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How Much Homework Help Is Too Much?

The experts weigh in on when to step in (and when to back off).


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Growing up, my parents barely noticed I had homework (and my mom was a teacher). I admit I’m typically laissez-faire about my own kids’ work (unless it’s a written essay or report, then I turn into the grammar police). My husband doesn’t always weigh in, but when he does, it best be done and done well.

Are we slacking? Suffocating? One thing we’re not is alone in our confusion over striking the right balance between overdoing it and being too lax. So what should parents do when it comes to managing homework? How involved do we need to be? We asked educators to weigh in.

CONSIDER WHAT YOUR CHILD REALLY NEEDS

“Regardless of classroom policies, parents play the role they feel is best,” says Katherine Hannen, a seventh grade math teacher at South Orange Middle School. “They should be working with their student to develop a plan or strategy for homework.” Alisa Hindin, EdD., co-author of Nurturing Your Child’s Math and Literacy in Pre-K to 5th: The Family Connection and an associate professor at Seton Hall University, agrees. “The level of support parents provide can depend on the child’s grade level, the child’s needs and the parent’s knowledge of the content [and] experiences,” says Hindin.

Naturally, what this looks like depends on your child—some need help with directions, others with follow-through and others just want you to go away.

MAKE SURE THE WORK IS DONE

Most educators agree on one thing: Parents should check that homework is completed. While this may be a given in the early grades, it’s not so obvious with guarded teens. Done, of course, means done with diligence and conscientiousness (no rushing back to Instagram). “Some parents feel if it’s done, it’s a good enough effort,” says Dana Murdoch, a reading, writing and math basic skills teacher at School 12 in Clifton, but that’s really just the bare minimum.

DON’T DO IT FOR THEM

Resist the temptation to solve a math problem or rewrite a conclusion. “As a teacher, you want the parents involved—it teaches kids that homework is important—but more as a guide than by doing it for them,” says Murdoch. “If the parents are doing the work, kids aren’t benefiting.”

You can, however, help kids grasp difficult concepts or suggest specific improvements, but always give them the chance to find solutions on their own.

CHECK FOR MISTAKES

Finding (and attempting to fix) errors is a critical part of getting the most out of an assignment, but insist that kids review their own work for accuracy before stepping in. After that, it’s fine for parents to drop a few hints or point out errors directly. Does homework need to be perfect?

“From a teacher’s perspective, effort goes a long way,” says Murdoch. “It’s okay for some things to be incorrect as long as kids are working through it. One or two mistakes are not the end of the world.”

SPEAK UP IF IT’S TOO MUCH

Homework is designed to support classroom work—not teach new material—and it shouldn’t take hours and hours to complete. “If parents notice their child is struggling or spending too long on homework, they should contact the teacher,” says Hindin. “It’s important for teachers and parents to discuss expectations for homework to make sure they’re on the same page.” Most teachers are also happy to pay closer attention to your child in class in order to identify mistakes and provide insight if possible.

INSIST ON GOOD HABITS

Good study habits underlie academic achievement. “This is really important, especially in elementary school kids,” says Murdoch. “It sets them up for success later.” Studying in a distraction-free space, communicating about upcoming tests and assignments and finishing homework before other activities are just a few best homework practices parents can encourage. Learning is ultimately about fostering independence, responsibility and emotional growth.

 

How to Help in Elementary School

REVIEW DIRECTIONS

“Young children haven’t yet learned how to self-advocate and ask questions when an assignment is given out,” says Hannen, so parents should carefully review the homework and make sure their child understands what’s expected.

FOSTER BOOK SMARTS

Want to boost your child’s literacy performance? Instead of merely reading and logging their time, Hindin recommends parents listen to their children read and discuss the text with them. What happened? Why did characters do certain things? What was the lesson? “It’s critical that kids understand what they read, as it all ties into reading comprehension,” says Murdoch.

LET ’EM SLEEP ON IT

Had a tough, teary evening with homework? Let it go and have your child review last night’s assignments in the morning. A fresh perspective (plus a good night’s sleep) may make it easier to reveal errors and insights missed the night before.

 

How to Help in Middle School

ASK THE RIGHT QUESTIONS

As kids get older, teachers often expect them to be more independent with their homework, but stubborn or private preteens may feel reluctant to discuss it, says Hindin. “When parents ask specific questions such as, ‘Did you enjoy the next chapter in your book?,’ children may be more likely to respond.”

REIN IN YOUR FIX-IT INSTINCTS

Among the skills children are expected to learn in middle school—communication, responsibility, following procedures, organization—self-advocacy is one of the most important. “I try to encourage middle school students to ask for help themselves,” says Hannen. “They should be the ones stopping in after school or during a study period if they have one, to ask questions.”

 

How to Help in High School

GET CONNECTED

Many schools have online interfaces like Google Classroom or PowerSchool that allow parents to view upcoming assignments and exams and track homework progress without having to ask their uncommunicative teen. “They help you follow your child in a very clear and transparent way,” say Bard Goodrich, a freshman ELA teacher at West Orange High School.

GO TO SCHOOL EVENTS

How will attending things like Back-to-School night help with homework? For starters, it fosters accountability. “It’s great for teachers and parents to have face time in a positive way,” adds Goodrich. And since kids know you’re still involved and in touch, there’s healthy pressure to not let homework slide.

EASE UP ON THE ASSISTANCE

The first year of high school is designed to minimize the teacher/student/parent handholding that happens in middle school. “Educators are on the side of student growth and student empowerment,” says Goodrich.  “So as far as helping your child with school work—don’t do it.” But deep down, you always knew that.

 

Jennifer Kantor is a parenting and lifestyle writer. She lives in Maplewood with her husband and two kids.

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