respect the school environment and teacher alike.”

Laura Malm is a writer, editor and storyteller who lives in Woodbury with her husband and two daughters.