Teaching Young Children 101

In most countries, parents usually start teaching their children the alphabet and basic mathematics well before they start formal schooling. However, teaching is not easy, teaching young children is very difficult and most parents have had no formal training in teaching anything to anyone. So excitement and enthusiasm soon turn to frustration and anger and “study time” can often degenerate into a shouting match.

We have prepared this teaching guide for all the parents of young children out there who may be struggling to teach their children. While this site is all about teaching young children English, the teaching tips here may well apply to teaching young children anything at all.

So let’s jump straight into it!

As a parent, here are a few things you really need to know:

  1. Young children do not understand the concept of “risk and reward”. So they will not understand persuasion statements like “do this now and you can watch cartoons later“, let alone statements like “study hard now so you can get a good job in future“. Trying to persuade young children to obey you with logical statements that fall in the “risk and reward” model is a sure-fire way to end up frustrated and irritated.
  2. Young children can outlast you. They have nothing better to do. They also have no where else to be. They won’t rationalise to themselves that crying for an hour or two is waste of time. Before you try to rationalise it to them, please refer to point #1. It is a battle you cannot win. The younger the child is, the greater the child’s stamina to be stubborn.
  3. Young children have short attention spans. In fact, most adults also have short attention spans. Young children also have no concept of self discipline. The concept of self control is alien to them. Their actions are often driven by impulse not reason. This is the natural and normal. Parents should not expect children to sit down for marathon mugging sessions. In the beginning stages of getting a child to sit still for study time, even a 10 minute session is a mini-miracle to be celebrated.

What parents should not do when teaching young children:

  1. Achieve and reward approach. Rewarding children for paying attention will create complications in the long run, especially when children grow older and start to expect a reward just to sit down and learn something. Attempting to change that behaviour when the child grows older will be difficult for both parent and child.
  2. Fail and punish approach. Punishing children for not paying attention will make the learning session miserable for everybody involved. It will be difficult to create a conducive learning environment where conversations can occur and this which will hamper effective learning in the long run.
  3. Compare them to other children. Comparing your child to other children may create resentment in them towards the other children. It may also create a sense of superiority in them when they meet other children who do not do well in their studies.
  4. Hit children. Hitting children may have been the norm in the not so distant past or may still be the norm in the culture or region you are bringing your children up in. But the world is today moving towards criminalising the act of hitting children. If fact, it is already a crime in some countries. Hitting your children today will cause them to forever remember you as abusive parents, simply because that is how society defines that act today. The era where such displays of “tough love” were accepted, is long over.
  5. Celebrate trying all the time. Parents who celebrate everything their children do are setting a very low standard of achievement for their children to meet. This kind of behaviour also insulates their children from feeling the pain of failure and makes them unprepared for the real world. Congratulating a child simply for trying is not helpful in the long run, unless of course, the child really had an issue with trying something specific in the first place.
  6. Scream at your child. Screaming at your children makes them upset. This makes them afraid to try or attempt new things in future in case they incite your wrath again. It also sets a very negative example that your children may follow.
  7. Give up. At some point parents may feel like throwing in the towel. Parents may be tempted to throw their hands up in the air and cry “Let the teachers handle it”. Parents should never give up. Parents should not assume that the formal education system will take care of everything. Doing so only means that their child will eventually enter a classroom where nearly every other child will already be able to speak fluently, spell and write a few hundred words easily and do basic mathematics – while they child may still be struggling with stringing a coherent and grammatically correct sentence together. Some children may also struggle to do simple addition and subtraction. This will be an extremely stressful experience for the child and create a lot of pressure for the child to catch up.

Doing so only means that their child will eventually enter a classroom where nearly every other child will already be able to speak fluently, spell and write a few hundred words easily and do basic mathematics – while they child may still be struggling with stringing a coherent and grammatically correct sentence together.

What methods can parents use to teach their children?

  1. Create an illusion of choice. Parents can offer children the opportunity to decide what learning activity they will be doing for the day. This method works by giving children the illusion of empowerment. Parents can coax children (guilt trip) to stick with the activity and maintain their concentration with statements like “you chose this activity, so why are you not paying attention now?”.
  2. Create a distraction free learning zone. Parent absolutely have to create a distraction free learning zone for their children. The definition of a distraction free zone for adults and children are different. For example, while an adult may be able to get lots of work done near a coffee machine or with a bowl of chips within easy reach, this is usually not the case for children. For study time, children need a quiet corner of the house where other distractions do not exist like the sound of the television, ringing phones, food, or the presence of toys.
  3. Leading by example. Parents have to set their phones aside during lesson time. They need to show their children that they are giving them their full attention. This gives parents the “high ground” to set the rules on paying attention during lesson time. On this note – parents definitely cannot be watching television or chatting on the phone during lesson time, even when the child is doing mundane, low intensity work such as handwriting practice. Parents need to be more than just physically present during the session – they need to be fully engaged throughout.
  4. Celebrate actual achievements. Note the emphasis on “actual” achievements. Unless a child really has an issue with trying something in the first place, then trying is not something that should be celebrated. Celebrating actual achievements, even small milestones such as being able to memorise the spelling of a set of 3 words – gives value to the celebration. The child is also properly motivated to gain new knowledge, instead of to simply try for the sake of trying. In the long run, this will work out well for both the parent and the child, otherwise children will have eventually adjust to the hard realities of the real world, where no points are given for a good attempt. This is a reality that they will will have to face at a young age, which is usually the first time they have to sit for a test or quiz of some kind.
  5. Encourage retries when the child fails. Encouraging children to re-attempt activities after they fail the first few times is important for their growth. This is assuming that the tasks are challenging but reasonably within the child’s reach. Children should not be reprimanded for failing, especially if they genuinely tried their best. This includes if they genuinely tried their best to focus in the first place, given that a child’s attention span is naturally somewhere between non-existent to very, very short. As we mentioned earlier, screaming at a child may drive the child to push herself/himself in the immediate scenario, but a natural anxiety will build in the child towards failure, eventually creating a fear to try anything new in future. Firm encouragement is really the best approach to spur growth.
  6. Set aside time for study. Imagine yourself watching a movie in the comfort of your house. Imagine the movie reaching its climax and all of a sudden – your child runs towards you screaming “take me to the toilet now!”. You would not like that very much would you? Being suddenly pulled away from something you are enjoying is very annoying. It is exactly the same for children. If children are happily playing in their play area and you suddenly appear with an English activity book proclaiming “stop playing kiddo, it is time to practise your ABCs” – you are going to be in for a rough time. One helpful tip to overcome this, is to set a fixed schedule for study time, so that it falls during the same hour every day. This softens the “unpleasant surprise” impact for the child, because the child will learn to expect this activity to occur at around the same time everyday and it will come as less of a surprise each time.
  7. Have a clear learning objective during each learning session. If you start the lesson by telling a child to memorise the spellings of 5 words, then stop the lesson if the child manages to memorise the 5 words within 5 minutes. Parents must avoid the temptation to cheat cheat the child’s expectations by piling on more work just because he/she succeeded on the original objectives quickly. Otherwise, each session of study time at home becomes an endless tunnel with infinite “one more word/one more sentence/one more activity” coercions being used, which can be incredibility de-motivating to a child.
  8. Use special stationery. Keep aside a special set of stationery that only comes out during study time. Obviously, it would have to be special to the child, not to the parent. Cartoon themed stationery sets can be easily bought online and they generally do not cost much. Refresh this set whenever the novelty of using the particular stationery set becomes ineffective in motivating your child to sit down for study time.
  9. Books, books and more books. Don’t hope that your children develop a love for books. Instead, parents should cultivate the love for books in their children. Parents should bring their children to the library and allow them to roam around the aisles, picking any book they like before settling down for some reading time. Given enough exposure to the almost infinity variety of books out there, it is unlikely that children will not find a topic that they like.
  10. Electronic books. If your child is fascinated by devices, then use a device to read a book to your child. Although big brand name digital reading devices can be expensive, a cheap tablet with a downloaded PDF copy of a book can be reasonably affordable. Parents will have to fight the temptation to simply watch videos on the device with the child although this too can be a very effective and motivational teaching tool. Speaking of which…
  11. Use videos. Videos can be used effectively with some creativity applied. For example you can try showing your child a tutorial of a person writing in beautiful cursive, hopefully getting them excited to try it for themselves – then bring out the pencils and paper while you tell your children that they need to start somewhere, for example by practising the basics first. Of course, with the right video selection there could also be some learning value in simply watching the videos as they are. Videos about wildlife, nature and science can go a long way towards expanding a child’s mind to his/her surroundings. However, this is not an excuse for allowing the child to binge watch documentaries.
  12. Use time based activities to increase focus and intensity. Time based activities like “2 Minute Treasure Hunts” or “30 Second Spelling Bees” can train up a child’s ability to focus and concentrate. The general idea here is to use a fun activity that requires focus to complete. It must be challenging for the child and not repetitive in nature. As the child develops his or her ability to maintain focus on a particular activity, then parents can try to transition into getting their children to apply the same level of extended concentration towards more mundane aspects of learning, like the rote learning of long lists of words and their meanings.
  13. “Ramp up” to study time. Start talking about it the night before. As we mentioned earlier, parents should try to eliminate the “unpleasant” surprise that comes with suddenly announcing that “study time” has arrived. This is tricky, because children do not have a firm grasp on the concept of time. So saying “we will study at 3pm” can have no meaning to a child. If the child is very young, even saying “we will study in 30 minutes time” can be meaningless to the child. Hence, parents need to maintain their child’s awareness that study time is going to be a daily part of life and that they should learn to expect it. They can try “hyping” it up, by talking about study time regularly throughout the day, by dropping comments like “we are going to learn about plants during study time later today!”. They can try getting their children involved in planning for study time. For example, just before bed time, parents can ask their children what they would like to learn or do during study time the next day.
  14. Create a culture of discipline around study time. During study time, distractions must be kept to a minimum. Children must not be allowed to play toys or munch on snacks. If possible, there should not be a television switched on in the house. Study time must come with a sense of seriousness. As parents teach their children, they should not be distracted by their mobile phones or other mobile devices. Parents should also ensure that the child is the only point of their attention during study time. Joking around or having conversations with other family members should be kept to a minimum. The idea we are driving at here is that the discipline in the environment will encourage the child to exercise discipline himself/herself during the session.
  15. Create variety by using games, books, videos, toys, digital devices, furniture assembly instructions, magazines. Children will get bored easily. So it is important for parents to ensure that lessons are not monotonous. This is actually easier than it may sound. Simply make it a point to use different medium to teach every day, even if you know that some methods are not as effective as others. The point is to keep children engaged, and we believe that sacrificing some effectivity will pay off in the long run. If a particular teaching medium or method is extremely effective at first, be prepared for it to become less and less useful as it loses its novelty with the child. This is all the more reason to keep things dynamic and not to overuse any one method or medium over another.
  16. Try scheduling learning time at different times of the day. This may help with children who have greatly varying energy levels throughout the day. It is generally a good idea to have study time during a period where the child has a manageable energy level. If your child is always extremely hyper just after dinner, scheduling study time then would be a recipe for disaster. If your child is extremely lethargic just before lunch, the same outcome can be expected. Parents need to find a suitable time to schedule home study with some experimenting and patience.
  17. Start driving at the “effort to reward” idea. Sublimely drive at “risk reward” concepts with statements like “he is a really good car racer because he trained hard from a young age” or even “do you know that this footballer has a degree in engineering? that is why he is so smart on the field!“. As children start to slowly understand the idea behind being rewarded for hard work in the long run, it becomes easier to convince them to sit down and grind the books.
  18. A mix of the above. The list above is not a checklist to tick off on one by one. Instead, very often parents will have to adjust and experiment “on the fly”. If one method or idea fails at first, think about what went wrong and try again. There is no magic bullet or quick fix. So parents should not simply write off ideas that don’t work the first time and also not be afraid to try new ideas or combining methods if they think that doing so will help.

A few final points we would like to throw in:

  1. Children develop at different rates, so comparing your child’s progress to the neighbour’s child is a meaningless waste of time.
  2. You will lose sometimes, maybe even an entire week.
  3. It is alright to just walk away and cool off if necessary.
  4. It is not personal. Your child is screaming at you because he/she is driven by impulse, not reason.
  5. A child’s attention span needs to be developed – progressively.
  6. There is no magic bullet or miracle method that works for all children.
  7. Weird supplements and over hyped “brain food” are not a solution you should seriously pursue.

We hope that this article helps you teach your children more effectively at home. If you have any feedback at all, please leave a comment below. Thank you!

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2 thoughts on “Teaching Young Children 101

  • Teaching kids anything can be frustrating because they can come up with clever ways to not cooperate with you. Or, they will purposely lash out because they don’t want to learn. And, I also agree that parents cannot leave it up to the teachers to educate their kids. In order for kids to learn and grow properly, they need to work with the school system to figure out a way to keep kids educated at home and at school in a way that will keep them stimulated.

  • My thought is that parents are busy as it is with their own lives between work and parenting. Unless they are teachers, I don’t believe that parents should be expected to play that role for their kids. They are parents, not teachers.

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