Smart Parenting for Busy & Imperfect People

How to Optimize Your Child’s Public Education

Everyday when my five year old son comes home off the bus after being gone at kindergarten from 8:30am until 4:30pm, I open his backpack and throw his homework away.  At times he protests telling me that his teacher said that his homework will be due on Friday.  I always reassure him and then give him my homework for the afternoon- a nature walk.

I shared with you last week that our family decided against private school for the time being.  We don’t love our public school, but it isn’t horrible either and we are attending despite my concerns.  Perhaps, for a variety of reasons, you are also in the same boat.   What can you do to advocate for and protect your child from some of the negative aspects of public school?

Here are my top public school red flags and realistic action items for parents:

RED FLAG: A lack of outdoor and indoor free-playtime that does not allow children the chance to individually explore and own their own learning experience.

  • TIP #1: Consider throwing away your child’s homework.  Communicate with your child’s teacher that you will not be completing homework or projects at home because you feel that spending seven hours in a classroom environment at the age of five is more than enough structured instruction.  If your child desires to complete an assignment, and can do so without your assistance, then support their initiative.  Primarily, time at home needs to be unstructured to balance out a young child’s school day of structure.  Too much structure, though well intended, can be a detriment to your child’s development and can set them back academically, emotionally and socially and is linked with ailments such as ADHD, depression, aggressive behavior, etc… To learn more, click here for a review of a recent study and here for a review of a book on the topic by leading psychologist and researcher Dr. Alison Gopnik.   Getting outside, even in undesirable weather, is also essential and many schools have risk-adverse policies which keep children indoors at the hint of bad weather.  To read more on the importance of outdoor play, click here.
  • TIP #2:  Declutter your schedules and remove unnecessary structured activities from your child’s day.  Remember, the entire day at school is structured.  Young children need a chance to unwind at the end of the day.  Children use free-time to process and cement learning.  Parents often provide structure because we feel uncomfortable with “free time” and rest.  It is important to consider the arguments the experts are making about free play and to be a little counter-cultural in how we choose to schedule our household.  To read more about how to address boredom and free time at home, click here.  To read more about how to declutter your schedule and why this is critical and beneficial in the early years, click here.  Young children who attend school everyday, do not need to be in structured activities more than once or possibly twice a week beyond school.
  • TIP #3: Provide a variety of excellent toys and activities for free-choice play at home.  Do you regret that your child is doing more worksheets than exploration with pattern blocks in math?  Provide pattern blocks, wooden blocks, puzzles, games and other wonderful educational activities to explore at home after school.  If you need suggestions, visit Intelligent Nest, LLC’s Toy Recommendation Guide or Toy Store powered by  You can also still rotate toys and activities for older children.

RED FLAG: Overly structured curriculum and top-down pedagogy that focuses too heavily on memorization and academic concepts with the assumption that five and six year olds learn in the same way as older children and adults.

  • TIP #1: Do not pressure reading practice at home.  Young children do NOT need to know how to read at the age of five.  It is not appropriate to expect a young child to learn to read in kindergarten or preschool.  Some children will learn to read and others will take their time and master the skill in first grade instead.  There is nothing wrong with your child is they do not want to or cannot read.  Instead of doing your “reading homework” with your child, continue incorporating reading, phonics and letters into your more natural family routines (trips to the store, playtime in the backyard, etc…).  Read together for fun at a regular time each day and if your child wants to help you read, wonderful!  Never ask a children to read with force or expect them to do so.  Support their attempts without labeling their skill level or applying positive pressure (which can backfire).  Ask questions about the story in fun ways to develop sequencing and comprehension, but if a child doesn’t respond, just keep reading.  Make up stories together, use large vocabulary words with your children in normal speech and enjoy conversing with them as much as possible.  For more on developing reading skills with 3-6 year olds, click here.  Also, communicate to your child’s teacher that you will be doing this instead of her assignments.
  • TIP #2: Pull your child out of school occasionally for family-only field trips.  Young children learn best with contextual, sensory experiences and when they take initiative to do so on their own.  Older children and adults can learn while sitting in one spot, reading, writing and listening to instruction, but young children typically do not respond well to this approach.   You can follow the curriculum your teacher is using or fill the blanks to curricular areas that the school is weak in with field trips.  Schools typically short change science, history, art and music.  Obtain orchestra tickets, visit an art gallery with sketching materials, go to an invention fair, etc…  If you notice  your child is really interested in a certain topic or activity, find ways to nurture this interest and you can use school hours to do this.
  • TIP #3: Take ownership of your child’s education.  Your public school is not in charge of ensuring that your child receives a good education, you are!  School attendance in kindergarten is not compulsory and you have no legal requirement to send him or compete any assignments or tasks requested.  Don’t allow your school to dominate educational decisions for your child.  It can be uncomfortable, but be willing to communicate your concerns about and desires for your child’s education. Use your gut and don’t be afraid to swim against the current.  Also, be ready to support and encourage your child’s teacher as he or she does not have an easy job.  Many teachers also disagree with the current methods they are required to use and so you may find support in unlikely places.

RED FLAG: Very large student population and class size makes it easy to be overlooked (i.e. no one adult really knows everything about your child or the happenings of the school).

  • TIP #1: Volunteer at school.  Find at least one way to be involved in your child’s education.  If you are busy, perhaps this means meeting with them once or twice a month to eat lunch in their cafeteria or volunteering to help with one event for the school year.  The more you are available and in the classroom, the more you can learn about your individual child’s social, emotional and academic process.  Plus, teachers are human and it is hard not to favor students whose parents support and help them with their work.
  • TIP #2: Share at least one sit down meal with your child each day.  Family meal time is a scientifically significant part of the day for a number of reasons and one of which is that it opens a channel of communication between parents and children.  Have you ever tired asking your child how their day was as you drive home from school?  Most often, kids don’t want to talk about school right after school, but eating together breaks down barriers and you can learn about your child and their experiences during mealtime.
  • TIP #3: Let your baby go.  Don’t confuse involvement with obsession.  In most cases, it isn’t necessary or healthy for you to be at your child’s school every day or many days of the week.  If you want to be really involved, aim to go to school one or two days each week.  There are many reasons to let your baby spread their wings and learn to fly on their own.  It can be easier said than done, for my personal reflections and tips, click here.

Emphasis on testing and preparing students to succeed on tests

  • TIP #1: Talk to your child about testing. Don’t expect that your child’s teacher will explain the purpose of testing.  Take initiative and sit down with your child to convey how unimportant the results of testing are to you.  Tell your child that it is always important to try your best, but that they don’t ever need to worry about getting the right answers or being better or worse than their classmates.  In your home, performance is not important, only effort and attitude.
  • TIP #2: Opt out of testing.  If your young child is really sensitive and upset by testing, you can opt out.  Pull your child out on the days that testing will occur and ask your teacher to not do a make up.  You may need to submit a written letter conveying your wishes to the principle.  In most cases, this is not necessary as most children are fine with testing, but more sensitive children may need a few more years reprieve from the pressure and it is OK to wait until the later grades to complete the tests.

Remember, you are the expert on your own child.  No one teacher, principal or specialist will know more about how to educate your individual child than you.  They are there to advise you and execute tasks, but you’re in charge.  Be involved, own your child’s education and don’t be afraid to swim against the current.  Educators work hard, love your children and believe in their vocation so don’t forget to be appreciate and supportive of their hard work too.  Recruit your public school to be on your child’s educational team.  Just remember that you are the head coach!

Young woman and her child painting with watercolor

12 Responses to “How to Optimize Your Child’s Public Education”

  1. Bethany

    This was such a great article and I completely agree with it! There’s not one way to teach or test a child!

  2. Dawne

    Such a shame lots of this isn’t practical in UK schools. I’d love to take mine out for a trip but that would mean hefty fines.
    You get hounded for not reading their school book every night, never mind that they read other things! Don’t get me started about homework!
    And they don’t like you to help in your child’s class as it can be distracting for them so you have to help in the older classes.
    But all the rest is doable.

  3. Marc

    You have provided excellent advice for anyone that wants his or her child to be a failure in life. Disregard authority? Check! Teach children to just ignore their responsibilities in the name of having fun? Check! De-emphasize striving to succeed? Check! Shelter your child from the realities of a competitive world? Check! Build a foundation of excuses so that your child feels he never has to take responsibility for his failings? Check!

    The real world these children are growing up in is a very competitive place. They are not only competing against local peers, but also against a marketplace that becomes more global and more competitive every year. Trying to shelter children from pressure and trying to protect their feelings at the expense of important lessons is recipe for disappointment.

    • The Intelligent Nest

      Thanks for reading Marc! You’re certainly entitled to this opinion and I welcome constructively critical comments. It seems as though you may have missed some of the arguments in my educations/school choice series though as well as the scientific backing for why these suggestions are important to consider. I would never suggest to parents that they teach their children to be deviant or only have fun. The problem is that adults see play in the early years as “just fun” as discussed in the article, when play is anything but “just” fun- scientists see it as important work! My suggestions include talking to your child’s teacher and principal to communicate how you are choosing to direct their afternoon school hours. I also suggest always teaching your child to do their best and take initiative on their own to do so. Keep in mind, we’re discussing 3-6 year olds and they are very different from you and me in the way that they think, play, work and learn. Advice for an older child, teenager or adult would be different. You certainly don’t have to take the advice in this article, but consider what your suggestions are going to teach your child. What implications are there for pushing success and competition, never questioning authority, and disregarding the child’s developmental needs at the early ages of preschool and kindergarten? Researchers are concerned that these attitudes are what is causing the rising number of cases of pediatric depression, ADHD and other ailments.

  4. Disgusted Kid

    Seriously? -_-

    People are going to be doing this the rest of their lives. When a parent throws away a kid’s homework, all it’s doing is lowering their grade and not giving them a good reputation in school. Teachers will be pretty angry with them, and you might get sent to the principal in the future. This is a really stupid way to ‘help’ a child in the future.

    • The Intelligent Nest

      Thanks for writing! Agreed! I would only do this with young children. Most kindergartens are not compulsory and so not submitting homework won’t lift an eyebrow. If you decide to go this route, I also suggested talking with the teacher and the principal to communicate your educational plan for your children. In the older grades, this is definitely not a great route– couldn’t agree more! Thanks for reading!

  5. Jeney

    Your ideas have such strong theoretical base and are presented with an overwhelming desire for a parent to keep an open mind beyond what has become the norms and standards due to other people’s/unions/boards/gov’ts agendas vs. discerning what is best for your individual child. Thank you! Regardless of if someone agrees with everything you present, I hope it at least spurs a more involved approach and I think your reasoning that everything can and should be modified to fit the unique needs of your child is solid. Please continue sharing your ideas! They are so valuable!

  6. Robin

    I so agree with the article!

    I went to kindergarten almost thirty years ago. No homework then but my mom disagreed with the work sent home when I was in second grade. She did not feel that worksheets and busy work were the best way for me to learn. If she disagreed with an assignment she would either help me get through it quickly or write a note.

    She taught me math through games… I still remember the first time I met math concepts I hadn’t already learned through a game: long division and rotational symmetry. I remember being so surprised to learn math that way! But I was so used to math being a game that I went ahead and did long division for fun. 🙂 I went on to be on the first all-girl team to go to our state level in Math Counts (math competition).

    “Learning” in school was educational bulemia, binge and purge. That lasted right through the first bit of med school and then I realized that I actually *needed* this information. Suddenly I had to actually LEARN.

    Because of our own experiences, my husband and I are homeschooling our kids. We use a mix of curriculum that matches our kids’ learning styles and lots of games and experiences. No one gives me any flack about it because I’m a physician… But that isn’t fair. My mom could have done quite well educating me even though she didn’t finish her bachelor’s degree until I was grown. She did do a good job outside of school and much of my real education took place at home under her supervision.

    My mom and sister are now both credentialed teachers and both agree that kids should be learning through play and experiences. I’m pretty sure they would be quiet supporters of any parent who wants to buck the system. My mom has secret disrespectful names for the standardized tests in our state. My sister has chosen to step down from elementary and teach preschool because she has more flexibility to teach with developmentally appropriate methods.

    Kindergarten is not mandatory… It’s a great opportunity to teach kids that school is not the be all end all of life. It’s part of life, just like our careers are part of our lives. But it shouldn’t define our children any more than our careers should define us.

  7. Shawna Kerr-Smith

    What about for a six year old in Grade one? She’s required to practice reading with four “easy” books and a double sided page with her sight words every week. She’s exhausted after being in school from 8:40am-3:15pm every day yet she’s supposed to be doing more homework when she gets home. We only do two hour’s worth of structured after school activities per week.

    • The Intelligent Nest

      If she is meeting her learning goals in school and you don’t have academic concerns for her, then I’d pick other child-directed activities (which can be just as enriching ) for her to do at home. This can include reading, but in a fun, informal and child directed way (“hey, let’s read a book together! What do you want to read?? Maybe you can read a page or two and I’ll read some too??”). Sight words are great, but work them into fun games while you drive or are the market shopping. More “have to” seat work is not good at this age after long school days and can tank motivation, which is important for future and current objectives. Kids need to love learning at this age– that should be one of the key objectives of school for young children! Good luck!!


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