Homework: How Parents Can Help

What is the point of homework? Critics argue that it accomplishes little, particularly in the lower and middle-school grades, and may even inhibit learning by requiring children to perform tedious, repetitive exercises that deaden creativity and quash a nascent love of learning. Nevertheless, homework has long been a pillar of the American education system and most educators agree that, at appropriate levels, homework gives children the opportunity to practice and master the concepts learned in the classroom. Parents also largely support homework because it helps them understand and monitor their children’s education and because they see that it can help their kids develop good study habits and learn independently.

About that last point: learning independently. Parents recognize that it is important to be involved in their children’s education, that their support and encouragement are important to a child’s achievement and future success. Yet many struggle with the boundary between appropriate engagement and “helping” that goes too far, which defeats the purpose of homework, and robs the child of the crucial opportunity to develop a sense of mastery and competence. Where is that boundary? Most would agree that building the diorama, or actually writing the paper, crosses it. But when a tired, frustrated child can’t quite solve a math problem, how can you help? Should you read and correct a book report? And how do you avoid making homework a daily struggle? (“Have you done it yet?” “No TV until …”) Here are my tips tips for helping your child learn the most important lessons homework has to teach.

Focus on the process rather than the content

What is in your children’s homework is not as important as how they go about it and how you support them.

Decide together what works best for each child and stick (but not too rigidly) to a plan. Ask these questions: Does he concentrate best right after school or will a play period replenish his mental energy? Does she do her best work tackling an assignment and getting it done or breaking it up into manageable chunks? Understanding each child’s best learning style can help the child reflect on their process, check in with themself and develop work habits, which are skills they can build on throughout life.
Enlist each child’s participation in identifying and equipping a designated place for doing homework. For very young children, that might be the kitchen table with a supportive adult nearby but as they get older, a well-lit desk in a quiet place (no TV or loud music!), a comfortable chair, and a full complement of self-selected supplies can help your student feel a sense of ownership and commitment to the work.

Recognize the role of emotions in learning

Scientific research has come a long way in recent decades in understanding how our brains work and how we learn. We know that processing strong emotions affects our ability to acquire and consolidate information and effectively blocks learning. Children who learn to manage and regulate their emotions free up their brains to focus on learning. When a child is feeling overwhelmed by a homework problem that just won’t give up its secrets, what should you do?

Encourage expression of emotion: Help identify, label, and express the feeling of frustration; this is the first step in tolerating and managing it. From there you can discuss solutions.
Take a break: Sometimes continuing to tackle the problem head-on will just exacerbate the frustration.
Break it down: If the original problem presents an insurmountable obstacle, try again with just a single step that can be accomplished successfully and built on.
Remember past successes: Remind your child of previous challenges that he has worked through and how he thought that he would never succeed — and then did.
Anxiety can sabotage both your child’s best efforts to master homework tasks and your best supportive efforts. How do you remember your own school experience? Did you breeze through? Grind it out? Procrastinate? Blow off assignments? How does your recollection of your own experience line up with your child’s? More important, how does it differ? An inclination — even an unconscious one — to impose expectations on your child based on your experience is a recipe for parental anxiety that will be all too easily transmitted to a child whose brain, temperament, and learning style are distinctly their own. Anxiety about a child’s academic performance, whatever its source, is what often drives parents to hover over a child’s shoulder and lose sight of that hard-to-find boundary between support and “over-helping.” The better able you are to manage your own anxiety, the better able your youngster will be to manage theirs.

Remember the goals

The point of homework isn’t for your child to get all the answers right or produce the perfect paper; Its most important lesson for parents is that homework helps your child develop “grit” — that combination of passion, perseverance, and resilience that can help them identify and tolerate frustration. It may be an even more important driver of his achievement and success as his innate intellectual gifts.

Dana Dorfman, Ph.D., is a psychotherapist in New York City. drdanadorfman.com.