10 Ways to Help Your Kid Excel at School

A successful school year isn't just about logging time at the library.

August 5, 2016
children running school

This fall, arm your kids with more than just new notebooks and pencils to go back to school. Set them up with healthy habits that will help them excel. Plenty of research supports that there are certain lifestyle factors, from breakfast to after-school activities, that can help kids perform better academically.

You don't have to be a helicopter parent to start incorporating these 9 get-ahead strategies into your kid's routine.

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1. Take your kid to the park

Just because summer is over doesn't mean that kids should spend every waking moment indoors. In fact, enjoying nature may boost school performance.

Spanish researchers found that kids who spent time outside had greater increases in working memory and fluid intelligence compared to kids with less access to grass and trees.

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2. Sign them up for music lessons

Learning an instrument gives a kid's brain a great workout, according to research published in the Journal of American Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry. Brain scans revealed that learning an instrument thickens areas of the brain associated with working memory, attention, organization, planning, and emotional processing.

Additionally, research from Northwestern University found that enrolling in band class sped up teenagers' neurodevelopment, boosting their literacy skills. 

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3. Sign your kid up for a team sport

Ask your child what sport he or she wants to try and sign them up. Canadian researchers found that children who play sports are more disciplined, demonstrating more focus in the classroom and a better ability to follow directions.

"There is something specific to the sporting environment—perhaps the unique sense of belonging to a team to a special group with a common goal—that appears to help kids understand the importance of respecting the rules and honoring responsibilities," says researcher Linda Pagani, PhD, professor at the University of Montreal.

If your kid just isn't into sports, consider looking for other activities that focus on team building and working towards a goal, such as Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts. Just be sure he or she is getting in enough physical activity because…

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4. Encourage after-school physical activity

…tons of research exists suggesting that says that after-school physical activity helps kids with the demands of school. One study published in Pediatrics found that an hour of daily activity led to better attention, less distraction, and improved cognitive flexibility. "Kids in the [physical activity] group improved twofold compared to the wait-list kids in terms of their accuracy on cognitive tasks," says Charles Hillman, PhD, lead study author and a professor of kinesiology and community health at the University of Illinois.

Another study from Sweden found that an extra two hours of physical activity a week doubled the odds that a student would achieve national learning goals in language and math.

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5. Let them play video games

Your kids will be happy to hear this one: Fast-paced, action video games may improve learning capabilities, according to research published in PNAS.

"In order to sharpen its prediction skills, our brains constantly build models, or 'templates,' of the world," explains Daphne Bavelier, PhD, a research professor in brain and cognitive sciences at the University of Rochester. "The better the template, the better the performance. And now we know playing action video games actually fosters better templates."

Of course, keep in mind that video gaming is a sedentary activity, so make sure your kid balances it with plenty of active playtime, too.

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6. Leave the technology at home

There's a difference between a tech-savvy classroom and a classroom filled with kids sneaking glances at their phones all day long. "I am not talking about the use of technological devices that support classroom learning or the benefits of iPads for children with various learning needs," says Janell Burley Hofmann, author of iRules. "Instead, here we start to see the role we parents play with our chronic communication with our children and the negative consequences of constant connection." Hofmann says that learning the life skill of having a face-to-face conversation, rather than constant screen time, is more valuable (though she does also say that half days, field trips, and after-school activities can have special consideration). 

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7. Schedule some mindfulness time

Letting kids have some mental downtime—away from school, homework, technology, sports, piano lessons—may boost later learning, according to Canadian researchers. They found that fourth and fifth graders who participated in a mindfulness program performed better at math. They were also better at regulating stress, were more optimistic and helpful, and were more liked by their peers.

"Our findings suggest that children who are taught mindfulness—to pay attention to the present intentionally and without judgment—are better positioned to succeed both in school and in life," said lead author Kimberly Schonert-Reichl, PhD, an education professor at the University of British Columbia.

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8. Set a bedtime

The struggle to get your kids in bed at a reasonable hour is worth it, according to research published in Sleep Medicine. They found that kids with better sleep efficiency—scoring sleep quality based on the time in bed versus the time actually asleep—had better grades in math and languages. "Short or poor sleep is a significant risk factor for poor academic performance that is frequently ignored," says Reut Gruber, PhD, lead researcher and clinical child psychologist at McGill University.

To improve your kid's sleep efficiency, follow these "sleep hygiene" techniques and 50 ways to sleep better tonight to get the whole family on a better bedtime schedule. 

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9. Let your kids run around in the morning

Yes, it can be hard to wrangle kids in the morning, but allowing them some physical activity time in the morning could help them focus later in the day. Research published in the Journal of Abnormal Child Psychology that exercising before school helped reduce the symptoms of ADHD.

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10. Serve up breakfast

Another important part of the morning routine is breakfast, so whip up any of these 10 breakfast toast recipes for a great start to your day. Research from the University of Iowa found that low-income students who have access to the U.S. Department of Agriculture's School Breakfast Program have higher reading, math, and science scores than students who attend school without the benefits of this program.

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