Wednesday, October 19, 2011

How You Can Help Your Child With Homework

     Now that you have a good environment ready for your child to do homework, the question arises as to how to help your child with her homework.  Before you begin,  I have one word of advice.  

You are a parent, not a teacher.  

     Even if you are a teacher, you are a parent first when helping your child with homework. This means:  
  • You do not correct the homework, unless you have specific instructions from the teacher.  
  • If your child misses the majority of the problems, send a note to the teacher and let her handle it.  
  • If your child is struggling and doesn’t want your help, stand back and let your child handle it.  
  • If your child struggles for too long, stop her, send a note to the teacher, and let the teacher handle it..

    Homework lets the teacher know if a student understands what’s being taught, but only if you, the parent, don’t correct the homework yourself.  In other words:
  • Your job is to make sure the homework gets complete and to communicate to the teacher about any problems.  
  • Your teacher’s job is to correct the homework and work on any comprehension problems with your child.  
  • Your child’s job is to do the homework to the best of his or her ability and ask for help when appropriate.

Before Homework...

    Before your child begins homework, you need to ensure that he has enough emotional energy to actually do the work.  That means your child needs to be neither too hungry nor too tired, since    either condition lessens your child’s ability to cope.  

     For a child who exits the school bus looking to consume any and everything in his path, afternoon snacks are a must.  Peanut butter with either apple slices or graham crackers, cheese toast, and yogurt with granola are a few of the favorite afternoon snacks at my house.  The actual foods don’t matter as long as you have some protein and some carbohydrates.  You can even turn afternoon snacks into subtle nutrition, math, and finance lessons by letting your child help out.  Menu planning requires discussion on nutrition, figuring out how much to buy requires some math, and shopping for the ingredients involves money.

     As for sleep, I admit that  you can’t do anything about a child who is too tired in the afternoon.  Children need a regular sleep schedule.  If you notice your child has circles under her eyes or seems unable to focus or stay on task, then you need to consider moving your child’s bedtime forward.  Even a change of 15 minutes has been shown to help children perform better in school.

During Homework...

    Children need various things from you while doing their homework.  Younger children might need you to sit next to them, for confidence and to answer the occasional question.  Older children might need you to play music, or keep the area quiet.  Sometimes children need help on projects; sometimes they want you to go away and let them handle it themselves.  Whatever the particular situation, there are a few rules for you to follow:

  1. You should only do what your child cannot.  

When both of my children went to kindergarten, we had family art projects once a month.  Even though these projects were family oriented, I let my child lead each project and make the important decisions. For example, my daughter needed to create a family snowman for December.  She picked out a tartan to represent our Scottish heritage and  a coat of arms for our German heritage, among other decorations.  I printed out the images and cut them to the appropriate size, but my daughter glued everything to the snowman and did the rest of the decorating herself.  By splitting the work up that way, she felt ownership for the snowman.

  1. Offer help when your child asks for it or seems lost...

Okay, okay, I know I said that it’s the teacher’s job to help your child with comprehension problems.  But sometimes a child gets stuck, or needs reassurance that she’s doing the problem correctly.  That’s where you come it.  

Let’s say your child is doing a math worksheet, and comes to you stuck on a problem.  Is it the first problem?  If yes, find out how stuck she is.  If she has no clue, skip the worksheet and send a note to the teachers.  If she thinks she knows what to do, but she’s just learning the math concept (such as long division), then watch her go through the steps.  It’s very possible that your presence and reassurance are all that she needs.  If the problem is halfway through the homework, look at the rest of the answers.  If she got everything right, then helping her get over one problem is no big deal.  If she got every other answer wrong, then stop her and send a note to the teacher, because you really do not want her to learn how to do math the incorrect way.

  1. But stand back if your child doesn’t want help.

Remember, you want your child to learn responsibility for his or her own homework.  That means if your child wants to continue without your help, you have to bite the bullet and stand down.  If your child asks for help, but then says that he can do it alone, let him.  If he seems frustrated but says he can figure it out, let him.  If he works on a problem for too long, ask him if he needs help, but be prepared to honor a “no” answer as much as you would a “yes” answer.

I know from experience that it is very difficult to stand by and let your child struggle with homework, especially if you know a shortcut to help out or if it is one of your strong subjects.  But children need to learn how to stand on their own.  Period.  As their parent, you need to support this.  A child who overcomes his own struggles will learn to persevere, which is what we ultimately want our children to learn.

  1. Create your own example problems to avoid doing your child’s homework.

Your child is doing long division for the first time, and asks you to help explain the steps involved before she starts working.  This situation sets up what I consider a classic homework quandary for parents - how to help out without doing any of the homework yourself.

The answer to this quandary is simple - create a brand-new, not in her homework problem for the two of you to work out.  If your child is multiplying two digit numbers, pick two new number and walk through the multiplication.  If your child is doing long division, reminder her that “Dirty Monkeys Smell Bad” (divide, multiply, subtract, bring down) and create a new different problem to practice on.  If your child does not seem to understand after one or two practice problems, stop the math homework and send a note to the teacher.  Be happy that you tried, and even more happy that you didn’t inadvertently do any homework problems.

  1. Dance!  Do Jumping Jacks!  Wiggle! (after each assignment, that is.)

Recent work in neurology shows that the part of the brain responsible for processing motion and movement also processing learning.  That means a quick way to re-energize your child’s brain in the middle of homework is movement.  Put on a dance tune and boogie with your child.  Do some jumping jacks together, or wiggle around for a few minutes between homework assignments or after 15 minutes of concentration.  Not only will this help your child focus better, but it’s a great activity to do together.

  1. Praise your child for attempting each problem.

Children need to be praised for attempting problems, regardless of the outcome or the correctness of the answer.  

  1. Stop all homework when your child hits burnout.

Homework is helpful up to the point of burnout.  By burnout, I mean that a child is out of mental and emotional energy.  Burnout leaves a child tired, angry, and out of internal coping resources.  Every homework study I’ve read warns about burnout, because not only does it hurt homework for the night, but children who hit burnout also do poorly  the next day at school.  If you notice your child is heading to burnout, stop him immediately and send a note to the teacher.  

  1. Establish the habit that homework is not done until it’s back in the backpack.

It is far too easy for a child to finish all of the problems on a worksheet and then leave the worksheet on the kitchen table.  Then you spend the evening chasing your child down, admonishing him to put his homework away.  You can avoid this scenario completely if you establish from the get-go that homework does not count as “complete” until it is return to the backpack, along with any notes for or from the teacher and every other item needed for school the next day.

  1. Remember, Cobb County has a 10-minute per grade level homework policy.

If your child routinely has more than 10-minutes per grade level worth of homework, you need to schedule a parent-teacher conference to understand why and fix the situation.  I assume that Cobb County based it’s homework policy on national standards and homework studies that show too much homework creates burnout.  It is your job, as a parent, to enforce this standard for your child.

After Homework...

    Congratulations!  You and your child made it all the way through homework.  I don’t have any routine activities to perform after homework, but about once every week or two I check on the homework supplies.  Do we still have enough sharpened pencils?  Erasers?  If you put effort into reviewing your homework supplies proactively, you can avoid the “But I can’t find scissors!” situation.

Next week, I’ll discuss how to be your child’s advocate.     


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