This question — "My child struggles with learning. How can I help her at home?" plagues many parents. When the Garcias tried to teach Juana to sound out words and answer questions about what she read, she snapped at them, pushed the book across the table and threw a temper tantrum. When the Ashers tried the same with Ben, he sobbed.

If you typically find yourself in one of these situations where your child resists your help with homework or learning tasks, because she just can't do it what should you do? What guiding principles should you follow? Below are four guiding principles that many parents find calming, effective and fairly easy to implement:

  • Focus on activities she enjoys.
  • Capitalize on music, exercise and friends.
  • Teach her to take credit for her effort, persistence and right use of the right strategies.
  • Make sure that all her in-the-home learning tasks are at her independent level.

1. Focus on activities she enjoys

If your child likes softball, take her to games. Discuss them. In informal and enjoyable conversations, teach her new vocabulary she's likely to hear at the games or on the way to them. Attach new words to ones she already knows. Define the new words for her.

You: "That turf's great. It's the greenest grass I've ever seen. It must be fun playing on green grass or turf like that. Grounders must travel real quick. You play softball much more than me. What do you think about catching grounders on this kind of turf?"

You: "The workers sure keep that grass or turf in good shape. They must fix the turf after every game. I wish we had green turf like that near our place."

You: "Look at that turf. They must fix it with new sod after every ball game. I don't know if I told you this, but sod is a small piece of turf that's used to fix turf."

If you think she'll respond positively to seeing you read books on baseball, one with great photos, read them. Occasionally, show her a photo or read a sentence or paragraph aloud to her. Ask her if she'd like you to read a section or chapter aloud. If she says no, accept it quietly and gracefully and continue reading.

2. Capitalize on music, exercise and friendships

Music. People like music. It can change their mood. The right music can energize people and make pessimism disappear.

As Karen Schrock explained in "Why Music Moves Us," music is medicine:

"Underlying our conscious impressions of a tune are physiological effects that can improve our mental and physical well-being. Studies show that upbeat, tense or exciting music can physically excite the listener ... This 'pumping up' effect explains why so many people enjoy listening to rock or hip-hop while they work out — the music primes the physiological systems needed for high-energy movement.

"Energizing melodies tend to boost mood in general, waking us up if we are feeling tired and creating a sense of excitement in any situation ... On the other hand, music can be calming, reducing the levels of the stress hormone cortisol in the blood, lowering heart and respiration rates, and alleviating pain."

So, if your child likes music, let her listen to music that she likes, music that will calm or energize her and perhaps boost her optimism and encourage cooperation. If you select the music, make sure it fits the situation: Play calming music if she's stressed, energizing music if she's sluggish, and cheerful music if she's despondent.

Exercise. Like music, exercise may offer many benefits to children. After reviewing the research on aerobic exercise, Charles Hillman and his colleges concluded that "An increase in the amount of time dedicated toward physical health-based activities ... is not accompanied by a decline in academic performance ... [The] research ... suggests that physical activity, and aerobic fitness training in particular, can have a positive effect on multiple aspects of brain function and cognition."

In looking at the specific effects of regular exercise on reading, Michelle Ploughman summarized the work of other researchers. She noted that one study found that "students demonstrated improvements in reading accuracy, phonemic skill, verbal working memory and reduction in inattention symptoms as well as accelerated gains in standard school performance tests. These findings suggest that the benefits of exercise are not simply cardiovascular."

I'm not arguing that exercise alone will improve learning, as it did in this study. But given its potential benefits and the natural enjoyment that most children get from games and physical activities in which they can readily succeed, in which competition is absent or minimal, why not involve your child in such activities?

It may improve her attitude toward learning, her ability to process and use information, and consequently, her learning. If done correctly, without intense pressure and competition, it may make her life healthier and more enjoyable.

Friendships. Good friends are important. Children seek them out. They influence children, make their day fun and add quality to life. Without friends, children are miserable.

As children get older, friends begin to influence them more than parents. Helping your child to get and keep the right friends — friends who model the right behaviors, express the right values, and accept your child as she is — will likely pay great dividends.

So if you want your child to value reading, persevere in the face of difficulties and think positively of herself, help her meet and keep the right friends. Invite them to your home, take them to the library, encourage them to play together. It's especially important to begin before adolescence.

As Laurence Steinberg observed, by adolescence, "peers — not parents — are the chief determinants of how intensely [adolescents] are invested in school and how much effort they devote to their education."

3. Teach her to take credit for her efforts to succeed

When struggling learners do poorly, they often blame themselves by erroneously attributing their failure to permanent, unchangeable characteristics, such as low intelligence: "I'm just stupid."

When they do well, they often fail to credit themselves for making good decisions, for making good efforts, for persevering and for using the right strategy in the right way. Instead, they attribute their success to "dumb luck." Statements like this are common: "The teacher gave me an easy test because she felt sorry for me. She knows I'm stupid."

To reverse this, it's important for parents and teachers to give her the right kind of feedback, feedback that teaches her to tell herself the right things. Such feedback should stress effort, perseverance and the right use of the right strategies.

When your child does all three, you might say, "Juana, you worked hard, you didn't quit, and you checked your work by asking if your paragraph would make sense to strangers, just like we discussed. And because you did all of this, you wrote a logical, easy-to-understand paragraph. Nice job."

In contrast, if she did poorly because she didn't make the effort, you might say, "Juana, I truly believe you'll do a much better job if you make a better effort and use the Reading-Writing-Strategy we've been working on. What do you think?"

Giving her feedback like this — over and over and over, and having it come from several people — can teach her to take credit for her efforts and decisions and can teach her that her decisions are responsible for much of her success. Here's another example: "Emma, thanks for helping Ryan. By listening to him and helping him find his book, you showed him you cared. Thanks."

4. Make sure learning tasks are at her independent level

Whenever your child works with materials at home or independently, the materials should be at her proper independent levels. "Independent" means that by herself she has the abilities to succeed without struggling.

In reading, for example, she should typically recognize 99 percent of the words she sees in new materials and understand 90 percent or more of what she reads. In other words, she should not struggle to recognize words or to understand what she's reading. Instead, she should be able to focus on and effectively respond to the material's underlying concepts.

Homework should always be at this level. In all likelihood, a steady diet of more difficult work will frustrate her, interfere with her effort and focus, and undermine her motivation. So, at home, keep it easy. If homework frustrates her, speak to her teachers about the need to assign her only independent level homework. Such homework will engender success while giving her needed practice.

The bottom line

By themselves, the ideas in this article will not make your child a competent learner. If she has serious learning difficulties, she's going to need skilled instruction that's focused, systematic, intensive, frequently monitored and responsive to her progress.

Nevertheless, these ideas can influence her success. They can take her mind off her reading difficulties, put them in perspective, act like deposits in a bank of mental health, help her develop the optimism that she can succeed. And if she tries and is only modestly successful, she can understand that there's more to life and that her world hasn't ended — there's no need to become angry, feel embarrassed or berate herself.

The good thing about these ideas is that they can help you avoid fights with your child and maintain a strong, positive relationship that will continue to help the both of you. Such a relationship can help you to influence your child, which can help her to develop or maintain the motivation to become a more competent learner.