Should you help with homework?

It’s late afternoon and your children come home from school exhausted, weighed down like turtles by school bags full of homework.

What do you do? Insist they do their homework? Of course!

The best available evidence shows that the more conscientious children are about doing their homework, the better they do academically. They understand the material better, retain more factual information and even get higher grades.

In fact, doing homework on a consistent basis can help children develop good study habits and skills, learn how to plan and manage their time and become selfdirected and self-disciplined.

But — here’s the tricky part — do you encourage your kids to do their homework on their own or do you sit down to help them with it?

Well, according to numerous researchers, the answer to that question is, “It depends.”

In the most comprehensive summary of the scientific literature to date, researchers from Duke University concluded that whether parents should help their children with their homework depends on: 1) the grade level of the children, 2) how knowledgeable parents are about the subject matter, and 3) how much parents help their children with the work.

Elementary school

Surprising as it may seem, researchers have consistently found that homework assistance is beneficial for children in elementary and high school, but not for middle-school-aged children.

Why? Researchers believe that parental assistance with homework for children in elementary school helps because kids are young and impressionable.

And your help is about more than just completing the homework: You’re also teaching your kids how to study in the first place.

Erika Patall, the lead author of the research summary, said: “Homework is an especially good opportunity for parents to help young kids develop self-regulatory skills, by modeling study strategies and helping students set goals and make plans for completing homework.”

High school

The situation is quite different when it comes to high-school-aged students. Here, researchers speculate that parent involvement adds value because they’re likely to help only when they have particular expertise to share.

When you know little or nothing about the subject matter of the homework, you’re more likely to let your children do it on their own.

Judith Locke, a clinical psychologist at Queensland University of Technology in Australia, said: “Parental assistance with homework should slowly reduce as a child gets older.”

Middle school

Why, then, would it be detrimental for you to sit down with your middle-schoolers to help them out with their homework?

As budding teenagers — caught between childhood and adulthood — middle-schoolers have a new and especially strong need for autonomy and are likely to resist any effort on your part to interfere in their affairs.

“Even if a parent is effective at helping a child develop skills,” Patall said, “there’s a psychological barrier.”

Are you really helping?

Before deciding whether to help your children with their homework, you should also consider whether you’re qualified for the job.

Researchers have discovered that the more parents know about the subject matter, the more children can benefit from parental help.

They also found that parents are better able to help their children with reading and writing than with math homework. With math, parents often know less and are less up-to-date with the latest instructional strategies. Indeed, parents’ old instructional math strategies often conflict with those contemporary methods taught at school.

The bigger picture

When it comes to homework, parents’ most important job is to create a clearly defined time, place and way to complete homework, researchers say.

In fact, one of the most consistent findings in the world of homework research is that children benefit the most when parents support children in their own efforts rather than help them out every single step of the way.

Linda Cameron, a homework researcher at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education in Canada, said: “Be at the elbow, but don’t hold the pen.”

Tanni Haas is a professor in the department of Speech Communication Arts & Sciences at Brooklyn College/The City University of New York.