I am a middle school teacher. I love my job. My students are sweet and funny, and I get to spend all day talking about one of my favorite things–literature. So, to be clear, this is not a rant from a disgruntled teacher who thinks children are the scourge of society. But I am telling you, things are bad. Almost every teacher will tell you, things are bad.

I’ll give it to you straight. Too many students are unable to sit still, pay attention, or exhibit self-control. They are apathetic and lazy, and their executive functioning skills are abysmal. A lot of children are behind academically–and then there are the behavior problems!  The kids are out of control.

Why are students out of control?

Parents of very young children might be tempted to turn a blind eye to this disturbing information. After all, middle school is years away, and most of these problems are due to the pandemic. Right?  Not really. All the disruptions of the last two years have only exacerbated issues that have existed for a long time. Take for example the recent Gallup study on behalf of the Barbara Bush Foundation for Family Literacy. The study found that 54% of Americans between the ages 16-74 read below a 6th-grade level. In 2019 only 24% of U.S. 12th graders performed at or above the NAEP Proficient level in math. And a 2010 study found that only twenty percent of fourth-graders, seventeen percent of eighth-graders, and twelve percent of high school seniors were proficient in knowledge of U.S. History. So, clearly, we’ve been struggling for a while.

Aside from the pandemic, there is plenty of blame to go around for the troubles plaguing American classrooms. We can easily point the finger at over-crowding, underfunding, bad administrative and legislative policies, poverty, inequality–the list goes on. I certainly don’t have all the answers, but I do know that no matter what is going on in schools, what goes on at home is just as (if not more) important–especially in the early years.

This is why, as a teacher who sees firsthand all the ways kids are struggling, I am begging–not asking, not suggesting, not encouraging–begging parents of little ones to do these five things. I promise you it will make a difference down the road.

How can you prepare your children for success?

1. Read to your children.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, preparing your children to read is the single most important thing you can do to help them succeed in school. And the best way to prepare children to read is to read to them. Reading to a child supports cognitive functioning, develops attention span, improves vocabulary and language skills, increases creativity and critical thinking, and can even make a child more empathetic. Imagine if all kids started school having been read to for twenty minutes a day for the first five years of their life. That alone would likely revolutionize American education.

But please, don’t just read to your kids. Become a reading evangelist. Encourage friends and family to read to their children. Give books as baby gifts. Encourage others to sign their kids up for Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. Support your local library’s early reader program. Start a free book program at your local food pantry or health center. For American schools to thrive, more students need to come to school eager and ready to learn, and reading to kids is the best way to encourage that.

2. Sing, talk, recite poetry.  

As you shop for groceries, cook dinner, or ride in the car, have conversations with your child (even if your child isn’t talking yet) about what you are seeing and thinking and doing. Point out what’s going on. I like this red bowl the best. You know, I think I’ll buy the bigger box of cereal. I feel frustrated because it’s raining. As a teacher, I can often spot the children who haven’t been talked to. They have smaller vocabularies, and their ability to express themselves is limited. In some cases, they lack curiosity or the ability to process information and feelings. Talking to small children helps them make sense of the world around them and models things like problem-solving, identifying emotions, and good communication skills.

Things like singing and reciting nursery rhymes help children develop phonological awareness, the ability to recognize and manipulate spoken language. While cute little songs and rhyming games might just seem like fun, phonological awareness is actually crucial for learning to read.

3. Limit screen time.

We’ve always known that too much screen time is bad for children. Let’s admit it: during the pandemic, even the most vigilant parents have grown lax. I allowed my own teenage son to morph briefly into a vampire–staying up all night to play online video games with friends and sleeping half the day. Unfortunately, many of us are finding it hard to put that genie back in the bottle. For many children (even those born post-2020,) screen time is at an all-time and unhealthy high. While reading to kids is the most important thing parents can do to prepare children for academic success, allowing too much screen time is the most detrimental–for so many reasons.

A child who has spent too much time during his formative years sitting in front of a screen (even for educational games and programming) will have likely missed out on countless things. He will not have had time for seemingly trivial encounters, activities, and conversations that could have furthered his development. Not only that, it is nearly impossible for a teacher, no matter how creative, fun, or engaging, to hold the attention of a child who has become dependent on technology. Too much screen time increases a child’s chances of obesity, anxiety, sleep problems, and behavior issues. Screen time can also have a detrimental effect on language and social development.

In the early days of the pandemic, we all gave ourselves a lot of wiggle room when it came to electronics. Now, after all we’ve been through, it is often considered “too judgy” to suggest that stressed-out, overwhelmed parents dial back the digital entertainment. But the consequences of allowing children to have more than the recommended amount of screen time daily are too great. Nothing less than our children’s ability to learn and to relate to others is at stake.

4. Let your children get bored.

Please, please stop handing your toddler or pre-schooler a device every time you go to a restaurant, shop for groceries, or ride in the car. Generations of children have survived these activities without the help of electronic entertainment and yours will too. Because of constant access to digital stimulation, some children have developed a chronic intolerance for boredom. I don’t just mean they complain about being bored–kids have always done that. Rather, they have become physically and emotionally unable to handle boredom. They become anxious and irritable. They zone out. Often they seek unhealthy or inappropriate ways to alleviate their discomfort. On the other hand, kids who have been forced to tolerate boredom when necessary and overcome it when possible, develop patience, creativity, healthy attention spans, and the ability to problem-solve.

5. Let your child have unstructured outdoor play.

Your great-grandmother was right. Children need fresh air and sunshine. Playing outside develops large motor skills and can improve a child’s balance and spatial awareness. Kids who play outdoors are also more likely to engage in healthy risk-taking–climbing trees, jumping off rocks, running down hills–which can build confidence and independence. Many of the seemingly meaningless games of childhood are actually important for helping kids grow and develop physically and emotionally.

So much of this seems like common sense. And for many families it is. But I also know from my own experience as a parent that the realities of day-to-day living can sometimes override what we know is best. So we start skipping the bedtime story or giving in to extra screen time, and the next thing we know bad habits have replaced our best intentions. This isn’t to say that parental shortcomings are the cause of all the problems we have in American classrooms–not by a longshot. Still, it cannot be underestimated how important these five things are for preparing children for a lifetime of success and happiness.

Dear Parents of Little Ones, Please Do These Five Things for Your Children