It’s a wonderful feeling. The moment when your busy student comes to you and asks for help. As a parent, few things are as fulfilling as lending a strong, guiding hand.
You thought they’d never ask.
But there’s a downside. The homework they have is a heck of a lot different than what you had as a kid. Borrowing and carrying? It’s gone the way of the Dodo. Now they’re memorizing state capitals in Math class.
It’s not bad, just… different. But the unfamiliar ground might, understandably, cause you some anxiety.
The good news is the old adage “encouragement and patience go a long way” is still alive and well, and the 4 C’s is a great way of implementing it. You don’t actually need to know the answers. In fact, not knowing the answers can even come handy (we’ll get to that in a bit). You’re not there to teach them how to do everything, you’re there for support, and to support them properly, the first thing you need to do is…
…information about the assignment.
Before you dive into problems or prompts with your child, get a little context. What is the reason for this work?
Homework is given for one of three reasons: to finish work started at school, to practice new skills, or to complete large-scale projects. Knowing which one it is helps you to ask the right questions and guide your child on which materials to scour the backpack for.
For example, say your child has to write a book report about, oh, To Kill a Mockingbird. Understanding the context of the assignment will help you understand what direction the report should take.
If the teacher assigned the book and the book report for students to practice their reading comprehension skills, you might advise your child to focus their report on storytelling devices like subtext, metaphor, and imagery.
However, if your child’s class is currently learning about racial inequality in America, and the teacher assigned the book and the book report to provide students a window into that time period, you might advise your child to focus on the book’s many important themes, such as racial injustice, class, gender roles, and loss of innocence.
It’s also helpful to identify the reasons you want your student to complete the homework. Is it to develop discipline and a productive work ethic? Or learn how to work efficiently and ask questions?
These answers will affect how active your role is during homework time, because helping with homework can be as hands-off as cultivating a quiet, distraction-free space for students to work, or as abstract as encouraging a dinner table discussion of what they’re learning.
To help them develop discipline, you don’t have to join them in researching the Civil War or go through every algebra problem. Sometimes a simple word or two of support is enough to help them focus and stay on task.
“Keep at it, you got this!”
“You’re doing great.”
“You’re almost there!”
If you want to inspire them to ask questions and think critically about the assignment, ask questions yourself.
“Learning anything fun?”
“Anything not make sense?”
“Anything you disagree with?”
…what they’re actually struggling with.
When helping your child with specific problems or questions, once you’ve made sure they have the crumpled notes, textbook, and other frayed resources, dive into the struggle du jour. Start with them at step one and follow the breadcrumbs of your child’s thought process. When their wheels get caught, you’ll know where the trouble is.
Let’s say your child is stumped by this question:
Toni put $100.00 in a bank account that gains 20% interest annually. How much interest will be accumulated in 1 year?
Let’s say that when you ask them to describe their thought process out loud, they get hung up on the word “interest,” or “annually,” or “accumulated.”
Now you know that they’re not really struggling because they don’t understand the concept, it’s because they don’t understand some of the words.
Alternatively, they might have just forgotten how to do percentages.
When you’ve established where their wheels are getting caught, provide guidance rather than answers. You can reword sentences and simplify ideas to make the problem easier to understand
“What’s 20% of 100?” is a much easier way to look at the problem.
If that doesn’t do the trick, break it down even further.
“How many times does 20 go into 100?”
You can also ask them if they want to look up the words they don’t know, or walk them through the problem with questions like “what do you think we should do next?”
And when the homework is on a subject you never learned, you can turn your own lack of knowledge into a valuable teaching opportunity by asking your child to guide you through the problem as best they can.
This way, they are learning through teaching by flexing their summarization and problem solving muscles. In fact, learning through teaching has been proven to be an incredibly helpful learning method.
The method’s key mechanism is the “retrieval practice,” which is essentially the process of remembering and communicating what you previously learned to someone else. Learning by teaching internalizes the taught materials, so asking your child to teach you something, even if their understanding is shaky, obligates them to retrieve previously stored information.
But of course, nothing is foolproof. In the event that neither of you know enough about the subject to reach a solution, have your student find a similar problem on a previous homework assignment or test and polish your understanding of the method together before revisiting the original problem.
…their understanding for future work (and yours for next time).
To solidify what they just learned (and the way they learned it), ask your child questions like:
- Why does that step work?
- Why would we want to do that next?
- What does this step in the process accomplish?
These questions help define each step in the problem-solving process and contextualize those steps so they can see the whole picture. This prevents your child from “slipping through the cracks,” or finding the right answer through sheer luck.
As a bonus “clarifier,” before finishing up, ask your child to explain one problem from each night’s work. Consider selecting one you didn’t work on together, and if it’s Math or Science, try choosing one that incorporates both words and computation.
…for extra help.
If the time comes when you and your child’s workbook need to call it a truce, seeking a second opinion is a healthy step.
Reaching out to the teacher is a good way to shore up your understanding of why and how things are being done. On top of that, it brings attention to the fact your child needs help.
If you’re really having trouble with the work, some districts do organized parent learning nights. Consider attending.
A private tutor is another great way to elucidate the confounding and gain valuable outside perspective. Tutors may also be more easily accessible in times of homework crises, and have more time and flexibility to thoroughly explore concepts with you and your child.
For both your own sanity and your child’s education, reach out and reach out early. The benefits are numerous, and there’s no shame in asking for help.
Quality over quantity
Now that we’ve gone over the 4 C’s, let’s clear up these two Q’s.
Parental involvement in homework can be extremely beneficial, but only when done right.
Quantity–helping your child every single day, helping your child when they don’t want the help, giving them answers–can actually have a negative impact on their education. They may come to rely on you to help them complete every assignment, or get used to not having to try.
Seriously! It’s tempting to believe that help in any form is positive, but the reality is much more nuanced.
Quality–helping when they ask for help, fostering a suitable learning environment, encouraging autonomy and self-regulation–is what actually moves the needle. These actions allow your child to develop their own strategies for learning, for dealing with difficult tasks, and for self-motivation. And they’ll carry these strategies for the rest of their life, so it’s crucial that they develop healthy ones.
So, when helping your child with homework, make sure not to overstep. Provide guidance and support, not instructions and solutions. Give pointers, not relief.
And remember the Golden Rule of Homework: Never give children the answers to problems!
Don’t deprive your child of the chance to develop the mental processes required to learn and grow. We know we know, watching your children struggle is nearly impossible, but providing answers hinders their abilities in the long run. They need to develop autonomy and critical thinking, and they can’t do that if you’re always there with the correct answer. Sometimes they have to struggle and make mistakes. Sometimes they even (gasp) have to get frustrated.
This doesn’t mean you can’t help them, but you can’t do it for them. Be supportive when they’re frustrated and encouraging when they’re stumped. Guiding someone to the answer rather than gifting it is key to intrinsic motivation and understanding core concepts. Letting your child struggle is easier said than done, but parents, you got this!
For more help
If you can’t always be there when your child needs homework help, or if they require more hands-on help than they’re getting in the classroom, Wyzant has an enormous selection of intelligent, compassionate tutors in pretty much every subject you can think of.