How to Help Your Child with Homework
By Sarah Bramble, M.S.
Grades 5 and 6 Learning Specialist
Stone Ridge School of the Sacred Heart
(Adapted from a letter to parents at Stone Ridge, an all-girls independent school in Bethesda, Maryland.)
Parents often ask how they can best support their children with homework. Should I step back completely? Should I let her be completely independent? Should I ask if she would like assistance? Should I just check in occasionally? As with most questions relating to our children, the answer is: it depends.
From a brain-science perspective, the middle-school years are an opportune time for children to acquire and hone good study skills and homework habits.
Homework is assigned as a natural extension of the educational program, as well as to promote self-discipline, responsibility, and decision-making. Homework is a formative assessment tool, designed to reinforce what has been taught in class, to prepare students for upcoming lessons, and to help students develop good study habits, time management, and organizational skills. It should be completed individually and without parental involvement or oversight, unless otherwise noted.
Ideally and aspirationally, students will have–or move toward–full autonomy in the realm of homework. However, for students who are new to a school or are still developing their time management or organizational skills, a bit of parental guidance may be needed temporarily to help scaffold the sort of executive function toolbox needed for effective homework completion. So, aside from completing homework for children, which sends the message that the child is incapable of doing the work, what might a parent do if he or she sees that their child is struggling either with a specific assignment or with homework completion in general?
First, consider all the pieces our children are beginning to juggle as middle schoolers. Often students have a different teacher for each content area. Their days are full, and many have a full roster of activities after school. We ask our children to plan ahead for assignments, projects, and assessments, more of which are long-term assignments as they progress through the grade levels. They must master these new skills alongside navigating big social, emotional, and physical changes. No wonder it’s challenging!
Also, remember that helping a Grade 5 student is very different from helping a Grade 8 student. Whereas a 10-year-old may enjoy organizing and be fairly conscientious about doing homework, she is still developing the necessary skills to be successful and may need guidance. A 13-year-old, on the other hand, may crave independence and want to decide which school supplies she prefers and where she likes to study. You’ll be in a good position if you spend some time standing on the sidelines and observing. Avoid rushing to help at the first (or second) sign of distress. Our kids are resilient, and most have the means to traverse road bumps on their own when given that space.
If you (and your child) feel that some help is needed, carefully limit your assistance to the organization of time, processes, materials, and space.
Start with modeling. Think out loud as you’re breaking down your own tasks. You might make a list and then think out loud about how you will divide them up and in what order you’ll do so. As your child hears your mental processes, she’ll likely begin applying them to her tasks. Additionally, walk through your approach to multistep tasks. This will demonstrate how to chunk tasks to make them more manageable.
Establish routines. For example, imagine your child is expected to spend between one and two hours (depending on grade level) on homework each night, including weekends. One option is to dedicate a time frame to homework completion and stick to it as much as possible. That might mean she works from 4 to 5 pm, and again from 5:30 to 6:00, with a break in between. Many homework assignments are given over several days, so a set amount of time working toward homework will help a student manage her time. If your child has finished early, she might check to see if she can begin to prepare for upcoming tests or review the work done that day. The only way to develop habits is to practice them. In addition, having a set and quiet place equipped with school supplies and dedicated to homework is ideal. For one family, this place might mean sitting at the dining room table; for another this might mean working in the bedroom.
Know your child. Some students like to have a little snack break right after school before starting their homework. Some students like to start with the easier homework and check it off the list before tackling the more complex homework; others like to start with the more challenging assignments while they’re fresh and save the easier ones for last. Talk to your child about her preferences, and let her know you’re on her team. If her strategy isn’t working, let her know it’s OK (and beneficial) to change it!
Take the first step with your child. If you notice your child chronically procrastinating or avoiding homework, it could be a sign that she doesn't know where to begin. Start with the planner. Take a look at what assignments are due and when, and ask if there are any upcoming tests or projects. Help your child prioritize. Will some tasks take longer than others? Would it be useful to estimate how long each assignment will take? Would it be helpful to make a list of materials needed for each task? You can then look together and decide what to do first and what materials are required in order to begin. If your child seems to be struggling with homework concepts or directives, have her contact her teacher. If she has an exceptionally hectic evening or finds herself not feeling well, find out if she can request a homework extension.
Remember the goal. Ultimately, we want our kids to take the reins in managing their out-of-school work. Some kids acquire these skills quickly, and others require a bit of support. Helping kids hone their learning habits–assuming the child is receptive– is very different from doing the work for a child. As your child learns to organize her time, space, processes, and materials for herself, gradually strip away the scaffolding as she becomes more independent and let her fly on her own. There may be a bit of floundering, and that is OK. Resist the urge to help with content, fix mistakes or edit homework for your daughter; teachers’ ability to see where kids are struggling will inform their instructional decisions.
Keep in touch: If you find that your child is resistant to homework routines or is consistently struggling to finish in a timely manner, reach out to her advisor, teacher, or learning specialist. Work together to figure out the stumbling blocks and to create a productive way to move forward.
Working in partnership we can help our children (as stated in Criterion 1 of Goal V at Stone Ridge): “grow in courage and confidence, discover new abilities, cultivate strengths, learn from making mistakes . . . and exercise resilience in meeting challenges.” Supporting our Middle School students requires us to balance providing guidance with allowing them growth and independence.
Upcoming NEALS Table Talk Discussion: Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman 3/7/23 7:00-8:15p
Led by Chris Ouellette, Vice President of NEALS and Director of Student Support at Emma Willard School
"Many schools are currently/have made changes after reading and engaging with the book Grading for Equity by Joe Feldman. Whether your school has made a major change to grading policies, or it is offering up Professional Learning Groups (like the group I am leading at Emma Willard), or if you are just genuinely curious about all of the hype, this NEALS Table Talk Discussion is for you! Even though the majority of us do not assign grades, as Learning Specialists we regularly see the direct impact that grading policies can have on our students. It will be important for us to use our lenses to help support any of our institutions who are thinking about diving into and adopting policies presented by Feldman".
***This session will be recorded