How children and teenagers learn

Children and teenagers learn by observing, listening, exploring, experimenting and asking questions.

Being interested, motivated and engaged in learning is important for children once they start school. It can also help if they understand why they’re learning something.

And as your child gets older, he’ll enjoy taking more responsibility for his learning, and getting more involved in making decisions about learning and organising activities.

Your role in your child’s learning
Even if you think you don’t know much about learning and teaching, your child keeps learning from you over the years. And when your child goes to primary and then secondary school, you can help your child have a positive attitude to learning, just by being positive yourself.

One of the best ways to support your child’s learning and education is by building a good relationship with your child’s school, and communicating with your child’s teachers.

Learning in early primary school

Children learn in different ways – some learn by seeing, some by hearing, some by reading, some by doing.

And at this stage, children still learn through play. Plenty of unstructured, free play helps balance formal lessons at school. It also gives children a chance to unwind after the routines and rules of school.

Children also learn by using objects in lots of different ways. When your child is experimenting, exploring and creating with a range of materials, she learns about problem-solving in situations where there are no set or ‘right’ answers.

Children aren’t born with social skills – they have to learn them, just like they have to learn to read and write. Giving your child chances to play with other children is a great way for him to develop the skills he needs to get on with others.

Your child’s community connections can offer valuable learning experiences too. For example, visiting the local shops, parks, playgrounds and libraries or walking around your neighbourhood helps your child understand how communities work. As you and your child explore your community together, you can talk to her about interesting things that you see, or share things that you know.

If your family speaks a language other than English at home, this can be a great way for your child to grow up as a bilingual learner. Learning two or more languages doesn’t harm or hold back children’s development. In fact, being a bilingual child can have a lot of advantages – for example, better reading and writing skills.

When you know how your child learns best, you can help him with all areas of learning. For example, if your child seems to learn best by seeing and doing, but needs to write a story for school, he could make a comic strip to help him organise his ideas.

Tips for learning at primary school

Here are some practical tips for helping your primary school-age child learn:

  • Show an interest in what your child is doing and learning by talking about school.
  • Play rhyming games, letter games, and shape and number games with your child, and practise taking turns in games and activities.
  • Use simple language, and play with words and word meanings – for example, you could clap out the syllables of words or play word association games.
  • Keep reading to your child even when she can read for herself.
  • Let your child hear and see lots of new words in books, on TV or in general conversation, and talk about what the words mean.
  • Make sure your child has time for  free, unstructured play.
  • Help your child discover what he’s good at by encouraging him to try lots of different activities.

Learning in upper primary and secondary school

Your child will become more independent as she gets older. It might seem that she wants you to have less input into her learning, but she does still need your involvement and encouragement, just in different ways.

Even if your child is sharing less information with you, you can let your child know that you’re interested in what he’s learning by actively listening when he wants to talk. This sends the message that his learning is important to you, and that you’re available to help.

And when you talk with your child about what she’s learning, try to focus on how she’s learning about the topic, rather than on how much she knows. For example, you could say, ‘What was it like to work in a group to make that short film?’, rather than ‘What mark did you get for that film project?’

Most children have one or two areas that they don’t enjoy as much, or aren’t as good at. As your child goes through secondary school, you could talk together about whether it’s an option to drop a subject he isn’t interested in. Your child’s teacher can also help you and your child work this out.

Tips for learning at upper primary and secondary school

Here are some practical tips for helping your older school-age child learn:

  • Encourage your child to try new things, to make mistakes and to learn about who she is through new experiences. Keep praising her for trying new things.
  • Show an interest in your child’s activities. For example, if he enjoys playing the drums, ask him about the music he’s playing and whether he’d like to play for you.
  • Watch the news together and talk about what’s happening in the world.
  • If your child has homework, encourage her to do it at about the same time each day and in a particular area, away from distractions like the TV or a mobile phone.
  • Make sure your child has time to relax and play. For example, your child might like to read, take photos or kick a ball in the backyard.
  • Help your child develop or maintain a good sleep pattern.

Sometimes your child will need your emotional support for learning, as much as your practical help. Here are some ideas:

  • Try to be sensitive to when your child is struggling with learning tasks, and work out what he needs. Sometimes it might be your help, and sometimes it might be a break from the task.
  • Trust your child’s judgment. For example, if she thinks she’s ready to play a sport or try a new subject, let her have a go.
  • Accept your child as a whole person. This means appreciating that he’s strong in some areas of learning and not so strong in others.
  • Respond to your child’s feelings. For example, share her excitement when she masters something new, and be patient when she’s having trouble.
  • Try thinking back to your own learning experiences, both the enjoyable ones and the challenging ones. This will help you understand your child’s experience.
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