It was the eve of the weekly spelling test. I told my daughter I would go over her words when we got home. She got angry and told me it was my fault that she hadn’t studied.
I told her I didn’t need to study. I knew how to spell the words. I said I was happy to help quiz her, but it was her job to learn the words. When we got home, she practiced on her own, but it got me thinking about ways parents can help their children with homework — without doing it for them.
A Helpful Kind of Help
The debate around homework — when and how much of it should be done — is on many parents’ and educators’ minds. In fact, some classrooms are even transitioning to a flipped model where students do homework in class with a teacher, and watch video lectures at home.
Research shows that kids don’t benefit from a lot of homework help from parents. When they get a lot of help, kids come to expect assistance and may lack initiative to work independently. They may also become dependent on parental input, a pattern that can undermining their confidence to work alone.
Helping kids with homework is a little like hiking with them; when they’re tired of the trek and they ask you to carry them, you don’t want to do it. In both cases, the experience is so much more satisfying when kids achieve their goals on their own. Just as parents encourage their children during a hike, they play a supporting role in homework — but help should be limited.
Here are some ways you can support your children while still giving them space to learn on their own:
Playing Teacher at Home
Some parents will re-teach material at home or hire tutors if they want their children to move forward at a faster pace. In some cases, parents are even expected to supplement learning actively at home.
“At our school, they don’t give the kids enough time to learn certain things, like multiplication facts. You have to practice it at home, or your child will fall behind,” said one mother I interviewed.
When her kids were young, this mother worked with them on their spelling and math sheets, going over them until her kids were absolutely solid in their knowledge; they didn’t guess letters when they spelled a word nor lean on the old, messy writing-out-work process on simple math problems. Along the way, these parents used a tutor to enhance their kids’ math skills (the parents didn’t like the curriculum and thought their kids needed old-fashioned, rote methods, taught in a club environment that made it fun and a little competitive). The results reinforced good study habits. The children earned good grades and liked having their efforts and talents recognized.
“Show me a kid who doesn’t like to get good grades,” she said.
Slow and Steady
One parent said she primarily gives her kids time to do their homework on their own. Where she often helps them is in reading the directions (kids like to skip that part). Once they know what to do, they start working. The biggest obstacle in doing homework is often starting it.
“It helps to do the first problem together,” said the mother. Sometimes, she would even try to go through it ponderously slowly, so that her child was eager to work on his own. If kids are becoming distracted and taking a long time on their homework, try motivating them by setting a timer, or suggesting a fun activity if there’s enough time after homework. As a parent, be very wary of offering rewards or bribes for work that a child should do.
Make It A Habit
Homework is a habit, like brushing teeth or making the bed, and the occasional report is akin to cleaning the closet. The trick is to be consistent. There will be busy times in your family life (Little League playoffs! Grandparents in town!) and slumps (low-energy periods in school) and troughs (bombed a test), but stay steady in encouraging your child complete his homework.
Know what the assignments are, and find the time to work on them. If there is a lot of homework and you are invited to someone’s house for dinner, decline the invitation if it interferes with homework. When assignments are completed, encourage your child to put them in a folder and into the backpack for the next morning. It also doesn’t hurt if your child forgets his homework a few times and have to skip recess and an epic game of zombie tag while he re-does it.
It is much harder for parents to be restrained when helping kids with writing assignments. It is challenging for teachers to find the one-on-one time to spend with kids on this kind of work, so it often falls to parents to lead their own little writing workshops.
Always be encouraging. Start by finding something to compliment sincerely in your child’s writing, such as, “This is written really neatly,” or “I see a lot of passion in your writing. It looks like you had a lot of feeling when you wrote this.” Smile. If you make homework time fun, kids will be more prone to learning.
Have your child read what he wrote aloud. He will see where he skipped words. If you do suggest a clearer way of writing something, write both ways on a piece of paper, and ask your child which is the better way of putting it. Let him choose to make the edit. If the punctuation and capitalization are off, make a mark in the margin on the line where the errors are, and let him try to find and correct the mistakes.
When you see good writing, share it with your child. Writers like Dan Barry, who pens the Our Town column in the New York Times, use graceful prose with strong introductions, transitions, pacing, and good vocabulary words. While the Pulitzer might be some years off, for now, at least the homework is done.
Alber, Rebecca. How Are Happiness and Learning Connected? March 4, 2013. Edutopia. Retrieved from: Edutopia.