Supporting Children’s Formal Learning

See also: Reading with Children

It is tempting to say that children are taught in school, and it is up to the school to get on and teach your child.

This, however, ignores the fact that school only has access to your child for around six hours per day, five days a week, during term time. The rest of the time, you, as the child’s parent, are the key influence on their learning.

It is, therefore, infinitely better to decide that you and the school are in partnership to support your child’s learning. This means taking a different approach to support homework, reading, and other learning. This page will help you to work out how best to do that for you and your child.

You may also like to read our page on Supporting Children’s Informal Learning.

Early Years of School – Behaviour Management

School systems, and the age at which children start formal education, vary widely around the world. Well before ‘proper’ school, children often attend kindergarten or nursery where they may learn key skills such as taking turns, sharing, and the importance of sitting still and quietly while someone speaks to them.

It is, in other words, often much more about learning to behave in the expected way than about formal learning such as reading or writing.

This is also the time at which children start to take real notice of other children, and of social norms. You may find that you start to have problems such as your child saying:

“But we don’t do it like this at nursery.”
“So-and-so doesn’t have to do this.”
 “Mrs X said I should do it like this, and that’s wrong.”

There are two main ways you can approach this.

Your first option is to explain that you have certain rules, as does nursery and, indeed, other people. The rules may be different in different places, but everyone is expected to follow them in that place.

Depending on the issue, though, you may not feel that approach is enough. For example, you may feel that nursery is either too strict, or not strict enough. If this is the case, you may want to go and discuss the situation with the staff. It may be that your child has misunderstood, or that there is something else going on.

Even if your child is right, it is important to remember that there is probably a reason for the rule, even if you do not know it yet.

The staff will certainly not mind you asking politely about it, and explaining that you are trying to be consistent to avoid confusing your child.

Formal Learning: The 3 ‘Rs’

The first real step in formal learning is the ‘3 Rs’, reading, writing and arithmetic, or mathematics. In other words, basic numeracy and literacy.

Remember: consistency is vital

In other words, what you do needs to support and help what is going on at school. You might, for example, get some basic phonics, handwriting or maths workbooks, which are widely available. It is, however, helpful to check with the school first so that you get something that is consistent.

For example:

  • There are various different phonics schemes available, and it would be helpful to get materials from the same scheme, not least so that the pictures are familiar to your child.
  • Some schools teach cursive lettering (ready to join up) and others teach printing. If you are going to get a handwriting workbook, it would be helpful if it was in the same style to avoid any problems.

Top Tip!

The best way to achieve consistency is to ask what materials the school is using.

Many schools run workshops for parents to explain how they are teaching numeracy and literacy, and to show how you can help at home. Do attend if you can.

If you can’t, ask to make an appointment with your child’s form teacher, and talk to them about the materials and methods that they use, and what you can do at home.

For mathematics, you can be confident that whatever system the school is using, it will be different from the way that you were taught.

If your child has some maths homework, and asks you to help, it may be a good idea to ask them to explain how they have been working the sums out at school. This will avoid trying to teach them an alternative method and confusing them.

You may find our pages on Coaching, and particularly Coaching at Home very helpful in framing questions.
You may also find our pages on Numeracy are helpful for different ways to explain mathematical issues and problems.

Sharing Concerns

If you have a concern about your child’s learning, the best option is to share it with their class teacher as soon as possible.

Even if your concern is that the teacher is not bringing out the best in your child, it’s still a good idea to go and discuss it. The chances are that he or she will be well aware of the problem, and you can agree a strategy for managing it together.

As your child gets older, it may be much harder to either address problems or make contact with their teacher. Older children are generally expected to be responsible for themselves, and this includes seeking help if they are struggling.

We all hate to admit that we can’t do something, though, so you may need to encourage your child to ask for help. If necessary, you can support that with direct contact with the school.

Bigger concerns: specific learning difficulties and other issues

If you are concerned that nothing is working to help your child to manage, there may be something else going on.

Your child could have an undiagnosed specific learning difficulty like dyslexia, or issue such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or autism. This is worth discussing with your child’s teacher.

It is likely that your child’s teacher is already aware that there is a problem, and actively looking for ways to manage it. However, this is not always the case, especially if your child does not show a ‘typical’ presentation.

You (and the teacher) may also want to involve the Special Educational Needs Coordinator (SENCo) at your child’s school.

However, it is important to be aware that teachers, even SENCos, are not experts in these conditions. The only way to get a formal diagnosis is through an assessment. The school should be able to either organise a referral and assessment, or help you find out how to do it.

There is more about the signs to look out for in our pages on Dyslexia, Dyscalculia, Dyspraxia, Autism Spectrum Disorder and Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder.


Parents hate homework. So do children. Teachers complain that they have to set and mark it.

Quite why it survives is a mystery, but survive it does. Its popularity comes and goes, but many schools continue to set at least some homework each week, or even each night.

Schools’ approach to homework varies.

  • In some schools, homework is closely related to classroom work. Children are expected to do it more or less independently, with a bit of help if necessary.
  • In other schools, homework is much less related to the classroom, and more likely to be linked to an ongoing topic. This work is also more likely to require considerable parental involvement, such as helping to cook something, or a visit to a museum.

Homework Survival Strategies

Teachers recommend that:

  • You find out how long your child is expected to spend on homework each night or week, and try to follow that guideline;
  • If the homework is not complete after spending the set time, or if your child has found something particularly difficult, you write a note to the teacher explaining what has happened.

If you don’t do this, the teacher will not know how long the homework took, or that your child is struggling, and nothing will improve. It is also helpful to let your child’s teacher know if your child has done a piece of work independently, especially if homework usually requires some help.

As your children get older, homework changes and becomes subject-specific. You will also be expected to supervise much less, if at all. You may also find that you are unable to help with subject-specific questions.

If your child is struggling, however, you will need to help them find a strategy for coping. You may find our pages on Study Skills helpful.


…you and the school form a partnership. To support your children’s learning, you need to work together.

Find a strategy that works for you early on, and build relationships with the school. They will stand you in good stead if there are any problems.