How to Support a Science Fair Project, Without Taking Over (page 2)
“No, no, Honey. Not like that. Here let me show you.”
Observing your child struggle with a task can be frustrating for both of you, but intervening to fix the “problem,” can be even worse for your child. Especially with hands-on activities like Science Fair projects, parents can be very helpful as long as they don’t cross the boundary between their child’s efforts and adult solutions.
In contemporary terms, parents need to be involved without hovering like a helicopter. Several key characteristics of this distinction include fostering autonomy, respecting individual learning styles and providing detailed, honest feedback.
Children need to learn to navigate the world without their parents fairly early in life. Starting in kindergarten, kids spend blocks of time without mom or dad to guide them, and by college, they often live away from home for most of the year. To provide children with skills appropriate to these autonomous situations, parents need to consider the ways that they “help” their children. For example, a toddler can’t stack large foam blocks any higher than two, so he throws a fit, yelling and kicking them. Should a parent restack the tower, lining up blocks so that they climb to five or six? The action may please the child and stop the tantrum, but it also sets up an inappropriate consequence for unattractive behavior as well as presents the child with unattainable perfection. Hard though it my be, the ideal response is, “I can see that you’re really frustrated. I understand, because I get frustrated, too. But throwing and kicking things isn’t okay. Let’s pick up the blocks and you can try again.”
Research over the last two decades has revealed that the human brain learns in many ways and no one path is better than another. Teachers today recognize that while some students process information in linear sequencing, others think more globally, visually or spatially and need to work with the material in patterns other than logical steps of factual information. Imagine an elementary school student trying to write a paragraph about a book that the teacher assigned. She stands up, growls at the blank page and stomps off. Parents may want to flip through the book and jot a quick outline to help organize her thoughts, not knowing that the sight of that structure will add fuel to the young girl’s fire. She may be a visual learner who thinks in images, and she needs to map her thoughts before she can translate them into words. Instead of assuming the way the assignment needs to get done, parents can suggest, “Writing is a really difficult task. If you want to talk about the book first, I’m happy to listen. You could even just draw a picture first to show me what it’s about.”
Parents want to cheer their children on, and they often do so by emphasizing the positive and downplaying the negative. “Great try,” for a puck wide of the net. “Good effort,” for the dive that became a belly flop. As they age, children recognize the dissonance between a parent’s words and their performance, creating distrust of parents’ comments. Parents need to modulate the balance between encouragement and constructive observation, shifting toward the former as their children advance in school. For example, an eight year old’s errant basketball shot might warrant a, “Good try,” while a sixteen year old who shoots instead of passes to an open teammate might earn a, “I know you have great confidence in your abilities, but the center was open and he had a higher percentage opportunity.” Similarly in school work, a nine year old who forgets about a vocabulary quiz might arrange for mom to write the dates on a big calendar while a seventeen year old who commits the same forgetfulness would need to be reminded that he will be on his own at college and passing his courses requires close attention to details like scheduling.
Throughout these stages, parents need to step back and remember that the child’s frustrations are fertile ground for leaps in learning. Patience, sympathy and understanding nurture a child’s independent growth. It’s extremely difficult for many parents to accept, but at times, helping children the most means doing very little at all.
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