As November kicks off, your child’s school year is really taking shape. A routine is forming, and teacher expectations are hopefully becoming clear. Yet, there is still plenty of time to make adjustments. With that in mind, here are some things you can do—and things to avoid—when it comes to the subject of homework.
First, parents can communicate the importance of homework by making sure children (and teens) have the space, time and materials they need to accomplish their work. While it’s true that some kids can do their homework on the fly—in the car or in front of the TV—experts recommend that parents create a physical structure and routine. Can your child do homework at the same time each day or on a predictable schedule? Is there a desk or a table and perhaps a shelf your student can dedicate for schoolwork, supplies and reference materials? Does the space allow for minimizing distractions? Creating a system, rather than improvising day-to-day, helps your child create good work habits and promotes independence. It is also easier on parents, whose main role can then be to simply observe that the child is working as planned.
Experts say it’s fine to help with homework if your child is struggling (especially in the early grades or if your child has special needs), but that the goal should be academic self-sufficiency. Try not to solve problems for your child directly, but help him use the resources he has to solve them himself. This could be as simple as demonstrating how to use a dictionary or reminding your child to review instructions when he’s not sure what to do.
If your child is stuck and the available resources aren’t helping, she may be best served by waiting to communicate with her teacher at school (as opposed to you providing answers). This may mean that homework occasionally goes undone, but teaches your child essential self-advocacy skills. It also gives teachers important feedback about where students need more instruction.
Overall, be less concerned with your child’s homework being perfect (let the teacher assess quality) and more concerned with him having systems in place to manage his work. You can help him learn to use tools, such as calendars and lists, to track and prioritize tasks. If something falls through the cracks, that’s OK. It’s a chance to talk about why it happened and brainstorm strategies that might have prevented the oversight. This practice will help your child get and stay organized and will benefit him far beyond homework.
At the same time, parents should not hesitate to communicate directly with teachers about broader concerns, such as that homework is consistently too difficult, that there is too much or that its purpose isn’t clear. Research has shown that more isn’t necessarily better when it comes to homework and that, in elementary school in particular, the load should be light. Just 10 minutes per grade level per night is recommended.
Erika Patall, Ph.D., with the University of Southern California, studies parental involvement, homework and student achievement. Her advice echoes all we have heard about the dangers of over-involved or “helicopter” parenting. Parents should not do homework for their kids or help them excessively, she says. It will hurt them in the long run. Patall also advises against using punishments or rewards to motivate kids around doing homework. Creating a routine, talking about why the work is valuable, and giving kids autonomy regarding how they engage with assignments are much better methods, she says.
Experiencing appropriate levels of autonomy is essential to child development. That means letting kids make their own decisions and experience consequences, including negative ones. In fact, there is great concern among child development experts today that our children are often not allowed to take the risks necessary for healthy development, which can lead to depression and high levels of anxiety in later years. Letting kids fail lets them learn how to put failure in perspective and how to benefit from mistakes.
But even as you step back from too much involvement, make sure your child feels comfortable coming to you for advice and support. Research has shown that parental “warmth” (showing affection and love) enhances student success. And as attachment theory has taught us, children who feel free and safe to venture away tend to be happier, more competent and more outwardly successful throughout life.
Margaret Nicklas is an Austin-based freelance journalist, writer and mom.