David Atencio
David Atencio, program coordinator, Early Childhood Multicultural Education program.

School is in session and now that students and parents are settling into an everyday routine, there are a few tips that can go a long way toward academic success says University of New Mexico Associate Professor David Atencio, who is the program coordinator of the Early Childhood Multicultural Education program in the College of Education (COE).

There are a number of things to keep in mind to assure that children are afforded the best opportunity for succeeding in the school year. First and foremost is having one of the family’s primary values be a value for education and for succeeding says Atencio, who studies development of self-regulation in children at UNM’s COE.

“Children will succeed in school and engage in school, and have a positive disposition towards learning if they come from a home environment where education is authentically valued and really supported,” he said.

Families need to recognize that the beginning of the school year is really a life-changing period in the calendar year as parents, students and teachers all get ready and gear up, and change from leisure and comfort that summer brings to get ready for school.

“I think one of the most important things to keep in mind is that the beginning of the school year calls for getting organized around children and their needs and their responsibilities that they’re required to assume once they get in school,” Atencio said.

Organization comes in a variety of forms from parents, students and teachers. There’s differing stress on all of those fronts, but one thing that can help alleviate that stress is optimism.

“Parents, families and teachers need to all get organized for the success of our children,” Atencio said. “There is a certain amount of stress and parents need to recognize that, but this is a time where parents need to be optimistic, they need to be positive and they need to assure that their children’s physical, social, emotional and intellectual needs are being met.”

Regardless of whether you’re talking about younger or older children, structure and support are two keys that are most important for assuring that children are motivated towards achievement in school. 

“Support in making sure that child’s needs are recognized and also structure but not so much control,” Atencio said. “There’s a big difference between structure and control. Control is where parents make all the decisions and do not support their autonomy. We’re not talking about that.

“That kind of punitive orientation can actually undermine children’s performance and motivation in school. But structure in terms of making sure that children’s daily experience is organized in a way that is in their best interest for their health, development and their success in school, is essential for allowing children to reach their potential in school.”

Structure and support have always been one of Atencio’s focuses with his own daughter, regardless of her age. “Whether it was as a little three-year-old to now in high school, I have always made sure she assumes that executive role and takes responsibility, and makes the decisions that are developmentally appropriate for her to be making so that she can have that kind of ownership of her school responsibilities.”

Other kinds of ways can parents best engage in their own children’s education include: valuing education; communicating with teachers; making education a priority; and making a space for children to study. It doesn’t necessarily have to be an office says Atencio. But a space and a time so that their homework and other take home responsibilities can be completed under the best circumstances. Every home environment is different, but regardless of space accommodations, the time for homework and the space for it to be completed, needs to be a priority in the home. Atencio believes that equally important is that children see their parents as engaged in their school experience. “An abundance of research has shown that one of the best predictors of children’s school success is parental involvement in their children’s educative experiences.”   

Parents should also allow children to stretch their abilities, but at the same time, not abandoning them. This support of children’s autonomy is not the same as permissiveness says Atencio such as letting children do whatever they want. It’s support for their autonomy, in terms of providing them with an opportunity to make choices and to “take over” the regulatory role of their school responsibilities. This is a primary way for them to become more self-directed and self-regulated learners. This emerging capacity is welcomed by all teachers during their school years but it is also a critical life skill when children leave for college or enter the workforce as young adults.

“Being competent in a self-directed manner comes about by stretching their abilities and encouraging children to assume responsibilities, but in a very collaborative and supportive way,” Atencio said. “So if children need help, parents are there to assist them. That’s very different than the parents doing the work for them. Children need to assume and take over that responsibility of succeeding in school.”

Atencio believes that providing this home context for children’s educational experiences from early childhood to high school, will assure that they develop the competencies to succeed in college and in their chosen profession and will also assure that they become individuals who are passionate life-long learners. This may be the most valuable long-term outcomes of children’s school experience.

Other items of importance include:

  • physical health
  • proper rest and sleep
  • exercise
  • nutrition

“I think sleep schedules are important to make sure they are adjusted from summer to school,” Atencio said. “Making sure that children are physically healthy is critical. There’s certainly an important connection between our physical health, rest, exercise and nutrition, and how that is an important sub-component of children’s readiness to succeed in the classroom.”

Atencio also pointed out that school is not just a place for learning to read, write and do arithmetic, but school is such a significant part of a students’ day that children are developing as human beings that have developmental needs.

“Schools also need to be a place where children develop, physically, mentally and emotionally healthy,” he said. “Parents recognize there are intellectual challenges, but parents should also keep in mind the social and emotional challenges their children may face with their peer group and in the structure of school including their relationships with teachers and recognizing children are having those experiences during school.”