Working hard and applying effort is not something that kids usually encounter when they are young, nor is it something that most children develop naturally as the need arises. Of all the life skills that a child can develop, applying consistent and significant effort to achieve a goal is something that is valuable to learn from an early age. In fact, it is something that I spend a lot of time teaching my younger students in Year 7 and Year 8 to develop and establish by making them accountable for their class work and homework each day.

Let me share with you two stories that demonstrate either end of the spectrum on learning to work hard.

This week a colleague of mine received a phone call complaint from a parent of one of her students. This parent made the following statement “I want you to know that last night I had to spend an hour with my daughter on her maths homework, and this isn’t my job.” This mother’s daughter is in an extension group for mathematics. Her daughter is finding the current content challenging and had to expend extra time and energy to master these concepts, requiring assistance at home to do this. And the message she was receiving at home from her mother was that this level of effort was inappropriate and meant that the teaching had not been adequate, especially if she required support at home. It’s becoming a recurring theme in teaching today – if kids are struggling to learn, then the answer isn’t more effort, rather it means that teachers are not teaching properly.

A few weeks ago I had dinner with my friend and ex-colleague Aoife who has a daughter in Year 7. I asked her how her daughter Ciara was going with her maths this year. Aoife told me that she had started the year well and had been put into an extension group, but lately she had found the work difficult and was feeling stressed. Aoife had explained to Ciara that as long as she was trying her best, that was all that mattered, and if the concepts were too difficult in extension, perhaps the standard course would be better. Ciara was adamant that she wanted to stay in the extension group and was really worried about an upcoming test on algebra. Ciara desperately wanted to do a lot better in this test than she had in a few recent assessments. Aoife, who is a teacher, explained to Ciara that she’d need to work extra hard in preparing for this test, and they made a plan together to spend the weekend working on her algebra together. Aoife said they spent most of that Sunday working through all the content together and on the revision exercises. That week Ciara felt more confident when she sat her maths test and ended up achieving about 65% on the test – a result she was very happy with. Aoife too was happy that the effort had resulted in an improved result and explained to Ciara that this was the level of effort that she would need to apply regularly if she wanted to stay in the extension class and achieve good results.

Kids need to be taught how to work hard

It’s often not until secondary school that kids come across situations where they will need to work hard. They have often achieved good success in primary school just by doing the work in class each day. At a secondary level the work becomes more challenging and the pace of learning speeds up, and students need to increase their effort to keep on top of what they’re learning. But this is not something that all kids understand intuitively. In fact I would say a small handful per year group realise early on that they need to increase their effort and time spent on study. Parents often see falling marks (compared to what they achieved in primary school) as a sign that the teacher isn’t teaching adequately or is neglecting their child. Instead, the response should be to help their child improve their study and homework routines to meet the new and unfamiliar demands.

Parental involvement and support is essential to a child’s development of effort and application

Parents often forget that the secondary environment is very different to the primary environment. For example, I see my Year 7s for seven hours each fortnight (assuming there are no extra-curricular interruptions). My input into their effort and application is thus limited to these contact hours, and I am constrained by how often I can monitor what work they have completed and what areas each individual is struggling with. Of course parents see their child each day and can more effectively monitor what tasks their child has to complete and which areas need further attention.

While I can set the tone for the effort and dedication that needs to be applied in my classroom, it is more important that parents set the tone for overall effort and application at home. Yes, this is likely to be unpleasant at first. Yes, this isn’t at all an easy thing to do. But in the long term the skills and attitudes that your child will adopt are worth the initial discomfort and inconvenience.

Parental attitude to hard work is where kids learn their own values

When older children see that their parents work hard and that they value hard work, it is more difficult for them to avoid these behaviours for themselves. If homework isn’t insisted upon at home, then kids won’t value applying extra effort in their own time. When you consider how little time they really spend with their classroom teachers in secondary school, this results in significant problems for students who don’t have a natural aptitude for a subject (and when it comes to maths, this is most students).

If parents not only value hard work but also demonstrate what it means to work hard, as Aoife did for Ciara, then children quickly learn the relationship between hard work and getting results they can be proud of.

Are you willing to help your kids learn this all important lesson?

Photo credit: davsans / Foter / Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic (CC BY-NC-SA 2.0)