Dr. Liane Brouillette has a passion for helping families prepare children to thrive in school and out. She has taught at the pre-university level in both Europe and the United States. Currently, Dr. Brouillette is an associate professor of educational policy at the University of California, Irvine and Director of the UCI Center for Learning in the Arts, Sciences and Sustainability. She also serves as managing editor of the Journal for Learning through the Arts.
Present day public schools focus intensely on academic success. Social-emotional development is frequently given only incidental attention. If families are not prepared to take up the slack, students’ emotional growth may be impeded, resulting in diminished social skills, motivation, and ability to cope with stress.
Help Your Child to Thrive: Making the Best of at Struggling Public Education System offers effective strategies for helping children to in six key areas:
• Developing confidence
• Building human connections and a feeling of belonging
• Learning from consequences
• Nurturing emotional intelligence
• Acquiring a sense of agency
• Making wise decisions
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Q: Congratulations on the release of your book, Help Your Child to Thrive: Making the Best of a Struggling Public Education System. What was your inspiration for it?
A: After writing two academic books about public schools, I recognized there was a need for a book that would explain these same issues to a broader audience. This book would 1) help parents to understand the problems faced by school-age children and 2) show parents effective ways to both encourage intellectual curiosity and support children in meeting social challenges. The book I had in mind would inspire parents with the confidence to effectively intervene when needed—without having to spend every evening tutoring their child.
Q: Why was the writing of this book important for you?
A: This book started as a stack of notes to myself, based on conversations with parents, as well as questions from students in my classes for future teachers at the University of California, Irvine. What are the institutional causes of low U.S student achievement? How can parents prepare students to resist peer pressure? What can parents do to help children to forge healthy friendships with peers? How can a parent help a child to succeed academically, aside from spending their evenings tutoring their child? I was intrigued by the challenge of writing a research-based book that was not full of technical language.
My interest in the reasons for international differences in student achievement goes back my first teaching job. After receiving my B.A. from Rice University, I took a job as an English instructor at a German academic high school (or Gymnasium). When I came back to the United States, I was shocked to find that many of the students at the rural high school where I was teaching did not write English as well as my former German students had. I wondered why American public schools lagged so far behind, given that the United States spent more per-pupil on public education. This book is rooted in that experience.
When got my Ph.D., my dissertation research focused on a school district where student achievement was higher than other districts serving comparable populations. I discovered that student achievement is strongly influenced by the school environment. However, parental support is every bit as important.
By the time my grandchildren neared school age, I had become convinced that widespread school reform was unlikely to take place in the U.S. any time soon. Yet I knew that there are simple things, which any parent can do, that stimulate an interest in learning and build the character needed to weather the pressures of the competitive peer culture that flourishes in U.S. public schools. I decided to write a book that would allow me to share what I had learned with the parents of school-age children.
Q: How was your creative process like during the writing of this book and how long did it take you to complete it? Did you face any bumps along the way?
A: The book was largely written in the early morning, before breakfast, when my mind was fresh. The writing process took about two years, since it took place in small slices of time.
Q: What is the one thing you hope readers will take away from your book?
A: Until recent decades, American public schools focused both on character and on academics. But legal and societal pressures have caused the focus to shift almost entirely to academics. This has caused a rise in peer pressure and bullying. As important, it has obscured the importance of character traits that are as important to long-term success as standardized test scores.
Going back to the famous marshmallow test devised by Walter Mischel at Stanford in the late 1960s, evidence has been building that non-cognitive qualities like willpower play a key role in academic success. In Mischel’s study, four-year-olds were brought one-by-one into a small room and offered a treat, such as a marshmallow. The child could either eat the treat immediately or wait till the researcher returned and get two treats. Years later, those children who had been able to wait for fifteen minutes for their treats had SAT scores that were, on average, 210 points higher than those of children who had only been able to wait for thirty seconds.
More recent research by Nobel laureate James Heckman confirms the significance of qualities that are routinely are summed up in the term “character,” What such experiments show is that parents who focus on building responsibility, resilience, and strong family ties are also boosting their child’s academic success. In contrast, “helicopter” parents who hover over their children, helping them with their homework and rescuing them whenever anything goes wrong, are setting their children up to fail as soon as the parent is no longer around to play the role of rescuer.
Q: What discoveries or surprises did you experience while writing this book?
A: I was surprised by how much research has been done in the last decade on the importance of the non-cognitive skills that schools have recently ignored in favor of trying to boost test scores.
Q: How do you define success?
A: I define success in terms of helping parents to better support their children.
Q: Could you talk a little bit about your publishing process?
A: My earlier books were published by State University of New York Press (SUNY) and Lawrence Erlbaum Associates (LEA), which publish books for the academic market. So, this book is quite a departure for me—and an experiment.
Q: What advice would you give to aspiring nonfiction writers? Could you offer some tips or resources that have been helpful to you?
A: In a world where day-to-day communication can be superficial, writing allows us to get to a deeper level and to thoughtfully engage with important issues. Because of the hustle and bustle of daily life, this sort of communication can be difficult to undertake face-to-face. We are often in such a hurry that it is hard to say much more than “Hi” or “Bye.” But we can write whenever we find the time and inspiration. We can read whenever we feel motivated to do so.
Through books, we can thoughtfully explore important issues. People can read and reflect in whatever way is most comfortable to them. This allows for more active engagement with ideas than other media. This communication can be vivid in a way that is difficult to encounter elsewhere. I find that exciting.
For me, writing functions as a way of reflecting on experience, allowing me to connect with experiences more meaningfully. Even if I did not write for publication, I would still write. However, publishing my work has the added benefit of making it possible to enter into a dialogue with readers.
I find it easiest to write early in the morning, when the day is fresh and my mind is most alert. On mornings when nothing seems to flow, I usually try to get out in the open air. Going for a walk seems to not just get my blood flowing; it usually gets my thoughts flowing as well.
Q: Anything else you’d like to tell my readers?
A: Yes, I’d like to say something about the joyful side of parenting.
As adults, we often forget how important fun is to a healthy life. Children have a gift for laughter. When parents and children spend time talking, playing, and exploring together, both the adults and the children feel energized. Family bonds are strengthened. Without these moments, we sense there is something crucial missing from our lives.
Such moments of meaningful connection are what experts are referring to when they talk of spending “quality time” with children. The “event” that stimulates this sense of engagement may be no more than a brief stop by the creek on a trip to buy groceries. Dry leaves picked up on the bank become “boats” bobbing in the current. The parent may spy a duck walking by, imitate his waddling gait and invite the children to join in.
One-on-one time, spent exploring the world together, stimulates a sense of curiosity and wonder that school activities are not well-positioned to provide. Planning such mini-adventures requires not more than listing places close to your home where you could spend a few special moments, just exploring with your child. Then just look for opportunities.