Parenting Solutions: Helping Children Handle Homework

You may think you’re just a mild-mannered mom or dad. But here are some tips that can turn you into a superhero when your children need assistance with difficult homework assignments.

Whether your child is 5 or 18, as a parent you have a role to play. That role is to foster a love of learning. But remembering your role can be tough when schedules are tight, the television is blaring, and you’re already tired from a long day. Take courage, just the same—the feat is not impossible. In fact, it can be fulfilling.

Fourteen-year-old Brittany is in tears because of homework.

“I just don’t get it,” she says, over and over again. Math can do that to people.

Her brother Miles, a high school senior studying calculus, steps in to help, but that only makes matters worse. “When he explains it, it just gets more complicated,” Brittany moans.

A frustrated Miles stomps from the room as Brittany’s younger brother and sister eye their mother.

“Don’t look at me,” Mom says. “I don’t understand math at all.” So everybody turns to Dad. And Dad doesn’t get it either.

“All right,” he says, in SuperDad fashion. “Let’s take a time-out.”

O.K., we’ll take a time-out, too. What should this father do? How can he help his daughter get through a learning/school challenge that evokes a strong emotional reaction? And remember, Dad is…well, he’s not really SuperDad.

Time in. Let’s join Dad and Brittany again.

“Feeling a little better?” Dad says.

“A little,” Brittany says, dabbing her eyes.

“O.K.,” he says. “I don’t understand this either, but maybe you could explain it to me. Let’s start by figuring out what you do understand.”

It takes several minutes, and there are times when the tears well up again. But then the light comes on. Miles re-enters the room and confirms that the answers are correct. Mom beams. And from Brittany—a smile! A hug! Hey, maybe there is a SuperDad after all.

You’ve just had two lessons at Homework School:

LESSON ONE: LET THEM TALK UNTIL THEIR LIGHT COMES ON.

LESSON TWO: THE REWARDS ARE WORTH THE EFFORT.

You’re ready for the next lesson:

LESSON THREE: RALLY YOUR FORCES.

On many subjects, SuperMoms may know more than SuperDads. And don’t forget SuperGrandmas, -Grandpas, -Brothers, -Sisters, -Aunts, and -Uncles —you get the idea. Seek reinforcements. “Often, teaching and learning are easier if more people are involved,” says Cecilia Jabakumar, an elementary school principal in Salt Lake City, Utah.

Marguerite C. Radencich and Jeanne Shay Schumm put it this way in their book, How to Help Your Child With Homework (Free Spirit Publishing, 1997): “Helping with homework doesn’t have to be solely your responsibility as a parent. You may discover that more than one family member is willing and able to lend a hand.” Look to others, too. One young woman, searching for a science project, studied bridge construction with a neighbor who’s an engineer. A Cub Scout developed a geology display for a school class after talking with his Cubmaster, who works for a refinery.

You have other allies, too. How about Terrific Teacher, the one who assigned the homework in the first place? Judy Caragher, an elementary school teacher from Auburndale, Mass., suggests in an article, “Knowing When to Contact Your Child’s Teacher,” on Discovery.com that you should not only check in at conferences but work all year with the teacher to form a “united front” to guide and encourage your student. “In this wonderful technology age, e-mail is a great way to solidify the home-school connection without having to work around both your schedules,” she says.

Other superheroes are also at your service: Learned Librarian and Internet Man. There are volumes and volumes, sites and sites with tips for parents to help children develop valuable study habits and homework skills.

At the local library, my wife and I found a little book our children love, How to Do Homework Without Throwing Up (Free Spirit Publishing, 1997), by Trevor Romain. An insightful read for parents, too, Romain’s book offers homework truths to students in language with which they can identify.

An excellent Web site for parents to reference is www.nea.org, which reflects the point of view of teachers who, in working with children at school every day, know firsthand kids’ concerns about school, homework, and studying. And remember, most schools now have telephone hotlines or Web sites where you can, among other things, check on assignments given and those turned in. It’s a great way to keep in contact with teachers and avoid surprises.

For Scouting families, here are two action figures you may not have thought of: Mighty Merit Badge and Amazing Activity Badge. The Scholarship merit badge pamphlet offers lots of good suggestions, both for children and parents, on completing assignments for school; and the requirements for the Scholar activity badge can be used with younger children as a way to get a conversation started about homework and grades. Maybe your child can learn good study habits and earn a merit or activity badge at the same time!

LESSON FOUR: STRENGTHEN YOUR FORTRESS.

Every superhero has a place of refuge. In your case, it’s your home. In that sanctuary, establish an environment where learning is revered. Eat dinner together, and in addition to your normal conversation, select one academic subject for discussion each night. Give it 5 or 10 minutes. You’ll be surprised how, over time, this will sharpen thought processes and skills of self-expression.

Another great idea is to read together as a family. “Let your kids see you reading and they’re more likely to pick up the habit,” offers a National Education Association report. One mother from California explains that she used to read to her two children, “but now that they are older, I read with them. We set aside a half hour each night, and we really enjoy just being together, knowing we’re each absorbed in our own book.”

You can also strengthen your fortress by making it a place of praise. The honest effort children put into their studies is more important than grades. Tell your children often that you admire them for doing their best. Reward them when they do.

LESSON FIVE: OFTEN THE BEST SUPERHERO IS A SIDEKICK.

A few lines from the lyrics of a children’s song plead: “Lead me, guide me, walk beside me, help me find the way.” That’s excellent advice for parents.

Resist the following temptations: doing more than you need to, helping when help isn’t wanted or needed, or becoming part of an argument rather than part of a solution. Remember, the goal is to prepare children for life, not just to help them finish an assignment or outshine their classmates.

“A teacher can tell when parents do homework for their children,” says Dennis Larsen, a ninth-grade teacher in Sandy, Utah. “There’s nothing wrong with proofreading or checking. But if you do the work for them, you take away their opportunity to learn.”

Encourage children to look things up. Try saying: “One of the answers is on page 33. Can you find it?” If they don’t understand a word, send them to a glossary or a dictionary. It’s an exercise that builds study muscles.

“If your child is one who needs individual support and attention both at school and at home, tackle the assignments one at a time,” says elementary school teacher Judy Caragher, in herDiscoverySchool.com article “Getting Kids to Do Their Own Homework.”

“Go over the directions and materials with your child, making sure he is clear about what needs to be done,” she advises. “Talk about what needs to be completed—even if it is only a portion of the assignment—and then disappear.” This forces the child to think on his or her own, and to become a more confident student.

LESSON SIX: TEACH FROM EXPERIENCE.

Karla Ballard, a past president of the National Urban League Young Professionals, is quoted in Hugh B. Price’s book Achievement Matters: Getting Your Child the Best Education Possible (Kensington Publishing Corporation, 2002) as saying: “A parent often asks: ‘Who am I to be a teacher? I don’t have a college degree. I can’t understand math, etc.’

“Yet the value of your life is what’s critical,” she points out. “Parents must see themselves as educators and their own lives as educational experiences.”

When you bake a cake, show how fractions apply in measurements. Have a contest to see who can find the most geometric shapes in buildings. If your child is studying French, go to a French restaurant. If he or she is studying science, go to a museum. Again, remember, you’re not just getting a student through school. You’re preparing a child for life.

So there you have it. You’ve completed your first course in Homework School, “Superhero 101.” Sure, there’s still a lot to learn. But just remember Lesson Two: The rewards are worth the effort.

Richard M. Romney is a freelance writer in Salt Lake City who, along with wife, Julene, has helped their five children handle homework.

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