When you can’t change the system:
When you can’t change the system and your child has homework you have to examine how you feel about it and then find a way to cope with it. I’ll be dealing with homework from the teacher/school perspective in a later post. If your child is already a straight ‘A’ student you probably aren’t worried about homework other than the fact that the load might cause burn out. That’s a subject for a later post. Also I’m not going to be directly dealing with those families where the parents don’t speak English. That too is for another time.
Right now we are dealing with,
“My kid has homework. She needs help. What do I do?”
I know you’re busy. I know your time is valuable. So what do you do if you believe that at least some homework (practice, reenforcement, continued engagement) can have value. Don’t give up. Don’t despair. I’ll help you.
Easier said than done!
I know this is easier said than done but first, try to look at homework as a way to get to know your kids and to show them that you feel their pain! How? Talk to them about their day. This takes practice. Be ready for some resistance, especially if you waited to ask about her day until your daughter was 14 and more interested in social media, makeup and tattoos than in Algebra
I’ll give some real world dialogues as examples a bit later. First I want you to believe me that you don’t have to have unlimited time and energy, and you don’t have to be a genius or a credentialed teacher to help your child with homework. Take a deep breath…
Start early and be consistent.
By asking about your child’s day you show them they are important. You show them that what happens to them in their day matters to you. This is easier when your children are young and their days are relatively simple. It sets the stage for when your child becomes more independent. If you start showing your interest when they are younger, they won’t necessarily feel like you are suddenly prying into their lives when you ask them about their days when they are a bit older. Also, by asking about their day it is easier to transition into a discussion about homework. Talk with your child regularly and consistently. Don’t wait until there is a crisis to talk with your kid about school.
Have your child teach you!
As they get older, their school and homework becomes more abstract. Don’t feel insecure. Try to see homework as a way to bond with your child. Have your child teach you. You don’t have to master the subject. Just have your kid tell you enough to let you know that they understand it. If they can’t explain what they are doing or what they are supposed to learn, then you can both review it and learn it together.
One of the best ways to learn something is to teach it (for both of you). Be ready to look things up and or relearn. Do you think your child’s teacher never had to look something up in order to teach it? I surely did. Letting your child be your teacher can have a very positive effect on their relationship with you and with their school work.
If your child has homework and you want to help her and still have a life you can schedule regular times (of short intervals) to talk about homework.
I have had parents tell me, “I can’t help them. I don’t understand what they are studying.” That may be true but let’s look at it closer.
In the primary grades your child is learning how to count, compute with single digit facts and learning how to read. That’s where you start to ask them about what they learned. In grades 1~3 we learn to read. In the grades after 4th we read to learn.
And if you don’t understand and your child can’t teach you, try and figure it out together – even if it means going to school (I know you are stressed out about time but at least consider it).
When I taught second grade I would have been delighted if a parent came to me and said, “I don’t understand this bit of homework could you explain it to me and my child?” or “I don’t understand why you assigned this homework.” A teacher might not be able to answer your questions right when you ask, but they probably would be willing to meet or talk with you later.
Take delight in the ‘Ah-ha moment’.
Teachers talk about something they call the ‘Ah-ha moment’. It’s that moment when your student finally ‘gets it’ or understands why or how to do something which has eluded them. Trust me on this one. The look of pride and satisfaction on their faces is priceless even if they don’t actually say, “Ah-ha! I got it.”
This is helpful as the work becomes more abstract. I was working with a student on a geometry problem involving the area of a triangle and sections of its area. The problem should have had two easy solutions but when I tried to demonstrate the alternate solution it wouldn’t come out right. I worked at it and worked at it. My student became embarrassed for me, “That’s okay Mr. D you don’t have to show me both ways.” But I was determined to figure it out.
Confusing problems, frustrating assignments and book errors.
It turned out that the book (or whoever came up with that assignment) had picked numbers that were wrong measurements. I explained it to the kid and we both had our ‘ah-ha moment’. Remember this: textbooks are made by humans. And even though the editors work hard to make the books as correct as possible, there are mistakes in them. We teachers agonize over our textbooks. We can’t try every assignment, question or problem in the book before we assign them.
Please remember that questioning children about their day or about their school work is like trying to catch butterflies. It takes patience and a delicate touch. Some days you just have to put up with stony silence and let your child alone – just don’t leave them alone for too long. Also, what works on one day or with one child may not work on another day or with another child. Be flexible.
When they are young or eager, asking your child about their day could open a floodgate of information. That’s good. As they get older or if they are insecure they might not be so forthcoming. The following dialogue is one example of how to answer the child who says nothing happened all day and they didn’t learn anything:
Adult: “How was your day?”
A: “What did you do at school?”
A: “Nothing? What did you learn today?”
A: “Do you have any homework?”
A: “Nothing? Hmmm… That’s actually kind of serious. I don’t want to waste your time sending you to school if you aren’t learning anything. I tell you what. Figure that tomorrow I’m going to ask you about your day and what you learned. And if you still aren’t learning anything I might have to go down to school and sit there and make sure my tax dollars aren’t being given to a teacher who isn’t teaching.”
Notice that that dialogue doesn’t put any blame on the student and only asks the question about the teacher. Offering (threatening) to go to school and sit next to your child is one of the most effective ways to find out if your kid is in jeopardy or if the teacher really isn’t doing their job.
What do you say to the kid who was doing fine in elementary school but suddenly in high school their grades are slipping? Again, offering to go to school with them to check on progress and homework is an option – usually of last resort. I recommend using the above as a starting point and then expand on it.
Child: “Oh no! You don’t have to go to school.”
Adult: “Well, tomorrow I want to go over your schedule with you. If you still aren’t learning anything and have no homework I will go to school. To make it easier on you here’s a little notebook. I want you to briefly write down the lesson or what you were supposed to do or learn for each period. Or if class didn’t meet, tell me why it didn’t meet. Was there an assembly, a fire drill, a fight – whatever happened.”
At this point it all depends on how you feel about the answers your child gives. The most important question at this point is, “Is your child learning?”
But, what if you question the notion of homework all together? See my next post.
P.S.: This post only scratches the surface of helping your child with homework. I welcome any comments or reasonable dialogue to expand on the topic. Write me in the comments section below or on my contact page.
P.P.S.: Also, if you are a parent or teacher with a specific problem and would like help, write me and I’ll try to help any way I can.