Managing Homework Help from Older Siblings

When it comes to homework help, children have many resources: Noodle, teachers, the Internet, parents, friends, and even siblings.

Wait, what was that last one? Is that even a good idea? There are definitely advantages and disadvantages, and naturally, success depends on the siblings themselves.

Advantages

One benefit of having older children help is that they often recall the material and key concepts better than parents do. “They may also remember what concepts confused them and help guide their sibling through the learning bumps better, since it’s fresh and relevant to their personal experiences,” says Alyson Schafer, a psychotherapist, author, and internationally acclaimed parenting expert.

This is particularly true with math, since many of these concepts are taught differently today than they were when parents were in school, says Darby Fox, child and adolescent family therapist. “As long as the older child has a strong knowledge of the concepts being taught, there’s no harm in the younger one learning another approach,” she says.

When the child being helped actively wants the older sibling’s assistance, these arrangements can be quite successful; without this desire, the situation won’t work, warns Fox. “As long as the younger child is learning, it’s a nice way for siblings to relate to each other,” she says. “It takes them outside their normal relationship. The older sibling can become more empathic, and the younger sibling will gain respect for the brother or sister. This is a win-win situation.”

Disadvantages

Sometimes, having a brother or sister help can turn into the older child just supplying the answers to the younger one, without any explanation behind the solution. This creates a dependent environment, says Dr. Douglas Haddad, a public school teacher, coach, mentor, and contributor to EmpoweringParents.com (who goes by the nickname “Dr. Doug”). “Furthermore,” he says, “this can create sibling rivalry between ‘who knows more and is smarter.’”

An older child has to find the balance between helping too much, making things too easy, and hurting the younger sibling instead of helping her learn, Dr. Doug says.

Teachers

Sometimes younger children have the same teachers as their older siblings used to, and in these instances, “parents should be forthright in their expectation…that sharing papers, projects, tests, and other related materials is not allowed,” says Dr. Doug. “This behavior of ‘sharing work from the same teacher’ is an enabling factor that can lead to a child’s lack of persistence on an assignment and may cause your child to give up on difficult tasks. The younger child could also develop a mental state of learned helplessness where he will not complete the assignment when faced with challenges or altogether avoid doing the homework on his own.”

What to Do

Here are some tips from the experts on how you can encourage effective homework help between siblings:

Examine the older children’s motivations.

“If they’re trying to help and mentor their sibling — great!” says Dr. Schaffer. “However, if they are trying to outdo, outshine, act superior, rescue, do for, or take over, then this must be stopped.”

Discuss the expectations up front with each child.

“The older sibling should be used as an available resource and springboard for ideas or suggestions, but not as a personal ‘one-on-one tutor’ or ‘provider of answers to homework assignments,’” says Dr. Doug.

Monitor and support older sibling assistance.

“For example, if the younger sibling has given her best independent effort and is unable to solve a math problem, or understand the symbolism behind a story, that extra explanation by an older sibling can be quite helpful,” says Dr. Doug. “On the other hand, if one sibling is looking for the easy way out and trying to get answers (without putting in her own initial best effort), the sibling help becomes a moot point.”

“Assist and teach step by step, but not “do,” says Fox.

Tips for the Older Sibling

The following questions from Dr. Doug are for the helper to ask to effectively assist with homework:

  • How did your teacher want you to solve this problem?
  • Did your teacher provide you any guidelines for this homework assignment?
  • What are you learning about now in this class?
  • What don’t you understand about the assignment?
  • How can I help you with the assignment?

Further Reading: "Avoiding Sibling Rivalry When Kids Have Different Academic Aptitudes"

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