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Parental Help With Homework

The first in a series of homework posts discusses how much a parent needs to assist.

As the school year progresses, the dread of homework creeps upon us. I am certain that you’ve heard (or will hear) whining and complaining along the lines of, “This is too hard!” or “I don’t want to do homework!” So how can you help your child do homework without starting a knock-down, drag-out fight over it?

I’ve written a series of articles on homework based on research in neurology, how the brain learns, and personal experience. The articles cover: 

-- How much should you help; How to set up a homework-friendly environment

-- How to help your child without doing the homework yourself

-- Where to find online resources for both you and your child

-- How to be your child’s advocate over homework.

The first thing you must determine is how much help your child truly needs. Like most things in childhood, the younger the child, the more you need to be involved hands on. This means that in general, younger children need more parental involvement that older children.

Kindergarten through First Grade: You’ll need to sit next to your child during homework, giving her instructions such as “Write your name at the top of the paper” every night and offering encouragement. Plan on doing homework at approximately the same time every afternoon, to teach your child the habit.

Second and Third Grade: At the beginning of the year, you will still need to sit down with your child. But within the first few weeks, stop sitting down and let you child tackle his homework on his own. Just be available during homework to answer any questions and give encouragement.

I suggest you still sit down and go over the homework with your child in second grade in detail. But by third grade, a quick question of “So how much homework do you have?” will suffice. The point of either activity isn’t to give you an idea of the homework, but to give your child an idea of how much he has at the end of the day. This step moves him along the path to independently done homework.

Fourth and Fifth Grade: You finally reached the point where you can say, “Okay, it’s time to start your homework.” Your child now knows how, when and where to do homework, where you keep supplies and how to gauge the amount of homework.

You will need to teach your child how to schedule projects, since most school do not hand out big at-home projects before fourth grade. I suggest you pull out a calendar and discuss how to divide the amount of work reasonably over the available time period. Then have your child write down the results so that she can track them independently.  

Sixth Grade and Up: Here’s where the rubber meets the road. Sometime during your child’s middle school years, you need to stand back and stop doing homework. Stop asking your child how much homework he has, stop arranging time for his homework (unless he requests the time), stop everything. This is the moment you’ve been waiting for (or dreading) - your child now can independently do his homework.

At the beginning of my son’s sixth grade year, we gave him a choice. Either we would still schedule his homework for him and sometimes check his work for completion, or he could take over and be responsible for his homework. He chose the latter; that meant that he needed to manage his own time after school to get his homework done.

How did that experiment turn out?

Wonderfully! My son ran into trouble a few times, as he learned how to manage his time. But we kept our noses out of his homework, and he made honor roll twice in sixth grade, and remained in his advanced classes for seventh grade.

Was it easy for me to give up control?

No!! While I told my son that I had every confidence in his capability to handle homework, inside I feared the nightmare - a report card full of Ds and F with a child who learned nothing. I feared behavior problems, arguments over computers and chores springing up randomly, meteors falling out of the sky onto our house, heavy rains of cats and dogs, earthquakes splitting the ground open to form a volcano in downtown Marietta.

But none of that happened. To forestall any arguments over video games, we gave my son a timer and a set amount of computer time per day. He can use the time whenever he wants, so long as he does not go over his allotment. Not only did arguments over chores not appear, he now chooses to take out the garbage over starting homework - an unforeseen bonus that leaves my house smelling that much cleaner. As for the cataclysms? There is still a dearth of active volcanoes in our area.

I know that someone out there reading this will think, “But my child isn’t ready for the responsibility.” Let me tell you a little story. Back in the mid-1990s, some parenting experts started recommending that no one potty trains their children until the ages of 4 ½ or 5. The experts said that waiting allowed the parents to have more meaningful conversations with their children on the subject. Sounds logical, right?

Wrong. Waiting on potty training taught the children to pee and poo in their pants. Children’s brains are wired to learn certain activities at certain ages, and you don’t have much of a choice about it. A child will walk when he’s ready, talk when he’s ready, learn to read when he’s ready, and learn to use a toilet when he’s ready.

Your child also learns responsibility at a certain age. She learns to dress herself, feed herself, pick up her toys, put her dishes in the dishwasher. Learning to be responsible for homework is just another stepping stone on the trip from infant to independent adult.

I know several parents who gave up the reins of homework, and enjoyed their children’s school years more because of it. I also know several parents who did not hand over the responsibility, and these people paid for it in middle school and high school. Their children had learned not to be responsible for their own homework, not to think about it or schedule for it. Epic battles occurred in their homes over homework, and nobody won.

One final note to my story - I still help my son when he asks for help. Sometimes he gets a big project and needs help figuring out the schedule. Sometimes he needs unusual school supplies. And sometimes, he needs to be excused from a family activity. The message here is that I still support my son. But I let him tell me what he needs instead of my butting-in and looking for what I can do.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

M. Stone October 06, 2011 at 12:22 PM
Good article, good advice. Oh, and you mean a "dearth of active volcanoes," not a "dirge."
Kathryn A. Patterson October 06, 2011 at 05:15 PM
Thanks for the correction! :-)

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