Help With Common Homework Problems
Problem No. 1
I Don’t Know How Much Assistance to Give My Child
While it’s tempting to step in to help him build the Best Toothpick Taj Mahal Ever, remember the central yet often overlooked purpose of homework: “It teaches children to function independently in school and eventually at work,” says Harris Cooper, the chair of the department of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University and the author of The Battle Over Homework ($16, amazon.com). So it’s crucial to provide guidance, not the answer key. “Don’t do the work for them—but don’t let them flounder, either,” says Peg Dawson, a school psychologist in Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and a past president of the National Association of School Psychologists. Here’s how to find the right balance.
- Discuss your role with your child’s teacher. Bring up the subject of homework at the earliest opportunity. Ask: Does the teacher assume the child will get at least some help from his parents? Will the teacher ever send home assignments that require your assistance? If so, will she alert you beforehand? How much time does she expect students to spend on homework every night?
- Ask your child leading questions. If your kid is hitting the skids with his vocabulary homework, feel free to prompt him, Dawson says. You might ask, “Where have we heard that word before?” Or if he blanks on a writing assignment, ask, “What do you find most interesting about this topic?”
- If you get more involved, fess up. When your kid is really stumped, it’s fine to get hands-on—to complete a math problem or two—as long as you tell the teacher so that she can assess your child’s progress, says Valentine Burr, the director of the middle-childhood general- and special-education program at New York’s Bank Street College of Education. The same holds for correcting errors. Can’t help pointing out that George Washington wasn’t president during the Civil War? Let the teacher know your child’s original answer (on a Post-it, say), but take care to use this tactic sparingly. Remember: “Homework doesn’t have to be perfect,” says Burr. But if a child always seems to have a hard time, something might be amiss (see When More Help Is Required).
Problem No. 2
I Can’t Get My Child to Stop Procrastinating
Chronic dillydalliers might be overwhelmed or lack focus. But you can put an end to the stall tactics.
- Make sure they have a realistic amount of homework. When some kids realize how much they need to accomplish, they freeze up. And they may, in fact, be overloaded. The National Education Association and the National Parent Teachers Association say about 10 minutes of homework a day per grade level is appropriate. (That’s 10 minutes for first grade, 20 minutes for second grade, and so on.) But not every district makes that a hard-and-fast rule, so use common sense: If your second grader spends a half hour on reading and math, that’s probably fine. Two hours of work, however, might be cause for a conference (see Problem No. 3).
- Create ideal working conditions. Designate a well-lit, quiet space as a homework center (say, an office or the dining-room table) and provide water and a light snack. Remove distractions, such as a blaring television or a tuba-practicing sibling. Most crucially, make a daily schedule, assigning specific slots for homework, sports, and other activities. And be sure to pencil in active play, a sit-down meal, and free time for friends. If kids see fun activities on their calendars—not just onerous tasks—they’ll approach everything with a much better attitude.
- Show avid interest in your child’s work. If your fifth grader is writing a book report, ask him to describe a favorite passage from the book. “Your excitement conveys to him that homework isn’t drudgery,” says Nancy Flanagan, an education consultant and a former Michigan Teacher of the Year.
Problem No. 3
I Don’t Know How to Complain to the Teacher—Much Less How to Do It Politely
It’s fair to raise any concern about your child’s education with the teacher. But adopt a constructive tone.
- Phrase your concern as a question.“I’ve never met a teacher who won’t respond well to a parent who asks, ‘Can we work together to solve a problem?’” says Liz Perelstein, the president of School Choice International, an educational-consulting service. Worried that your child has too much work? Say, “Sarah is spending 90 minutes a night on math. Can we do something differently?” Skeptical of an assignment’s purpose? Ask, “What are you hoping the students will take away?” Says Flanagan, “Any teacher should be able to articulate why it’s important.”
- Know when to knock on the principal’s door. If you have an issue with the overall curriculum, as opposed to a specific assignment, schedule an appointment with an administrator, says Flanagan. You won’t get far with a teacher if the issue—and the solution—are out of her control.
Problem No. 4
Should I Apply Tougher Standards to the Homework Than the Teacher Does?
If you think your kid isn’t being challenged enough—or if she routinely seems too advanced for the work she brings home—there are things you can do.
- Ask for enhanced study materials. Burr says most teachers have access to workbooks and study aids that can add to a child’s learning experience.
- Embark on a fact-finding mission. Your fourth grader got 100 percent on her composition—yahoo! But, wait, what’s that spelling error? Spotting uncorrected mistakes on your child’s work can be maddening. Before you whip out your own red pen, however, confer with the teacher. For example, some educational experts argue that creative spelling encourages creative thinking. If you disagree with the teacher’s approach, you can offer your child your own assessment of his homework, but it’s best to do that before he hits trigonometry. As schoolwork grows more complicated, you may lack the chops—no offense!—to supply the correct answers.
When More Help Is Required
If your child always has trouble with one subject, she may need a tutor. But if she consistently struggles with all types of homework, she could have an underlying learning, attention, or hyperactivity issue. Look for these four red flags.
1. Regular Meltdowns
Outbursts can be common among students with attention problems. “Those kids often have to work twice as hard as everyone else at school,” says school psychologist Peg Dawson. By the time they get home, she says, “they’re exhausted and find it hard to apply themselves to homework.” So parents often see the worst of their behavior.
2. Frequent Confusion And An Inability To Meet Reasonable Deadlines
If your child has trouble following basic instructions and is daunted by deadlines, he may have a learning disability. Be sure to pay attention to his way with words; about 75 percent of kids with learning disabilities are weak at reading, according to Sheldon H. Horowitz, a director at the National Center for Learning Disabilities (NCLD).
3. Perpetual Disorganization
Often a child with a learning disability or an attention problem will spend hours doing homework, says Valentine Burr, a director of special education. Ask your child’s teacher how long projects should take, and compare notes with other parents.
4. Constant Distractedness
Even though you’ve helped your child establish a routine and a disturbance-free workspace, she still frequently can’t focus on her work for more than a few minutes.
If your child exhibits any of these signs regularly, ask her teacher, a school social worker, or the principal for assistance. To locate other helpful resources in your area, including support groups, go to ncld.org.