Love it or loathe it, it's that time again when uniforms are donned and scores of little feet go scampering out the door THE SUMMER HOLIDAYS are over and parents' reactions range from disappointment at not having enough time with their precious offspring to undisguised relief that school will carry the burden of occupying young minds and energetic, active bodies. Anticipation mixed with some uncertainty makes for excitement; a fresh start. Emotions are most powerful for those beginning their education. Whether fresh-faced from home or veterans of playgroups and kindergartens, starting school is a defining moment. New parents are the most focused at this point. This is the first real indicator that their little bundle of joy will eventually make its own way in life. On the first day it is often difficult to tell who is the most worried. The sight of mums and dads fussing nervously while their children bound joyfully onto a playground or into a classroom is not uncommon. Schools nowadays are better at preparing students and parents. They have a range of strategies for establishing relationships and maintaining them. Going are the days when parents and secondary carers were kept at arms length for fear of interfering. Education is a partnership, and few schools should be subscribing to the old view that learning is a narrow process performed solely by teachers. Whatever the stage in a student's school career, there are some general guidelines parents might keep in mind: Show an interest: Obvious perhaps, but in a busy place like Hong Kong it can fall by the wayside. If a general query about how school went today proves unproductive (or is met by an embarrassed shrug), ask your child about specifics. What games were played? What did they write? What happened in geography? Research shows students are more motivated if their efforts in school are valued at home and they receive encouragement. Things to avoid: watching a soap opera while listening to reading. Enquire about learning: Ask what your child learned. Good schools focus teaching efforts on targeting student learning. We all like to boast about what we can do. Positive reinforcement gives better results than constant criticism. Studies show that students who get constant criticism at home do worse. Things to avoid: telling the teachers that things were better in your day and why don't we do more dictation. Ask about friends and teachers: While teaching and learning are a clear focus for professionals and parents, students themselves seem to concentrate on whom their friends are or what the teacher is like. This is important. A student learns best when happy and confident. As adults, we claim to know all about the negative impact of stress and the seminal importance of good relationships. This is no less true in schools, complex micro-societies where hundreds of people are thrown together in a confined space. Things to avoid: telling your child it is fine to bash someone if they bash you first! Get involved: School functions fall into two broad categories. The first is events such as workshops and talks offered on a voluntary basis. These are traditionally poorly attended but they give parents the opportunity to ask focused questions and to get a real in-depth view of specific aspects of teaching, learning, the curriculum and child development. Teachers take great time and care to prepare these and they are usually worthwhile. Attending general talks at the beginning of a school year brings benefits, but asking specific questions about an individuals' progress is usually left to timetabled interviews. Secondly there are the more informal events. School fairs and Parent Teacher Association (PTA) functions can provide a valuable insight into school culture in a relaxed atmosphere. Things to avoid: turning up to a PTA quiz with an internet phone logged into a search engine! Know the curriculum: Schools nowadays work very hard to inform parents about the curriculum. But leaflets, booklets and websites can only go so far. As schools look for better ways to inform students of what they are expected to learn, so informed parents can be more effective in the learning partnership. Many classes welcome parents in to provide help and this is one of the best methods of seeing teaching and learning first hand. Things to avoid: looking through other students' trays! Help at home: Whether it is listening to developing readers or helping with quadratic equations, helping with work at home can be excellent. It cements the learning partnership and can be productive in all sorts of ways. But be aware of the dangers. Parents who insist on doing things in ways different from school can cause anything from confusion to rage. It is important that students and parents are fully aware of the expectations of the work and what it is meant to achieve. If you are not sure: ask. Things to avoid: telling students their teachers must be idiots teaching them to do things this way. Communicate with school: Teachers may be busy but schools do welcome this. They often give children diaries for regular communication between parent and teacher about their progress or problems. Planned consultations and written reports are the other key communication channels. Teachers appreciate relevant information that might immediately affect your child. Phone the school on urgent matters or make an appointment to see a teacher. Remember, dialogue is a two-way process. Things to avoid: asking whether your child is university material after one week in school. School life is complicated and fraught with difficulties but the joy of learning is universal. Real learning by motivated students who see it in context and can map their own progress has been shown to be not only extremely satisfying, but also beneficial in the long term. Students neither want nor need parents cramping their style, but do want them to be active, informed and positive about their education. If things get really bad, your child has to attend school, but you can always retire to an institution or a nunnery. Paul McGuire has taught with the English Schools Foundation since 1985.