HELPING OR HURTING? |
When and how should we get involved in our kids’ homework?

Thirty years ago, nobody hovered anxiously as I worked algebra problems, conjugated irregular French verbs, or researched the Panama Canal for my social studies paper. Sure, my dad, the civil engineer, could answer the occasional math or physics query, and my mom, who once won the Winneshiek County spelling bee, was my original spell-check. But homework was mostly mine to slog through, ignore, or devour.

Today, homework is hotly debated: How much is too much? What’s homework for, anyway? Parents bristle when projects are due following weekends packed with soccer tournaments, church services, and piano recitals. Students complain when homework topics haven’t been covered in class. And yes, teachers can tell when the parent has “helped” a little too enthusiastically. (Your handwriting’s a dead giveaway.)

Teachers understand parents want their kids to succeed and get good grades; they want the same for your children. But how can we achieve the happy medium between parental laissez faire and being the Homework Fairy?

First, they say, understand homework’s purpose: It’s primarily to practice and extend what’s been learned in class. Homework is also a “friendlier” means (than tests) of assessing how well students grasp the material.

What homework is not:

“It should not be busy work, ever,” says Frank Eustis, head of the English department at Breck School in Golden Valley.

“It should not be a true struggle,” said 2006 Minnesota Teacher of the Year Lee-Ann Stephens, who teaches fifth and sixth grade English language arts at Park Spanish Immersion School in St. Louis Park. If an assignment is appropriate, the student should be capable of completing it.

Optimally, these teachers say, parents can and should help their kids track assignments and plan, provide time and space to work, be available for feedback – while avoiding interfering in the actual work, and advocate for their children if they’re stuck.

Some kids take pride in their homework independence; others need more monitoring and guidance. Eustis explains this is due to variance in “executive functioning,” educational jargon for our ability to prioritize and make detailed plans about how to get done what we need to do, the ability to look past the present moment and into the future.” Teens’ brains are still developing in the frontal lobe responsible for this function.

Parents can help fill the gap by encouraging the use of calendars, lists, or other visual systems to make planning visual and concrete. “Kids who get in the habit of doing this early, in junior high, have a huge advantage,” says

Eustis.

Track daily or weekly assignments by logging on to parent portals on schools’ web sites suggests Stephens, then say to your child, “‘I notice you have this assignment; have you done it?'” Missing even one assignment, she notes, can bring a grade down two letters.

Attend back-to-school night and ask for a schedule of due dates for bigger projects or papers during the year, Eustis recommends. Then your child can plan extra time during preceding weeks to work on those assignments.

If your child can’t understand or complete an assignment, communicate with the teacher. “If a child is stuck on something, write a note to the teacher about it,” suggests Stephens, or leave a voicemail or send an e-mail depending on the teacher’s preferred method of communication – Stephens’s 120 students even have her home phone number in case they have questions. Homework problems might mean your child simply wasn’t paying attention or didn’t take good notes – or it could mean the assignment doesn’t correspond to classroom material, which Stephens calls her “biggest beef” with her fellow teachers.

Neither teacher believes kids benefit from homework in Surround Sound, so just say no to IM, TV, and text messaging until the work’s done. Provide a quiet place for homework and protect time during the week from activities and social invitations, so there’s time to work.

Internet shortcuts inhibit good research skills, warns Eustis, and make it easy to produce plagiarized papers based on the cut-and-paste method of writing that often passes for “research” in students’ minds. For $4.95 at SparkNotes.com or $5.99 at CliffsNotes.com anyone can download abridged versions of texts from As You Like It to Anne of Green Gables to Angels in America. That’s why he breaks down projects into smaller steps reinforcing the time-honored rigors of the thesis-outline-notecard method.

Finally, it’s fine to look over your child’s work and note spelling, grammar, or computing errors, but let your child correct them. Have them read an essay aloud to you. Ask questions or comment, but don’t put words in their mouths.

When she’s not conducting a phone interview and furiously typing notes while giving a kid the evil eye in response to an urgent inquiry as to whether he/she can go to a movie at Southdale that starts in 18 minutes and can we drive three friends, Kris Berggren really enjoys her 15-year-old son and her 14- and 10-year-old daughters.

For more information National Education Association NEA.org/parents/homework.html

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