Homework Help

What’s a parent to do?


Linda Downing Miller

It begins as early as kindergarten and extends through college. It strains the seams of backpacks. It steals sunshine and sleep. It can drive kids and parents to tears, deception and distraction. It's homework, and another long season is just getting started.

"It's an absolute, everyday battle," says Jill Ramaker, a Wilmette mother of four who has spent the past 11 years trying to keep her kids on track with homework. "The best part of summer is that there is no homework."

Parents can take steps to minimize the homework war-from starting off the school year with a clear set of rules and expectations to keeping in regular communication with teachers. The goal for parents should be structure rather than control, says Wendy Grolnick, a professor of psychology at Clark University in Massachusetts.

Grolnick has witnessed parents and kids interacting over homework tasks in Clark University's child development laboratory and researched issues of parental control for more than 20 years. She says parents tend to get overly involved when they believe their children are being evaluated. Parents can even think that the quality of a child's homework is a reflection of themselves.

A look at visual aids in reports, dioramas and science fair projects in many schools might support this observation.

Peggy Montroy, a mother of three in Hinsdale and a former elementary school teacher, still laughs with her husband about a first-grade class project on Alaskan animals he helped their now 8-year-old daughter complete. He was up until about midnight finishing a clay model of an ermine, a short-tailed weasel found in the northern state.

"A lot of other parents were up late working on these," she says.

Grolnick warns that parents who continually take the lead in the homework process can undermine a child's developing feelings of competence and motivation.

Cathy Vatterott, associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis, agrees. A former middle school teacher and principal, says her interest in researching homework issues grew out of first-hand battles with her son, who struggled with attention deficit disorder and other learning disabilities.

"I definitely over-helped, because it was so hard for him to get it done," she says. "The problem with young kids is they are concrete thinkers. They don't see the shades of gray. With my son, it was either his job or my job."

The trick is walking the line-that fine line that seems to be involved in almost every parenting issue and that happens to shift as a child grows. Motivate, support, guide, question and perhaps even nag, but don't take over.

If you and the teacher are doing more than the student, something is wrong, says St. Charles teacher Monica Boehle.

Set up for success

"When they're just starting out, [kids] may not know how to go about this," Grolnick says.

So parents need to help kids find a time, a place and a consistent homework routine. Parents should set rules, such as no TV, and communicate expectations, such as homework is going to be done on time to the best of the child's ability. The younger the child, the more rules and expectations, such as homework needs to get done before the child goes outside to play.

Montroy's rule is that homework gets done right after school, a pattern she established two years ago with her now third-grader. Her daughter has moved from the kitchen table to a nearby dining room with doors and fewer distractions. An upstairs desk-a location Montroy favored as a teacher-is too far away to keep her daughter focused.

Vatterott found her son needed time to unwind after school but couldn't handle homework too close to bedtime. She arranged her schedule so she could make dinner at 4:30 p.m., and her son could tackle homework afterward.

Wheaton teacher and mother of three, Rhea McVey, makes sure everyone in the family is supporting a productive homework time. She's told her husband, "No, you cannot watch the White Sox game right now!"

Helping kids understand why homework is important is another role for parents. Most educators agree homework reinforces skills and builds responsibility. A recent Duke University study of homework research between 1987 and 2003 confirmed homework has a positive effect on student achievement-provided expectations are reasonable. A general rule of thumb is 10 minutes of homework per night, per grade level. For example, 10 minutes of homework for first grade, 20 minutes for second grade and so on.

Manage frustration

Montroy helps her daughter get started on the math problems she sometimes struggles with, then encourages her to do "as much as she can as well as she can" before coming back for help.

Grolnick advises parents to acknowledge a child's feelings, saying something such as, "I know this probably feels hard for you."

Donna Sever is a certified teacher who spends her afternoons at Chicago's West Lawn Library, part of a program to help kids with homework sponsored by the Chicago Public Library Foundation. Sever helps elementary school kids get through their work by leading them along and breaking down math problems or difficult reading assignments. She asks questions to prompt further progress.

Her strategies are consistent with Boehle's view: "Offer guidance but not answers." If frustration levels rise too high, a break may recharge a child.

Ramaker has seen her kids struggle with longer-term projects. At least initially, they don't have the skills to plan out six weeks. Teachers (or parents) who help provide more immediate milestones can minimize last-minute frustration.

McVey, who teaches gifted elementary school students in grades three through five, stresses that doing the homework is the student's job. She tells the parents of students in her classroom to let kids work on an assignment for 20 minutes.

"If it takes them more than that, they should come to me," she says. Teachers need to understand when a child is not getting a concept.

Let go of the bike

Last spring, I attended a meeting for parents of prospective fourth-graders at Oak Park's Horace Mann Elementary School. Discussing homework expectations for students, teacher Wendy Musselman noted, " 'My mom forgot to put it in my backpack' is not an excuse."

I laughed along with the other parents, while making a mental note to hand off backpack responsibility to my prospective fourth-grader.

Montroy remembers having a similar talk with parents when she taught fourth grade. Now a parent herself, she has driven forgotten projects to school. She admits it's hard to step back, but she knows it's necessary.

"I had kids when I was teaching [who] were so used to their parents helping them, they would kind of blank me out," she recalls.

Reduce your availability and expand your child's responsibility for homework depending on the maturity of your child, Vatterott advises. Ideally, kids should be managing and completing homework on their own by middle school.

"You run alongside the bike, and you're holding the seat, and at some point you have to let go," she says. "Does every kid learn how to ride a bike without training wheels at the same age? No."

Communication with her son's teachers helped Vatterott start to shift her role in her son's homework process. One seventh-grade teacher told her that she needed to allow him space to fail.

Rather than asking to see proof of his completed papers, she agreed with the teacher to check in every two weeks and address lapses. She instituted consequences-no computer time-until homework obligations were met.

At the seventh-grade level and higher, Boehle believes parents should never excuse their child for poor planning or bail them out if they forget an assignment.

Keep communication open

Parents, teachers and experts all tout the benefits of good parent-teacher communication-something e-mail has made easier than ever. McVey, who has a son with ADD, has found e-mail "an extraordinary, powerful tool" that allows a working parent to have a relationship with teachers without being on school premises at pick-up time.

September "curriculum nights" also provide a perfect opportunity to understand a teacher's homework expectations early on.

While cultivating homework independence, educators note that parents should still stay involved and engaged in a child's education. As Ramaker's kids grew older, she found the drive home from school replaced the backpack search as a way for her to stay informed.

" 'What did you do in English today? What did you do in Spanish today? What's going on?' I found that when I did that, their grades were higher," she says. "When that would get away from me and I didn't have the time, it's the great unknown."

Though her youngest kids are now in high school, Ramaker still finds herself restating the importance of homework.

"No kid wants to sit inside at 4 p.m. on a sunny, 70-degree day and do math problems," she says.

Homework essentials Experts advise parents to provide kids:

A consistent homework routine, including a time and place to work away from distractions but close enough to get help. A reason why they need to do their homework. Positive reinforcement. Increasing responsibility. Consequences for not doing the work.

Linda Downing Miller is a writer and mother in Oak Park.


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