Back to School: 5 Science-based Tips for Supporting Your Kids’ Academic Success

5 Science-Based Tips for Supporting Your Kids’ Academic Success

It’s that time of year again. The morning air is comfortably crisp, pumpkin-flavored everything is everywhere, and my daily Facebook feed is filled with the obligatory “First Day of School” pictures. Look at those flashy, new backpacks and bright smiles! The parent in me wonders how to help them maintain that enthusiasm and achieve academic success this year and beyond. The science nerd in me digs in for answers.

Full disclosure: I am the kind of mom who believes in picking my battles. I dabble in free-range parenting. I could have made this a Top 10 list or even a Top 25 list for all of you Tiger Moms, Helicopter Dads, and [fill in the hyper-engaged descriptor] parents out there. Instead I have selected a handful of ideas that are consistently supported in the literature and that most busy families can implement. I hope it helps parents and educators, alike.

Without further ado, here are my top 5 science-based findings for cultivating academic success:

Tip #1: Parental Involvement

Parental involvement for student success bears out in the research time and time again. The real surprise is the nature of parental involvement that has the biggest impact. A recent study that looked at over 12,000 public school students found that parent-child discussions about school-related topics had a far greater effect on academic achievement than any other type of parent involvement such as participation in the PTA or even monitoring of homework.

The takeaway? Talk to your kids about school topics. You can even start by talking about the four other tips in this post!

Tip #2: Sleep Matters

Studies from Missouri to South Korea and places in between have shown that impaired sleep decreases cognitive functions such as verbal creativity and the learning of new abstract concepts. Sleep is critical for children’s learning and success. Critical.

The takeaway? Make sure your kiddos are getting enough sleep each night. This is not a new concept, but one that many of us struggle with as we juggle work schedules, school demands, and after school activities. If getting enough sleep is a struggle in your house, try some of the tips in the graphic. You probably know much of them already, so use them as talking points to get everyone on board. For parents of younger children, keep an eye on possible symptoms of sleep apnea such as loud snoring, heavy mouth breathing, and daytime sleepiness. Apnea impacts sleep quality and has been associated with poor cognitive function. Talk to your pediatrician if you have concerns, as apnea is quite treatable.

Tip #3: Self-Testing

Scientific American conducted a review of over 700 scientific articles about the best study techniques and came up with two practices that stood out above the crowd. One of these was self-testing. Whether by flashcards or practice tests, forcing ourselves to recall information – to sift through synapses of our mind – actually helps the learning to stick.

The takeaway? Encourage your kids to recall learned information often. Suggest or model self-quizzes for study sessions. Turn sight words into a memory game.  Get curious and ask for a retelling of yesterday’s history lesson over dinner.

Tip #4: Distributed Practice

The Scientific American review also recommends spreading study sessions over more time. In other words, those last minute cram sessions don’t really work in the long run. In fact, the longer the interval between review sessions, the longer the retention.

Two strikes! Those midnight cram sessions don’t work AND they take away from sleep. 

The takeaway? Encourage your kids to space out their study sessions rather than cramming right before the test. No easy task! Success may come from talking about this idea and modeling good time management skills. You can also suggest that students review fundamental concepts even after the unit has passed, as it will help to foment the understanding for end of year tests and, more importantly, for building upon in the future.

Tip #5: Growth Mindset

Whether you think you can or you think you can’t, you are right! People with a growth mindset believe they can learn new skills and become smarter through hard work and dedication. A growth mindset holds that failure is an opportunity to learn more and try again. In contrast, a fixed mindset assumes that we are born with inherent talents and skills. When people with a fixed mindset encounter a challenge, they are likely to assume that the task is too hard for them and simply give up.

Studies have shown that students with a growth mindset have greater academic success. Growth mindset is more than self-fulfilling prophesy. It’s neuroscience! In recent years, our understanding of neuroplasticity – the ability of the neurons to change in response to new information and sensory stimulation – has shown that our brains are much more malleable with far more potential than once thought.

The takeaway? Encourage a growth mindset in your kids. The research shows that even short and simple interventions can move students from a fixed mindset towards a growth mindset. The parenting section of the Mindset Works website, created by lead growth mindset researcher Carol Dweck, has a wealth of information and advice. Or look up Dweck’s book, Mindset, at your local library for a deeper dive.


The beginning of the school year is a great time to start a few new habits or strengthen old ones. Parents, what has worked for you and your family? Educators, what works for your students? What advice do you have for others?