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.
Step 1: Ya Gotta Have a Plan
Sit down with your kids and lay out expectations now, when the school year is starting, rather than waiting until problems arise. “Two or three goals is plenty, and you'll get better results if your child helps decide them,” says Alexandra Mayzler, director of New York City—based Thinking Caps Tutoring and author of Tutor in a Book: Better Grades as Easy as 1-2-3.
Ask: What were your child's stumbling blocks last year? Maybe homework time was running into bedtime, so agree on an earlier start time. Did your child resist reading? Work on ways to make it fun—maybe set up a reading tent under your dining room table. Review your child's homework goals again in October, and perhaps once more in January, says Mayzler. Adjust your plan as you go, letting your child take as much ownership of the process as possible.
Step 2: Get in the Groove
“All the research says the single best way to improve your child's homework performance—and bring more peace to your home—is to insist on a daily schedule or routine,” says Ann Dolin, who is also the author of Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools, and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework. In some homes, that means doing it right after school; for others, it can mean waiting until after dinner if your child is the type who needs to expend some energy before he dives back into the books.
Dolin recommends giving all kids at least 30 minutes to have a snack and unwind, with one caveat: “That half-hour break really shouldn't involve anything with a screen—television, e-mail, or video games—or you may have trouble getting kids off,” she adds.
Giving kids a half-hour break between after-school activities and homework is a smart idea, too. “Sports or after-school care isn't really a break. Kids need to let down a little at home before launching into homework,” she says. If your child goes to a babysitter or aftercare program, make a deal that while he's there he'll work on one assignment—something easy he can do even with distractions—every day before he gets home so he has less work later.
The key is to be consistent about the routine. Take a few weeks before homework gets heavy to try different approaches and see what works best, then stick to it.
What about weekends? Everyone deserves a break on Fridays, of course. But pick a regular time during the weekend for homework. After some experimenting, D'nece Webster of Portland, OR, found that her son Alex, 7, is at his best on Sunday mornings. “He can finish in thirty minutes what might take him two hours on a weekend afternoon,” says Webster.
Step 3: Know When to Get Your Child Extra Help
If your kid is truly stuck on a homework assignment, don't make the common mistake of trying to reteach the information. Your goal is not to become your child's study buddy. Plus, your approach might be too different from the teacher's. “Imagine being a kid learning long division for the first time. You don't understand what your teacher is saying, and your parents teach you another method. When you get back to school, you're bound to be even more confused,” says mom and former teacher Laura Laing of Baltimore.
Instead, send an e-mail or note to the teacher asking her to please explain the material to your child again. If your child is a fourth-grader or older, have him write the note or talk to the teacher. It's important that he learns how to speak up for himself. The teacher will likely have office hours earmarked for those who need help. Also ask her about specific websites (many school textbooks now have practice sites kids can use in conjunction with the material in the book) or check out an online tutoring site like growingstars.com or tutor.com, which also has apps for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch.
Step 4: Pick the Right Spot
Some kids do best with a desk set up in their bedroom so they can work independently; others want to be smack in the middle of the kitchen while you cook dinner. Mayzler recommends letting kids choose their preferred study spot. If your child focuses better lounging on a couch or the floor, “I say let them do it,” she notes. Wherever your child does homework, keep it distraction-free—no TV, video games, or loud siblings playing nearby. “It's ideal if you can set a quiet family work time, when younger kids color or do other ‘homework-like’ tasks and you do paperwork or reading of your own,” Mayzler adds.
Step 5: Try Not to Be So Freaking Helpful!
Of course, it's okay—and actually necessary—to sit with 5-or 6-year-olds while they do homework. However, your goal should be to help less over time and move physically farther from where your child works. Laura Laing and her partner, Gina Foringer, make a point of staying out of the room where their daughter, Zoe, 11, does homework. That way, Zoe is encouraged to think through her work on her own before asking a parent for help. Even when Zoe asks a question, Laing often responds with more questions instead of answers. “I'll ask ‘What do you think?’ or ‘How do you think you can come to the answer?’” says Laing. Zoe often works out her own solution by talking it through with her mom.
When it comes to proofing a homework assignment, less is definitely better. Check a few answers to ensure that your child understands what's she's doing, but don't go over the entire page. After all, your child's teacher needs an accurate measure of whether she really understands the work.
Step 6: Make 'Em Pay
Although you may feel guilty at first, it's smart to have a one-strike rule when it comes to forgetting homework. If your child leaves her assignment (or lunch, gym clothes, or other items, for that matter) at home and calls, begging you to bring it to school, bail her out, say, only once each grading period. For many kids, just one missed recess (or whatever the teacher's policy is for not turning in homework) usually improves their memory, says Cathy Vatterott, Ph.D., associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of Rethinking Homework. But chronically disorganized kids may need more hand-holding. “Help your child figure out what part of his ‘return homework’ chain is broken,” says Vatterott. “Does he routinely leave homework on the dining room table? Does he forget some assignments because they're in a different folder?” Create a “Homework Checklist” on the computer and post it near his usual study space.
Step 7: Push Back on Busywork
Vatterott and other educators are now advocating for changes in the way homework is assigned and used in the United States (requiring teachers to prove the usefulness of assignments, discouraging teachers from grading homework, and more). She encourages parents to do so, too. “Good homework helps kids cement what they've learned, but it isn't busywork, isn't given in extreme amounts, and definitely doesn't require parents to become substitute teachers at home,” Vatterott says. A few caveats:
Mom and Dad shouldn't do homework
If work comes home with “directions for parents,” Vatterott suggests letting the teacher and possibly the principal know that you, unfortunately, aren't in class this year (some gentle humor helps!), so you won't be building a replica of a human cell or a California mission, or whatever is required. A project can be a fun way for parents and kids to bond, but if you feel like it's taking up too much of your time, it probably is.
Watch for overload
If your third-grader is spending an hour and a half on just her math homework, for instance, that's way too much. “Keep track of her time for several days, then talk to the teacher,” suggests Dolin. Sometimes teachers honestly underestimate how long an assignment will take. If your child routinely works long hours because she's struggling, also talk to the teacher. But if she seems to be slaving over homework because she's a perfectionist, you may need to discuss a reasonable amount of time to devote to an assignment and then clock her.