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Hands Off Homework?

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Assistance with homework has long been a hot potato for both schools and parents. And fingers are still getting burned on both sides. It's clear that both independent and public schools should be doing a better job communicating with parents on this substantive issue.

Parents frequently ask how they can help their children with their schoolwork. But they also often worry: "If I help my son, he'll get in trouble with Mr. Oldham, who'll be angry when he sees that it's not David's work." So these parents decide to leave David and Tanisha entirely on their own. But then there is also the mother who carefully proofreads her daughter's every paper--correcting spelling and grammatical errors, substituting synonyms for words that sound awkward. And the teacher, of course, notices the different handwriting on the rough draft--and Susan does, in fact, get in trouble. "Hands off!" is the clear message. It's no wonder that many parents feel confused about what they can--or should--do in trying to help their children with homework.

Our schools need to help relieve these anxieties, to deter inappropriate assistance, and to show parents how they can be a legitimate and important part of the homework process. In the first parent mailing of the year, schools could enclose a special "homework bulletin" pinpointing several appropriate areas in which parental involvement can help reinforce their children's learning rates, performance, and confidence. Such a bulletin could even encourage a positive, hands-on approach, helping parents look first at these "background areas":

  • Reading: Vital--to the building of a strong vocabulary (and better s.a.t. scores down the road), to stronger overall reading-comprehension skills, and to the sense of self-worth that comes with a child's having his or her very own area of expertise. That expertise might range from dinosaurs in the early years to cars, military history, women in the Middle Ages, or electronic music. Suggest that parents consider, if they haven't already done so, interesting books as possible birthday or holiday gifts--whatever fiction, biographies, sports accounts, or histories fit their child's areas of interest. (Subject-area teachers can help with specific suggestions.)
  • The telephone: A teenager's lifeline. But it can also be a tremendous distraction during valuable evening study time. Suggest allowing the child to select her 15-minute or half-hour telephone "break" in the time slot she needs it most, giving her the feeling that she does have some say in the matter, some control over her life--but also reserving the rest of the evening for getting that homework done well. (Friends will need to be alerted that this will be her phone slot, and a parent can volunteer to take messages for any stray calls that might still slip through during non-phone-break times.)
  • Television: An issue families need to address together. Some parents have a blanket policy of no weeknight TV for their children. Others say no TV until all homework is done. Still others allow no more than one hour of TV--a program of the child's choice. (The "until homework's done" policy may encourage sloppy work in the name of getting finished in time for a show.)

Awareness of children's physical study conditions can be of further help. Some children concentrate best at a desk, while others feel more comfortable working at a table in the dining room or kitchen. Obvious as it may seem, schools should remind parents of the importance of good lighting, a smooth writing surface, and a comfortable chair offering firm support. (They should be alerted that a soft, reclining chair is not a good idea unless their child intends to go to sleep early; for the same reason, lying on a bed is one of the worst ways to study.) But no matter what the room, their son or daughter needs to be free from background distractions of television and loud conversation. For some, "white noise" provided by soft instrumental music (no words, no rock) helps to mask such sounds; for others, silence is more effective. These options should be discussed.

How about general resources? Availability of books like The Random House College Dictionary, a thesaurus (in non-dictionary format), The Information Please Almanac, and The National Geographic World Atlas (or even a historical atlas like the outstanding Times Atlas of World History) can be tremendously helpful, providing ease of reference in English, history, and government courses.

Then there's that wonderful invention, the personal computer or word processor, whose use is definitely worth encouraging in an era when most schools and over 30 percent of our households already have them. The bulletin can point out how a pc enables a child to do several drafts of an English or history paper, thereby paying far closer attention to the vital revision process. (Parents themselves probably remember that when they were in school, revising a four-page English paper required an hour just to recopy as a final draft; a word processor can now eliminate that entire step.)

So much for "study environment" issues. The direct-assistance question is the real hot potato. Although, understandably, some forms of assistance are not appropriate, schools can assure parents that there are still numerous ways in which they can be of significant help. In English and other languages, for example, reading out the words or their definitions can speed the review for that weekly vocabulary quiz. The same is true of new French verb forms or the declension of various Latin nouns and adjectives.

In mathematics and the sciences, there are multiplication tables and, at higher levels, theorems to be memorized for proofs in geometry; trigonometry formulas; differentiation and integration formulas in calculus; motion, temperature, and volume formulas in physics; reaction formulas in chemistry; all those body parts (plant, insect, and human) in biology; and those famous and not-so-famous paintings in history of art. As their children review material for a test, parents can quiz them on the identification of random paintings from the text or on the formula for the sine of 2x. Then, of course, asking dates or events or key names in a brief history review--or the causes of a particular revolution after a child has handed her parent the history book--can also help children master such material more efficiently.

The bulletin would also need to address the actual process area, which is a little trickier. Teachers of course expect students to write their own English and history papers and do their own math homework. Nevertheless, parents can still assist appropriately in a number of ways. If they remember their algebra (or calculus), they can work through an equivalent problem that was not assigned as homework, thinking aloud as they approach the solution so their child will have a better feel for the logic that needs to be applied to the actual problem on which he's stuck. They can listen to the draft of an essay or lab report and mention that the middle seems unclear or perhaps needs more textual support. They can read the draft and can say, too, that the grammar on page two needs checking or that it needs to be reread with just punctuation in mind--but without pointing to specific words or punctuation marks. It's important to explain that the teacher needs to see the students' own work so he can assess actual strengths and weaknesses, giving help in areas where it is most needed. And it is vital for college and life thereafter that students develop early their own all-important self-checking skills.

It's obvious that we all perform best in a supportive atmosphere in which we are valued as individuals. Schools can help reinforce such an atmosphere by pointing out that children will cherish a parent's curiosity about which subjects they enjoy most, and why--and they'll value parents' sharing with them course preferences they remember from when they themselves were in school. And if a child is working hard but with disappointing results, reassurance that some courses are more difficult than others will be most appreciated. Too often parents assume their children know this. They need to be reminded that actually telling their child makes a big difference.

If problems persist in particular subject areas, parents should be encouraged to let the school help: Teachers and advisers (or counselors) can work with them and their child to set up extra help sessions. (Only if these prove to be insufficient should a tutor be recommended. The teacher and tutor can work together as a team, teacher alerting tutor to specific areas of difficulty noticed during class or in the extra sessions.)

In this whole process, communication is the key--between school and parent, parent and child, and parent and school. Parental assistance at home needs to complement efforts in the classroom as teacher and parent focus together on skill-building and the enhancing, rather than masking, of strengths that are not yet at desired levels. But first, schools need to do a better job communicating to parents the areas in which help on homework is appropriate, providing them with some of the methods that can yield the best results. The outcome will be the changing of confusion and anxiety on the home front into a gratifying and productive reinforcement of their child's basic thinking skills, linked to improved communications between home and school. A not inconsiderable bonus will be enhancement of a child's self-confidence as well as the strengthening of the relationships with his or her teachers and parents.

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