The Elementary Years: Four Pillars That Build a Strong Foundation

Blog Series, Learning, PreK-12, Smart Parents

When my son was in first grade, the youngest level in a mixed-age class, he came home with a research project to do over spring break.

He was overwhelmed, and I experienced a moment of frustration. The teachers were on break. I decided to make this a learning opportunity. What do you do when you get a tough assignment, kid? You dig in.

He and I, we got books. I showed him how to use the index in the back of a book to look up information and helped him learn to paraphrase what he read.

Looking back on that time, perhaps the whole situation was a little extreme, but it illustrates one of four elements I’ve come to see as important in the development of elementary-age children–developing strong work habits.

The knowledge and skills children gain from 6 to 12 years form the basis of all future education. This is a time when children’s brains are growing and they are ready to soak up everything around them academically, socially and physically. Parents can help children take advantage of this readiness and build a solid foundation for later success.

Here are four key areas where parents can guide children during the elementary school years:

1. Mindsets and Habits

The period between ages 6 and 12 is relatively calm, a plateau between the hilly climbs in early childhood and teenage years. Children are not experiencing changes as rapidly as they once were—sitting up, crawling, walking—or as they soon will, when their brain is undergoing rapid change during a “second critical period.”

The changes during this period of “middle childhood” are more subtle, yet this is a time when parents can guide children in forming strong work habits–doing challenging activities before fun ones, participating in chores around the house, completing and turning in homework in a timely fashion. These habits will build a foundation for work during the teenage years, when bodies start to go haywire with hormones and grades begin to count toward a young adult’s future.

Establish a pattern for doing homework that works for your child and family. If your young child is writing, working at a table is best so that he sits at an angle to form letters well. Let your child take charge of finishing his homework, but if he needs help developing a routine, give choices. Where is the best place for you to work? Encourage your child to ask his teachers questions in the elementary years, when you can coach him and easily follow up teachers. That way when your child reaches older grades he will already know how to approach teachers.

Ask your child to do tasks that involve taking responsibility for her own care–cleaning her room, brushing her teeth, helping with laundry–and contributing to the family. Maybe she helps with feeding the dog or setting the table.

2. Friendship

Children at this time start to expand their relationships to people outside of family. Making friends becomes of the utmost importance. Along with that, children become more aware of how they compare with others and consequently more self-conscious about how they appear to peers.

This can be an adjustment for parents, whose opinions may not be as valued as they once were. Think of this time though as an opportunity to observe and guide where needed. This may not be as much of a possibility later on.

Now, you have a chance to listen when your daughter describes hurtful words a friend said, validate her feelings, and help her think through her response.

Encourage your child to reach out to others and explore friendships. Invite children over to your home so you can see how he interacts with friends and guide him toward healthy interactions.

3. Strengths

As children become more aware of their role in the world outside of the family, middle childhood is a great time to help children explore activities to find out what they like. Observe their interests and give choices and suggestions for activities.

In elementary school, children can try volleyball or drama for the first time a lot more easily than they can in high school, when the stakes are much higher. Every exposure a child has to new ideas and activities broadens his knowledge about the world and himself.

Help your child find her strengths so that she has areas where she feels competent and can rely on these to tackle activities that don’t come as easily. For instance, if she finds writing hard and has a choice about what to write, guide her to a topic she loves, say marine animals. Perhaps her enthusiasm for a favorite topic will overshadow her challenges with writing.

4. Compassion

Finally, along with this growing awareness of the people immediately around them, elementary-age children can think more abstractly and understand the needs of people who live in faraway places.

Children at this age are beginning to understand that other people may think differently than they do. This opens the door for learning about other cultures and different ways of thinking. This opens the door to feeling empathy for others. Ask your child questions about how he thinks others feel and kind ways to respond.

Build on these feelings by guiding your child to give to others, whether gathering contributions for a food drive or inviting another child who is left out of a game. This is the time too to encourage your child to be compassionate to herself when she experiences a disappointment or failure. To learn more about encouraging compassion, check out the Making Caring Common Project  through the Harvard School of Education.

Take the time to walk near your child during these years, even if he seems as if he needs you less. Play board games, do origami, ride bikes, go to the beach, the zoo, the science center. In a few years, he’ll be off with his friends. Carpe Diem!

This blog is part of our Smart Parents series in partnership with the Nellie Mae Education Foundation. For more information about the project, see Parents, Tell Your Story: How You Empower Student Learning as well as other blogs:

Liz Wimmer is a parent and writer with the National Center on Quality Teaching and Learning at the University of Washington.


Ann Wallace /

Great article Liz! Very neatly tied in with your personal experiences at home……