by Maria Chesley Fisk, Ph.D.
How can you provide homework help AND ensure that your child takes responsibility for the written work and studying he needs to do at home? This can be a real challenge to maintaining peaceful, loving patience with our child. Here are some tips for supporting your child and using homework to teach practical thinking skills and productive habits:
1. Early on, establish that homework is your child's responsibility -- not yours. You won't be there in college or the workplace to be sure your child has a strong work ethic, so start encouraging independent work now. You should hold her accountable by, for example, quizzing her on material studied or requiring that you check her completed written work. But it's her homework. If you have been too heavily involved in getting your child's homework done, it's time for a conversation about how and why the routine will change. It's not too late!
2. Allow your child to make some choices about the homework routine. A routine, one that remains flexible enough to accommodate regular and spontaneous after-school activities, is important. Some kids want a rest and a snack before they start homework. Some need to take a break after 20 minutes for some exercise or fresh air. Some start with the most difficult work; some the easiest. Let your child use a trial and error approach to determine where, when, and how he focuses best on homework. That said, I advise against multi-tasking (i.e. texting, listening to music, and watching TV while doing homework). Neuroscience says the vast majority of us don't focus well when multitasking. Most people who think they multitask well don't.
3. Talk about what quality homework will look like. It differs by assignment, but generally speaking, quality homework follows the directions, is correct, finished by a certain time, and reasonably neat. With your child, decide on a few criteria for the assignment at hand. Before she starts, plan to both judge her completed homework using the criteria (for example, on a scale of one to five, were the directions followed?) When she has finished the homework and judged it for quality, gently agree or disagree with her evaluation. Doing this for even a few assignments can raise your child's awareness of the quality of her work.
4. Coach if your child doesn't know how to do his homework. Most teachers intend homework to be practice of material learned in school, and I recommend you talk to your child's teacher if he frequently doesn't know how to do the homework. But it happens sometimes that kids need homework help. A simple but effective approach is to ask him to talk out loud about how to start the homework. "I don't know how to start!" is a common reaction. Respond with something like "You would probably read the directions first. What do they say?" Let him read and then talk without interruption about how he would follow the directions. When he's finished, point out something he does know how to do, then turn to a part he is learning. If it's math homework, work a problem or two together. Then ask him to complete a few problems independently -- walk away if you can't resist telling him what to do -- and check them when he is done. Once he can accurately work a few, he'll be in a much better position to complete the rest of the assignment.
It is highly likely that your child will learn to read, write, and solve math problems before she reaches adulthood. When homework is assigned along the way, you have an opportunity to help her learn the content while learning to take responsibility and pride in her learning and the quality of her work.