Learning often requires taking different risks, whether it’s the willingness to try something new or trying after a failed attempt. For children, it’s this process of learning how to take risks and becoming comfortable with failure that can help them grow and develop. But encouraging them to take these risks, even when it’s scary and uncomfortable, can be a difficult task for parents. As research is showing, the willingness of a child to take risks in learning can depend on what their relationship with their parents look like.
Taking risks while learning
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In a recent study, conducted by researchers at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, children who viewed their parents as being reliable were more willing to take risks while learning. In this study, which included more than 150 children, participants were asked questions about their home environment, which included their relationship with their parents, after which they were asked to play a series of games.
Children who viewed their parents as being more reliable, which included answering yes to questions such as whether they could count on them to pick them at specific times, follow through on their promises, or predict their reaction to different situations, were more likely to take risks during the games.
“The children from more stable backgrounds, they play around and experiment in our games. They use that to get a sense of how things work, maybe earning them more money or more points,” said Seth Pollak, a psychologist at University of Wisconsin-Madison and the lead researcher on the study, in a press release.
Having parents who are seen as reliable can be thought of as a buffer for children, one that gives them the security to take risks and explore. “If you trust your parent is there, you trust the reliability and the stability, it allows you to venture off and come back,” says Sarah Greenberg, executive director of behavior change and expertise for Understood.org, which is a nonprofit dedicated to supporting people with learning differences. “It’s almost like this internalized feeling of a safety net.”
It’s this sense of reliability and predictability that gives kids the sense that it’s okay to take risks and to fail, as they have a parent at home that they can count on, who will be there to support them.
Look for patterns of behavior
Creating a supportive learning environment for your child often includes identifying what they struggle with and what they need. One way to do that is to track certain behaviors over time, looking for patterns. “Your child can’t necessarily tell you what they need, but they are often showing you,” Greenberg says.
For example, if your child is consistently having a meltdown after school, that could be a sign that they are overwhelmed or overstimulated from the school day, and need some extra time to decompress before starting their homework. Other behaviors could include refusals to do something, such as writing with a pencil or doing their math homework, which may be a sign they are struggling in specific areas.
Small, consistent routines make a difference
Oen way to create consistency and reliability, even when swamped with all of the day-to-day demands of raising a family, is to develop small, but consistent routines with your child. “One positive routine can be a really good starting point,” Greenberg says.
In terms of these routines, it’s less about how big or time-consuming they are, and more about their predictability. For example, it could be making the effort to give them 10 minutes of undivided attention when they come home from school, making it a habit to play LEGOs with them every Friday evening, or a predictable bedtime routine. “Ten or 20 minutes of consistent, positive attention can make such a world of difference,” Greenberg says.
The key is to make it consistent and enjoyable, to give your child a sense that their parents are there for them. “It’s not about the rigidity, it’s really about the solidity, that the child feels the ground beneath them,” Greenberg says.