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The Best Way to Help Kids with Homework

Parenting experts all agree: your children will always need you while they live under your roof—but how they need you will change over time.

One of our problems as parents is—we lock into one way of helping our kids; one leadership style that doesn’t change as they mature. This presents a problem.

Take homework, for example.

A recent article in Education Week reported the following:

“Researchers at the University of Eastern Finland and the University of Jyväskylä followed 365 students who participated in a longitudinal First Steps study, which followed 1,800 students born in 2000 through elementary and secondary school. As part of the study, the researchers analyzed children’s and their mothers’ interactions around homework in relation to the children’s academic progress…

They found that overall, children benefitted from their mothers helping with homework, but the type of help mattered. Children whose mothers provided homework help when asked—but also gave students opportunities to work independently—both persisted at tasks longer and did better in school over time. By contrast, moms who gave very concrete help—for example, sitting down every night to go over every assignment, even if the child had not asked for help—had children who were less persistent over time.”

This is an intriguing contrast we must recognize.

What Might We Learn from This Study?

photo credit: Bluedreamer2011 Helping him with his homework via photopin (license)

Every interaction parents and teachers have with students sends a message to them. When a mom sits down to review every assignment and holds kids accountable in every way on each subject, she feels she is being thorough. She intends to send the message: “I care about your success and want you to earn a scholarship one day.”

In reality, she may unwittingly send the message: “You need me to get this work done. In fact, without me, I don’t trust you’ll be able to accomplish this homework on your own.”

When parents make themselves available but don’t impose their help; when they communicate with the child that they’re willing to help when needed, but they trust that their child is able to do it on their own—students actually start believing they can, indeed, do it on their own. The message the child receives is: “Mom believes in me. She thinks I have what it takes to complete this task.”

The outcomes showed that students began believing whatever Mom believed—either they were able to do it on their own most of the time, or they were unable.

What Should We Do?

I believe parents and teachers should consider what their words and actions communicate to students. What message might they receive by our actions? The key is to balance two important ingredients:

1. Support – I am available to help you succeed at the tasks in front of you.

2. Belief – I believe you possess the abilities to succeed at those tasks.

The truth is—helping our young people can be a vicious cycle of reactions. When a child begins to see Mom handholding all the time, they can often disengage, feeling like Mom is going to “own” the task, freeing them from the responsibility. Sadly, when some moms see their child disengaging—they can become even more controlling. Both parties can be reacting to the other.

When both of my kids were in school, I used one phrase more than any other:

“I believe you have what it takes to do this.”

They both knew I loved helping them, but I tried to communicate the project belonged to them, not to me. Even now as they venture into adulthood my message is the same. Let’s relay both support and belief.


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Find out how your parenting measures up with our brand new Parental Engagement Scale. This scale is a simple tool enabling you to evaluate your parental approach. The hope is that none of us are guilty of moving to either extreme on the scale, but your reflection and subsequent marks will enable you to see where improvement is needed. This is only helpful as you respond as honest and accurate as possible. Place an “X” on each dotted line, indicating where you believe you’ve set the example for your children. Afterward, discuss your answers.

Click on the link below to take the Parental Engagement Scale Assessment and watch the free bonus video.

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The Best Way to Help Kids with Homework