How much parent involvement is too much? By Monica Ginsburg
When Jack Marston was in fourth grade, his mom, Sharon, found herself so involved in his eight-page research report on Illinois that she put her name on the completed assignment, too. "I felt the Internet research required, the length of the paper and that it needed to be typed were beyond his scope," says the Glen Ellyn mom of four school-age children. "I wanted the teacher to know that this was not just his project. I had to help him to the point of it being my project, too."
In many families, especially those with elementary school children, homework has evolved into a family affair rather than a solo exercise for young students. Parents feel obligated to step in with advice, assistance and to help kids manage homework overload, juggle schoolwork with extracurricular activities and complete time-consuming projects. A competitive school environment can put extra pressure on children, and parents, to be the best. But when does helping turn into overhelping?
"Sometimes I do step in to help take the load off my kids so they're not stressed out about all the homework they have to do," says Karen Janatka of Buffalo Grove, mom to Andrew, 11, and Jillian, 9. "But if you're giving more answers than the child, I think that's a little bit of overhelping. When my daughter is waiting for me to give her the next answer, something is not right. I know I'm too involved and I try to step back and have her figure it out for herself."
Removing yourself from the homework trap isn't always easy, especially with multi-step research reports or other do-at-home assignments that offer more parental hands-on opportunities.
"Occasionally I do feel bad when I see other projects that obviously have signs of a parent helping, especially when my kid's project is right there hanging next to it. I think, maybe I should have helped him make it a little better," Janatka says. "Some parents are highly competitive in every aspect of their lives, including their children. You have to decide if you're going to cave into that type of competitiveness or if you're going to do what you think is right."
Hands off homework Parents do play an important homework role: providing children with a quiet place to work, establishing a regular homework time, encouraging good study habits, checking assignments to make sure they're completed and facilitating large projects.
Beyond that, hands off, says Cynthia Mee, professor of middle-school education at the Wheeling campus of National-Louis University.
"Until teachers start assigning parents grades, parents should keep their hands off of homework," Mee says. "We know kids are highly stressed. At a very young age, they're already worried about grades and getting into college. But if a child is going to school to learn and a parent does the homework, what are kids learning?"
Even self-starters need help Many parents adjust their level of support to accommodate their children's learning styles. Cathy Pavlik of La Grange is very hands-off with her son Joel, 12, a self-motivated sixth-grader. Her daughter, Emily, 10, needs a little more guidance. Still, Pavlik found she was not involved enough last year when Joel was preparing a lengthy report on Ronald Reagan.
"Late one Sunday night, close to the project due date, Joel said he needed to go to the library to get one more book. That's when I started looking at it and getting more involved," she says. "Once I stepped in I realized he was a little over his head, and I think he realized it, too. Putting the political issues in his own words, especially concepts he didn't understand, was difficult for him. I wish I had gotten involved sooner."
When the report was completed, they brainstormed ways to keep a project on track in the future. "Part of his job now is to ask for help earlier," she says.
Not enough homework? Lakemoor mom Liz Cook had an uncommon homework issue. She didn't feel her son William, 10, got enough homework last year as a fourth-grader at Big Hollow Elementary School in Engelside. "Everyone had 30 minutes in school to do their homework and William only brought home homework one time to finish," says Cook. "If he could complete it in class, he didn't have to give it that much thought. It was just busy work."
Cook brought her concerns to the teacher and asked for more challenging homework or independent study work. "The teacher thought it was a good idea but she never followed through. So I created my own study assignments to supplement what he was learning at school."
At-home studying included answering questions at the end of textbook chapters, writing a synopsis of a book of his choice and writing definitions for spelling words.
"Of course he hated it," says Cook, who also has a 7-year-old son, Alex. "He didn't think it was fair because he did his homework at school, but I told him it was a way for him to stay challenged. I needed to make sure he knew the basics even though he got A's. Standardized test go above what's taught in school and I want him to be prepared."
Clarify your role It's important to clarify early on what teachers expect from parents. Beth Butler of Buffalo Grove wasn't sure how much she should step in when her daughter Rachel, a fourth-grader with a learning disability, was struggling with homework.
"It's a very difficult battle for me to decide what to help with and what not to help with," Butler says. "Instead of me doing it for her, I asked her teacher if some type of adjustment could be made. Now Rachel still does what the rest of the class is doing, just not as intense, and she can do it on her own."
For example, if there are 30 math problems on a study sheet, Rachel may be asked to complete 15 or 20 in the same amount of time.
"Lots of parents want their kids to be the best, but not everyone is meant to be No. 1. As long as she's able to do slightly less and do it correctly, ultimately she's successful."
Helping versus taking over Science fair projects have long been the pinnacle of parent overhelpings. Kiki Valkanas, a science teacher at Bateman Elementary School in Chicago, encourages parents to pitch in with their children's projects. She's already sent a letter home clarifying how parents can help and says that most parent respect ther guidelines. Her suggestions: selecting age-appropriate books, evaluating Internet resources, developing a list of project materials, checking spelling and locating an adult or professional for the child to interview.
The hands-on experiment-she calls it the meat and potatoes-has to be done by the child. "I invite parents to help, not take over," she says.
Valkanas, who also judges science fairs at other Chicago Public Schools, says it's clear when parents have done more work than the child. "When a student makes a presentation, you can tell by the responses to the questions you ask whether or not the child has done the work. If the child cannot respond, obviously there are other hands involved."
She insists that how the final project looks really isn't that important. "I don't know of any teacher that will pick the best-looking project. The kid who knows the most, can go well beyond the basics, maybe even tell us something we didn't know, that's the kid that gets an A," she says.
"The nice thing about science is that it doesn't have to be right. Even if an experiment flops, you still learn something. The point is for the child to go through the process and follow the steps. Whether it works or not, they're going to learn something."
Still, Cathy Pavlik of LaGrange isn't looking forward to her kid's science fair experience. While she says parents typically respect homework-helping boundaries, she expects science fair projects to test the limits. "Grades are one thing," Pavlik says. "Awards are something else."
Josh Hawkins / Chicago Parent It's important that children develop study habits that will stick.
Coaching your child to independent learning
Most parents find themselves involved, sometimes even overinvolved, in their kids' homework. This can foster dependency. Instead, help your children become confident, independent learners. Don't hover.
"Kids say they want their parents to be available for homework help but not hovering over them," says Peggy Hoskins, principal at Northbrook Junior High School. "They love it when you're nearby, maybe working at the dining room table, balancing the checkbook. Then they feel more comfortable asking for help." But resist assuming responsibility. "Kids just want coaching," she says.
Here are some other ways to foster independent learning:
• Ask, don't tell. "Be prepared to help your child if portions of the homework are difficult by questioning or guiding them through the assignment," says Dr. Virginia-Ellen Jones, chairwoman of elementary and middle school education at Chicago State University. "I know families are rushed, but I don't believe parents should just tell their kids the answers. For there to be growth in learning, there must be some perplexity."
• Pose good questions. Parents also can help a child formulate questions to take back to the teacher. "You want your child to learn to be proactive in their learning, not to always look to mom and dad for answers," Jones says.
• Clarify your role. Ask your child's teacher how much help, and what type of help, is expected. Then abide by the teacher's request.
• Take it up with the teacher. If you're not satisfied with the type or amount of homework that's coming home, take it up with the teacher, not your child. "There has to be two-way communication," says Sharon Marston of Glen Ellyn.
• Send positive messages. Praise your child's performance, not your own. "If you say I wasn't good at math either, you're giving your child permission not to be good at math," Hoskins says.
• Strike a balance. "My biggest challenge is finding a time and place for my kids to do homework, especially in the fall and spring when they're busy with sports," says La Grange mom Cathy Pavlik. "Homework is important, and we're trying to find a balance that works for everyone."
• It doesn't have to be perfect. "Who cares if he puts the title on horizontal rather than vertical? Nothing gives a child more satisfaction than his words on a board, not yours," says National-Louis University's Mee.
• Celebrate achievements. When a project is completed, review strategies that worked well and evaluate those that didn't. Point out your child's strengths and authenticity to the assignment.
• Nurture a love of learning. "I try to take an interest in what my kids are learning and to enrich what's happening in school," says Theresa Sulentic, a Schaumburg mother of three kids. "When they see that we value what they're doing, they understand the need to spend time on it."
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