Help Kids With Homework

Wondering how to help your children with homework — or how to get them to do it without a struggle? Here’s how.

What’s the point of homework? “Homework is designed to help students reinforce key concepts, process and solidify new information, provide time for extra practice of skills, and reflect on how much they’ve learned,” notes teacher Susan Becker, M. Ed. However, approaches to homework vary from district to district, school to school and teacher to teacher. Some schools don’t give children homework until the 2nd grade, others start in kindergarten. Some teachers create original homework, while other use or modify prepared work sheets.

Don’t do the homework for your child. Most teachers use homework to find out what the child knows. They do not want parents doing their children’s homework but do want parents to make sure homework is completed and review any mistakes to see what can be learned from them.

Don’t take over your child’s projects. Teachers do not want parents doing their kids’ projects. Instead, they want parents to support their kids’ learning and make sure they have what they need to accomplish a task. Check with your child’s teacher for his policy and review it with your child.
Set up a good space to work. All children need the same thing: a clean, well-lit space. But keep in mind that each child may work differently; some will do their work at the kitchen table and others at their desks in their rooms.

Pay attention to your child’s rhythms and help him find the right time to begin his work. Some children will work best by doing homework right after school; others need a longer break and must run around before tackling the work. Most will need a snack. If your child does after-school activities, set a homework time before or after the activity, or after dinner. Whatever routine you choose, help your child stick to it.

Find out how your child studies best. “You should find the ways your child likes to study. For example, some kids will learn spelling words by writing them out, others by closing their eyes and picturing them and saying them aloud,” advises teacher Susan Becker, M. Ed. “The sound environment is also important,” adds Michael Thompson, Ph.D. “Some kids may want to listen to music, some are helped by being in the middle of noise, others need absolute quiet.”

Don’t hover — but stay close by. Keep in mind that it’s their homework, not yours, but remain available in case you are needed. “The ideal set up would be for a parent to be reading nearby while the child is studying because then you both are doing your educational work together, but that’s not always possible,” says Michael Thompson, Ph.D. “A parent may be working out of the home, or need to be working in the home and cooking dinner. So if you are home, stay close, and if you are not there, have another adult check to make sure it’s going OK. And remember that all homework is not equal, so not everything will need your rapt attention.”

Limit media exposure. Turn off the TV and the iPod when your child does homework. And the computer too, unless it’s being used for research. You might start by asking how much time he thinks he should spend on this, and negotiate from there. Remember, you have the final word. And keep in mind that if you watch TV when your child can’t, the plan may backfire.

Let the teacher know if you gave your child a lot of homework help. “If your child needs extra help or truly doesn’t understand something, let the teacher know. Write on the assignment, ‘done with parental help,’ or write a separate note,” advises Michael Thompson, Ph.D. If your child resists, explain that homework is used to practice what you know and to show the teacher what you need help learning more about — so it’s a parent’s job to let the teacher know.

Like many things, homework has become more complex and demanding than when we were kids. Expectations are higher—for students and for teachers—and parents have the additional challenges of controlling iPad/smartphone/TV time, juggling jam-packed sports schedules, and mastering a new curriculum, including those damn cube trains they use in kindergarten math now.

Despite studies suggesting that homework doesn’t even benefit grade-schoolers, it’s here to stay. The good news: You don’t need to be as involved as you might think. In fact, you shouldn’t be. “The purpose of homework is to help kids become independent learners,” says Cathy Vatterott, Ph.D., professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and founder of the educational site Does that mean you can stick them in their room and expect that they’ll pop out 30 minutes later with check-plus-plus work? Sadly, no. But there are simple tactics to make the process less painful for everyone involved.

Let your child create a routine.

The first step is to empower your kid by giving her a say in when, where, and how she completes assignments. “Ask if she has ideas for making homework more manageable,” suggests Parents advisor Deborah Stipek, Ph.D., dean of the Stanford University Graduate School of Education. If not, offer suggestions. (“Would it be helpful to have a snack first?” or “Do you want to play in the backyard before you start?”) Have her write down the agreed-upon regimen, and post it as a reminder.

Keep in mind that you may have varying routines under one roof. “Each of my kids does homework in a different place,” says Sarah Holloway, a mother of four in Havelock, North Carolina. “My 9-year-old sits on the floor, my 16-year-old does it on her bed, and my other kids, ages 11 and 12, work at the dining-room table.” The experts I spoke with said the latter is a great option, since you can be nearby for support while still doing your own thing (scrubbing Sharpie off a 2-year-old, perhaps).

One thing Holloway’s kids share in common: They get no screen time until their assignments are done. “This policy sends the message, ‘First you do your work, then you can watch TV,’ ” says Stephanie Donaldson- Pressman, clinical director of the New England Center for Pediatric Psychology. Establish this rule at the beginning of the school year, especially if you’ve let things slide during the summer.

3 Things Parents Can Do to Help Kids Manage Homework

Be there to monitor (but not correct).

Homework lets teachers identify what students have absorbed in class, so don’t turn it into your assignment. “We like to see mistakes,” says Matt Vaccaro, a first-grade teacher in Locust Valley, New York. Not all kids are comfortable making them, though, so you have to wean your child from the idea that he always needs to be correct.

Donaldson-Pressman recommends this approach: “Tell your kids they can ask up to three homework questions a night, but beyond that they need to figure it out on their own—or circle the problem and show the teacher.” I tried this with my son, who claims I’m the only mom in the world who doesn’t give her kid the answers. When he asked, “What’s a sentence for ‘because,’ ” I responded, “Do you really want to use one of your three questions on that, bud?” The sentence he ultimately wrote? “Homework is hard because my mom doesn’t help me.” I was so proud.

If your child yells, “Mom, I need help!” say you’ll be over once you finish whatever task you’re doing. “The longer you wait, the more likely he is to reread the instructions or rework the problem,” says Jessica Lahey, a middle-school English teacher and the author of The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed.

However, since homework is also a lesson in time management, don’t let your kid drag on indefinitely. The National PTA and the National Education Association recommend just ten minutes a night per grade, meaning 20 minutes for a second-grader, 30 minutes for a third-grader, and so on. (Of course, that doesn’t include the time some kids, including mine, spend complaining before putting pencil to paper.) Keep an eye on the clock: If your kid is making an honest effort and the assignment isn’t done when the allotted time has ticked by, shut it down and write a note to the teacher.

Communicate with his teacher regularly.

Showing your child that you and the teacher are partners, in regular contact, is essential. “I tell parents to call, e-mail, or talk to me anytime with homework concerns,” says Kasey Ferguson, a fourth-grade teacher in Bennington, Vermont.

While teachers welcome feedback, avoid making critical comments in front of your kid. If he’s whining about an extended response, “Don’t say, ‘This is ridiculous. I’m calling the teacher,’ ” says Dr. Stipek. “You want your child to know you’re on his side, but never undermine what’s going on at school.”

Math, which is taught a whole new way from how many parents learned it, tends to create the most friction. To combat this, Vaccaro sends lesson sheets home that parents can use as a guide. Most schools also offer portals or host seminars to explain the concepts being taught in each grade.

Put your kids in charge.

Homework is as much about learning responsibility as it is about grasping fractions. That means students should complete it to the best of their ability, pack it up, and get it to school themselves. One Orlando school recently banned homework drop-offs by parents. Although that may seem harsh, Lahey says, “Teachers help children develop strategies for remembering their own stuff, and bailing them out short-circuits that system.” (Note to self: Stop texting my mom friend for screen shots of the spelling words my kid failed to write down in class.)

If your kid complains that she can’t do an assignment, let her turn it in incomplete and face the music. “When a student doesn’t finish the homework or it’s excessively sloppy, I have her do it during recess,” says Vaccaro. “Once she starts missing playtime, she gets the message.”

Stepping back isn’t easy, but in the long run it’s good for your child, and for you. My son recently spilled salsa on his math worksheet. His teacher circled the red splotch and wrote, “Please don’t eat while doing your homework.” I loved it. He’s also lost points for messy handwriting and received notes about adding additional detail to his essays. As a writer it’s hard for me to resist whipping out a red pen, but the feedback from his teachers has far more impact than it would coming from me.

Keep calm and carry on.

Homework meltdowns are nature’s way of saying a child is overwhelmed by the task, says child psychologist Laura Markham, Ph.D., author of Peaceful Parent, Happy Kids: How to Stop Yelling and Start Connecting.

A child who bursts into tears may only need a hug or a “We’ll figure it out” to settle down. But if he’s paper-crumpling mad, let him blow off steam. Say, “I see you’re upset.” Then listen to him rant, without reacting. “Until your child feels he’s been heard, you can’t convince him to see your side,” says Dr. Markham.

What if you’re the one melting down? Amy Pate, a mom of three in Nashville, got so annoyed by her third-grade son’s requests for help that when he asked how to spell brought, she erupted. “I yelled ‘B-R-O-U-G-H-T, and I’m pretty sure that was a kindergarten word!’ ” she says. “I felt terrible, particularly later when my friends told me that brought is actually a tough word.”

To say I’ve been there is an understatement. I literally had to do Lamaze breathing to avoid losing it during my son’s Australia project. If you feel your BP rising, walk away, splash water on your face, or do whatever helps soothe you, suggests Dr. Markham. Then say, “I’m sorry I got angry. I think we both need a break.” Set a timer for 10 minutes, and let your child read or play. When the time is up, say, “Okay, let’s talk about how we can figure this out, and if we can’t we’ll write a note to your teacher.” The good thing about homework is that there’s always tomorrow (and the next day, and the next) to do better.

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