The homework dilemma

How much should parents help?

The kids are back in school—and they aren’t the only ones worried about homework. How much should you help your 8-year-old struggling with spelling or your ninth-grader trying to grasp algebra? Should you help at all?

If your kids are totally overwhelmed or have a tough time getting started, it’s time to step in, experts say. But since homework is supposed to measure how much your kids know, it’s important that parents let their kids do the actual work.

In fact, it’s often the struggle that helps a child understand the material. And parents who step in too soon could thwart the learning process, says Carl Garrison, director of student extended education and special services at Palatine Township High School District 211.

Parents who get too involved in homework can also affect classroom dynamics, says Nancy Wagner, assistant superintendent for instruction at Community Consolidated School District 59 in Elk Grove Village.

"One of the things about homework is that it’s a way for teachers to understand how well the kids are doing," Wagner says. "So if parents are doing the homework, teachers don’t really know how well the kids understand the material."

But tears are a good sign that it’s time to intervene, says mom Dena Wiesner-Pardee, of Glen Ellyn.

"You take little bite-sized pieces and break it down for them step by step," she says.

Even then, parents shouldn’t overstep their bounds. "You can’t do it for them," Wiesner-Pardee cautions.

While some parents may be tempted to give answers, write papers or construct science projects, there’s also the temptation to let go completely.

"It’s so easy to get lulled into a false sense of security and let the teachers worry about it," says Glen Ellyn mom Trudy Mergen, whose 14-year-old son started high school this year. "They go into their room and shut their door and you presume they are doing their homework."

There’s always the possibility that a child behind a closed bedroom door might spend more time doing things other than homework, Wagner says. On the other hand, some kids thrive on that independence.

Because each child is different, Wagner advises parents to tailor their help to the needs of each child.

For kids who need more supervision, Wagner says it might help to turn off the TV and clear space for kids to work in the kitchen or family room.

Parents might sit down with a laptop and do "homework" of their own or do some reading. That way, they are nearby if a child needs help.

"Your oldest child may need no supervision and your youngest child may need a lot," Wagner says. "You’ve got to look at your child and use your own judgment."

Sarah Mawhorr


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