5 tips for parents to help their students thrive

Terra Tarango, chief education officer of Van Andel Institute for Education, has spent her career helping to create classrooms where curiosity, creativity and critical thinking thrive.

Recently, Terra interviewed with Authority Magazine to discuss how parents can help their students thrive in the classroom. The following are excerpts from her interview.

To read the full interview, click here.

Terra Tarango

Can you share with us a bit about your backstory?

Tarango: My mother was a teacher, and I grew up seeing both the joys and the struggles the job brought her. I knew from a young age that teaching — good teaching — required a tremendous amount of passion and effort. It always seemed unfair to me that such an important role in society wasn’t afforded the esteem it deserved. …

It’s been rewarding to build a career that ties so closely with my childhood notion that teachers have the most important job in the world. I’ve spent decades now trying to support teachers with professional development and resources that make learning meaningful, memorable and fun.

Can you help articulate the main challenges that students face today that make it difficult to succeed in school?

Tarango: It’s important to acknowledge that certain aspects of school are much better today than in years past. It’s finally “cool” to be smart, there’s access to so much more information, and there is a collective consciousness that seems overall to care about making the world a better place. But there are challenges to be sure. Social media has to top the list, especially at the older grades. There is intense pressure to live and convey an Instagram-worthy life that many preteens and teens face severe anxiety and depression issues stemming from feelings of inadequacy.

Another challenge is the abundance of information. Students need to develop a keen sense of how to evaluate sources, spot bias and practice basic information literacy. For all students, it can be a challenge to see how school is a valuable use of their time, how it is relevant to the world they live in and the world they’ll enter after graduation. These challenges cause some of them to tune out, to disengage from coursework, fall behind in their studies, and not reach their full academic potential.

Can you please share your “5 Things Parents Can Do to Help Their Children Thrive and Excel in School?” Please share a story or example for each.


1. Live curiously! Broaden your students’ range of experience by helping them explore in all sorts of ways. Visit a new place, even if it’s just a new place in town. Read a new book, watch a new movie, build a new creation. Adventure is a great foundation for learning! For example, one time I took my young children to a Caribbean restaurant, and as we were reading the “About the Restaurant” section of the menu, we discovered that the owners were from Haiti. Next thing I knew, my girls and I were tearing our napkins into the shape of Florida and the nearby islands, creating our own map right there at the dinner table.

2. Talk with them more than you talk to them. Students develop critical thinking skills through dialogue, so the more discussions you can have, the richer their minds become. Ask them questions, really listen to the answers, follow up with probing questions, share your own perspectives and experiences — you’ll deepen your relationship, and you’ll set them up for success! This can come from the simplest of questions.

One time my friend’s teenage son asked what the capital city of Illinois was; he seemed to be trying to plow through a form of some kind. Instead of answering the question directly, my friend asked, “What do you think?” to which he replied, “Chicago?” Instead of correcting him right away, she asked him why he thought that, which led him to realize his reasoning (size and popularity, mainly) was not in any way evidence of being a capital city. They satisfied their curiosity by looking it up on the internet (it’s Springfield, by the way), but they also went on to look up and discuss a variety of other states with not-so-obvious capital cities.

Other ideas for talking with them more than to them include changing up the tired “How was your day?” question (that rarely yields more than an unenthusiastic, “Ok”), and replace it with any of these questions that might yield more productive conversations:

  • What questions did you ask today?
  • What did you create today?
  • How were you kind today?
  • What did you fail at today (and what did you learn from it)?
  • What’s something good, bad and interesting that happened today?
  • If you could change something about today, what would it be?

3. Read to them. No list of what parents can do to help their children thrive and excel in school is complete without this, the most obvious suggestion. Make it part of your nightly routine, something they look forward to, something they’ll remember well into the future. The research is overwhelming that reading to young children sets them up for success in school and beyond. Just a handful of the benefits of reading include:

  • Reading for as little as 30 minutes a week can produce greater life satisfaction.
  • Reading could help reduce mental decline in old age by up to 32%.
  • Reading can reduce stress by up to 68%.
  • Reading stats show that 50% of people who read before bed report sleeping better than non-readers.
  • Reading fiction can make you a better decision-maker, according to reading statistics in the world.
  • 86% of people with an annual household income of $75,000 a year read at least one book every year.
  • Reading facts and statistics show that teenagers who read in their leisure time know 26% more words than those who don’t.
  • Reading increases emotional intelligence, and consequently, your career outlooks.

(Source: https://comfyliving.net/reading-statistics/)

4. Encourage independence and autonomy with life skills. Have kids help with grocery shopping, meal prep and laundry. During the Covid shutdown, for example, one of our staff members had each of her kids make dinner one night a week from scratch with a protein and a vegetable. Encourage them to order their own food at restaurants. Have them make morning task lists of things they need or plan to do that day. Providing opportunities for children to develop independence pays dividends when they are able to be self-directed in the classroom, not paralyzed waiting for instruction from a teacher stretched too thin, but able to move forward, problem-solve, and find solutions on their own.

5. Praise effort over ability. It’s so tempting to look at our children’s grades or accomplishments and comment on that final result (good or bad) as a reflection of their ability, but in doing so we’re missing the opportunity to notice much more important qualities that lead to school and life success. For example, imagine that a father asks his kindergarten daughter to count backward from 10, and consider two possible responses. In the first scenario, the daughter successfully counts down from 10 and the father praises her, “You got them all right, 100%! I always knew you were a little mathematician! Now you can go to your teacher and show how smart you are!” In the second scenario, the daughter again successfully counts down from 10 and her father offers a different sort of praise, “Wow, I can see you’ve been really practicing! You’ve improved so much. You’re going to learn so much more this year if you keep working so hard at it!”

In the first scenario, the child feels like her value is tied to providing a correct answer, regardless of how she got that answer. The learning is finite, something you perform for a teacher’s benefit and then move on. In the second, her value is tied to working hard and improving, something she has direct control over and that she can apply in multiple situations. Whether successful or unsuccessful, praising effort sets a child up to see learning as a continuous process that is directly related to how much work the child puts into it.

Is Van Andel Institute for Education working on any exciting new projects? If so, how will these projects help people?

Tarango: We regularly provide content to teachers that we hope will benefit their students while also making their lives a little easier. Our Timely Topics and our webinars come out monthly. Our team takes great pride in creating these each month, trying to position ourselves as something of a fairy godmother to teachers, taking the time they don’t have to find the very best resources and strategies for their most pressing challenges.

In addition to our monthly offerings, we are working with school districts in creating customized Learning Loss Recovery Plans. We help schools identify their needs and develop content that helps them accelerate learning for all students, mindful of today’s challenging school environments. We are also very focused this year on the social and emotional health of both students and teachers.