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To Help, or Not to Help? (I have the answer!)

While many of us are soaking up the final days of this summer’s fun, many students across America are already back in the classroom. And though families generally look forward to the structure the academic calendar provides, establishing good routines in after-school hours can be challenging for parents and children alike, especially when it comes to managing homework.

To be perfectly frank with you, over the course of my three-decade teaching career, I found there were limited benefits to assigning traditional homework; however, as the vast majority of academic institutions and parents around the globe continue to view homework as a necessary if onerous component of academic rigor, teachers continue to assign it and students are expected to complete it. So, with a new school year at hand, most parents are once again confronted with that age-old question, Should I help my child with their homework?

The answer is: sort of.

While doing the homework is definitely your child’s job, there are ways that you can and should support their homework experience. To start, you should partner with your child to set up a designated study space in your home. This space does not need to be fancy. (It doesn’t even need to be a desk!) It just needs to exist. Elementary and middle schoolers particularly benefit from working in shared spaces with adults nearby to keep them on track, so a kitchen table can be the perfect choice. You might need to experiment for a week or two to figure out what space works best for your child and for your family, especially if you have more than one school-aged child to consider.

Once you have agreed upon a place to do the homework, you can help your child set up a launchpad where they will put all the stuff they need to cart to and from school each day. Families can delegate a spot on a table or on the floor for a launchpad, but I suggest that, whatever the space, it should be reserved for one child’s belongings only, which makes it easier for that child to manage and encourages a sense of ownership. When they were school-aged, each of my children had a basket near the front door that was large enough for a backpack, lunchbox, and sports equipment. None of my kids played an instrument small enough to fit into their basket, so they set their cello or guitar next to it. Shoes, sweatshirts, and outerwear for the day also went on their launchpad. The vital step of this strategy is that your family must ritualize putting everything onto the launchpad every evening, so that it makes for one-stop shopping in the morning. No remembering required!

Another step you can take to support your child is to check your family’s weekly calendar. Once the school year starts, it’s not unusual for families to find themselves overscheduled in the afternoon and evening hours with music lessons, athletics, and community commitments at their mosque, church, or temple. You can keep a careful eye on what your child can commit to (or not!) in order to set aside time for homework.

The aspect of homework that tends to be the most fraught for parents is what to do when your child is frustrated by an assignment. When this happens, and it will, you can guide your child to internalize a process they can adopt to become an increasingly independent learner. If your child is struggling to complete an assignment, have them ask themselves the following questions:

  1. What is the assignment? More often than you might imagine, students waste time trying to do the wrong work. Help your child compare the assignment written in their planner or posted online to the work they have in front of them. If they are not working on the correct assignment, help them locate the right pages, questions, or problem set. If they are already doing the correct assignment, move on to the next question.

  2. What do the directions tell me to do? Perhaps you will not be shocked to discover that many students start an assignment without checking the directions. Once your child has read the directions silently then aloud, ask them to explain the assigned task to you. If they don’t understand the directions, you can clarify the assignment for them. If they do understand the directions, move on to question #3.

  3. Do I have everything I need to complete this work? On occasion, every child, no matter how organized the teacher or student happens to be, will wind up at home without the materials they need to complete their homework. Sometimes there is an easy solution, such as getting an online version of a reading or downloading a worksheet from a platform like Google Classroom. If your child cannot get the materials they need that evening, that’s okay. It’s still a great learning moment! Have your child write the teacher a note or an email explaining what happened. They can ask for an extension and come up with strategies to improve their pack-up routine. If your child has what they need, go to question #4.

  4. Can I do the work? You might discover that your child is stuck in overwhelm or uncertainty and has not actually attempted the assignment. If they need a short movement break or a snack, help them to identify and meet that need. When they are ready to get back to their studies, have them work on the assignment for five to ten minutes, depending upon their current ability to push through frustration. They might find they can complete it. If they still seem stuck, review their work with them. Your child might just need a bit of encouragement or clarification from you to continue to do their own best work. If you discover that your child is not yet able to do the assignment, no worries. That’s great information for the teacher who assigned it! Have your child write a note or an email to the teacher explaining both what they were able to do and what they were not yet able to do. For instance, while your child might not yet be able to do all of the long division problems assigned, they brought all of the materials they needed home and were able to explain the directions to you. Maybe they even figured out how to divide triple-digit numbers by single-digit numbers, but they got stuck when they got to double-digits. Celebrate the wins at home, and let your child’s teacher do the reteaching at school.

In setting up and practicing these routines and strategies, you can help your child solidify executive functioning skills and increase their confidence, which will make for a far happier homework experience for your entire family and a more successful school year for your child.

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