Is homework the bane of your life?

Homework! The fine line between supporting and helping

Is homework the bane of your life?

Does your heart sink when an extended homework, papier mache construction project, some GCSE coursework, maths worksheet or history essay comes home? They are supposed to do it themselves, aren’t they? We know this but many of us are tempted to do at least some of our children’s homework. If this sounds like you, you are not alone.

A poll of 2000 UK parents with children ages 5 – 15, conducted in 2016 by organisers of the Bett educational tradeshow, found that in one in six families it is parents who actually do all the homework. In two-thirds of cases, parents were willing to help out but found themselves left to do everything. A tenth said it saved stress if they did the work themselves. Seventy percent said their children were happy to let them do it all.

Our “help” may not be that helpful. A US study in 2014 indicated no clear connection between measurable forms of parental involvement at school and improved student performance. It could even bring down grades. A UK survey of 2000 9 -13-year-olds in 2010 found that 58% said their parents often confused their children with out of date methods. In 2006 Phil Hope, then UK Minister for Skills, encouraged parents to think about whether they could benefit from “improving their skills a little.” This becomes more of an issue as the curriculum expands and develops.

Homework can be stressful for both child and parent. It often seems to detract from quality (argument free) time. Parents and/or children may not see the value in an assignment. Parents may worry that it is too much, too little, too hard or too easy. They may dread homework because they end up doing it themselves or nagging until it gets done. Perhaps they feel driven to help because they want their child to get the best grade possible. Or they worry that other parents are helping and that their child’s work will suffer by comparison. It’s a minefield!

The value of homework

Even if you hate homework, you must support the homework policy of your child’s school – or try to change it! The goal is that they should learn to love learning, to learn to think clearly and critically. Homework supports this objective, although there is debate about when it should start, how much and what type is appropriate. (Read more on this at ).

Children need teaching, showing and explaining. They do not need over-direction or excessive control. Neither is it right that our parental egos lead us to pressure our children and get over- involved in what they produce. Homework tasks are for learning about responsibility and to give children a genuine sense of achievement when they submit their own work. So don’t agree with them that homework is hell and don’t do it for them.

Children must become self-starters for the sake of their school career and their adult life. To this end, they need to develop key study skills: organisational skills; time management skills; and active study strategies such as writing notes and reciting aloud.

How can you support your child?

This depends on the age of a child, the nature of their school experience and their individual needs. You know your child better than anyone else and can judge what is appropriate. Generally speaking, however, children need less help as they get older. They always need support.

  • Empathise with your child. (“It’s hard to get started on homework when you’ve been so busy all day”)
  • Set up for success. Prepare by setting up a regular time, choosing a comfortable place, removing distractions, having supplies and resources on hand etc. Involve your child in working out how and when homework should be done.
  • Increase responsibility gradually. Start by giving responsibility for whatever your child can do as soon as she is ready, e.g. start with no-homework tasks such as dressing for a pre-schooler. Prepare them for working independently by using “chat throughs” – get them to explain what they need to do, ask them questions to ensure their full understanding, guide them with suggestions about how/where to find an answer rather than giving the answer. Descriptively praise any willingness to participate in this process. The “chat through” can sometimes bore children but persist until they are in the habit of working well independently and producing satisfactory work.
  • Monitor their work by checking in occasionally, less frequently as they get older and better at it. Your interest and presence encourages them but do not be tempted to give them the answers, correct or finish work.
  • Descriptively praise concentration, independence, commitment and what is good, even if there are errors.
  • Ask your child to find something to improve, if necessary directing her attention with questions. This should stop once she is ready and able to cope without intervention and usually by the time she starts secondary school. This approach conveys the idea that there is always room for improvement but should not be too intrusive! Do not aim to get all mistakes corrected. This would be demotivating and counterproductive.
  • Let them take responsibility for doing homework. If it is not done (unless for very good reason) it is up to them to explain why at school and face any consequences.
  • Show a genuine interest in what they are learning as they get older. Discuss topics, help with methodology and techniques, and how to approach a problem. Reviewing what they have done can also be helpful, depending on their age. Continue to show empathy and descriptively praise commitment and effort. Celebrate their successes.

Find the fine line between helping and supporting children with homework

Russell Hobby, General Secretary of the National Association of Head Teachers, commented in 2014: “There is a difference between helping and doing and it is clearly not a good idea to complete it. The question is what these parents are trying to prove. It is not a formal test, so why sacrifice their children’s learning in an attempt to make their children look good?” So how should you react when that extended homework project comes home? Carol Dweck, Ph.D., top psychologist and leading researcher, advises: “Parents can be valuable as a resource to discuss the nature of the assignment, be a sounding board for ideas, and reflect back to the children what they are hearing. But that’s it. Helping too much with a big project sends a bad message that the child is not capable, and the child will doubt their abilities. These are the kids who never gain confidence”.

We must “begin with the end in mind”, as Stephen Covey says. Homework benefits children by helping them to acquire self-directed learning skills, i.e. initiative, independence and confidence. With these comes a sense of belonging, autonomy and a sense of control over their own lives. If parents get too involved children lose this sense of autonomy and of achievement.

Please join one of my courses, workshops or try personal coaching to learn more about the skills described here.

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