Homework is a hotly debated topic among educators, parents, and child development experts. Some question whether it provides real value and wonder how much is appropriate for children of varying ages. Others worry that children aren’t getting enough time after school to be active outside and exploring extracurricular interests because they’re too overburdened with nighttime work. And just as many wrestle with the role that parents or caretakers should play with homework.
The Broken Compass: Parental Involvement with Children’s Education, a scientific study published in January 2014 by sociology professors Keith Robinson (University of Texas at Austin) and Angel L. Harris (Duke University), tackled this subject head-on and shared surprising conclusions. Some forms of parental involvement in a child’s education actually lead to declines in academic performance, it reported, and parental help with homework was consistently negative. The reason why is unclear, but Robinson has speculated that many parents probably haven’t identified the most effective ways to help their children. They also may not remember the material their children are studying, or never learned it themselves, but continue to offer advice.
An August 2014 online study of parental involvement with homework, conducted by the non-profit National Center for Families Learning, reinforced some of the same, revealing that more than 60% of surveyed parents with children in grades K-8 admitted to having trouble helping with homework, a jump up from the 49.1% reported in 2013. More than 25% claimed to be too busy, about 33% didn’t understand the subject matter, and 41% faced pushback from their kids when offering help.
Dr. Lisa Fiore of Belmont, a professor of education at Lesley University and mother to an 11- and 13-year old, believes there is nothing wrong with helping children with homework. Doing so “provides a wonderful opportunity to check in and know what your child is learning,” she said. “On the most basic level, it’s a way for parents to connect with their kids. The challenge is finding the right balance for every child and every family. Each child is different, and what works for one might not work for another. We need to honor our children and who they are, and help them develop their own competence.”
• Consider a child’s unique needs and agree on a routine. Some children thrive with a break after school to play or socialize before diving into nightly assignments. Others excel when tackling homework shortly after the school day, when lessons are top-of-mind. Parents know their children best, but should still ask their child’s opinion on how they feel they can best tackle homework (when, in what environment, with what tools, etc.) and the type of support they’d welcome from a parent or caretaker. Agree to a routine that everyone can maintain. Some children aren’t naturally organized or may struggle with learning challenges, so they may require extra help figuring out how to approach assignments, understand directions, and juggle a lengthy to-do list.
• Guide, don’t do. Kent Vienot of Melrose, a private school math teacher for more than 25 years and father of two teenaged boys, believes that parents should act as coaches or facilitators, focusing on helping their children help themselves.
“You want to be there to support your child, especially if they’re frustrated and struggling, but you shouldn’t immediately step in and tell them what to do or how to do something,” he advised. “Ask them questions: ‘What are you having the most trouble with? What did you talk about in class related to that? Did you take any notes?’ Support their active learning and give them the tools to try to figure things out on their own. This is what the job of a parent (and teacher) ultimately is.”
Colleen McCallum of Worcester, a public school teacher for more than 20 years, agreed: “Homework reinforces the lessons I taught in class and helps me determine if my students understood the material. It’s a hindrance if parents (or older siblings) do the work for them — after all, they can’t be with their kids in class when it comes time to take tests. Plus, they already passed the grade their child is tackling, so they don’t need to do the work again.”
• Remember that mistakes are OK. “We need to let children make mistakes and stumble sometimes. When parents get too involved (with homework), there can be too much focus on the product rather than the process, and achievement is often stressed over the joy of learning,” Fiore notes. “If a child works independently and comes back with a grade that’s not so wonderful, use that as an opportunity to talk about what could have been done differently.”
• Don’t hesitate to engage with teachers. Reach out if you don’t understand the purpose of assignments, ask about homework policies, or share if your child is having difficulties with homework.
“Parents and teachers should be a team working for the benefit of the child,” McCallum adds. “I don’t want homework to become a battle. If a child is really struggling with homework, and parents and children are fighting about it, they should stop. Parents can write a note on the homework, sharing the amount of time the child spent on it and the struggle he or she was having, and request a review of the material with the child, and maybe a conference to come up with a plan for the child. At the same time, kids have to learn to be responsible and know they have a job to do. That’s what’s tough about being a parent — you want to give them independence, but also don’t want to see them fail.”
Not all parents or caretakers have every evening available to serve as homework watchdog or even feel comfortable with the task, especially when kids are in later grades.
Experts agree that even a brief scan of the child’s work or conversation about the subject matter they’re studying and how they’re handling it will be helpful and likely appreciated. Ultimately, it’s most important to uncover and address each child’s unique needs for homework support.
Everyone wins if homework empowers active learning, develops critical lifelong skills of organization, planning and time management, and fosters a sense of personal responsibility that will help form the successful and productive adults we all hope our children will become.