March 5, 2017

Should you help your children with their homework? One of the most frequent complaints that I get in my office is about homework.  It might be the hours it takes to get your child to do it, their lack of motivation or interest, or the general lack of focus surrounding homework.  And of course, the last minute, “I have a project due tomorrow” but I have not started yet panic.

As parents, no one wants to see their child fail.  In fact, the pressure is greater than ever before to have a child that is successful in school and “college ready.”  There is a feeling that making sure that your child is completing all of their homework and sitting down to help them with anything that is hard is part of the parental chores for the night.

Well, what if I told you that your help may be doing more harm than good?

The Downside of Helping with Homework

Here is the truth about your “help”

  • It does not improve test scores on standardized tests (and sometimes makes them go down)
  • It can also lower grades overall over time

The reality is that many parents either don’t really remember all the stuff that they learned in school and are not all that helpful to start out with OR they end up taking over and the child doesn’t learn very much at all.

Homework is Like Changing a Flat Tire

I knew all the steps to change a flat tire for quite a while.  I watched people change my flat tire for me and knew 1) jack  car up 2) remove lug nuts 3) take tire off 4) put spare tire on 5) put car back down. Voila!

But, I vividly remember being stranded in a parking lot (before cell phones) with no one around and having to ACTUALLY change my flat tire. I was anxious because I wasn’t really sure if I put the jack in the right place, those lug nuts were really, really tough to get off, the old tire was still heavy and getting the spare tire on was a pain.  I was dirty. I was sweaty and I was annoyed.  BUT…I changed that tire by myself.  I knew HOW to change a tire.

That’s the difference between ensuring that your child does their homework and helping them with it. The difference is in your child’s degree of confidence in their own abilities.

Homework is About Figuring It Out

You see, you can help explain the instructions or provide some clarification. But you won’t be there when the test comes.  And then, instead of feeling like he can figure it out, he feels like giving up.  As much as homework is about memorizing spelling words or multiplication tables, it is about figuring things out.  It is about learning how to be independent and rely on your own instincts.

Homework is about taking an idea and testing it out.  It is about making mistakes and learning to correct them.  And you don’t learn those lessons by watching other people make them.

But, My Child Has Special Needs

I hear you:

  • My child has ADHD and just won’t sit still to finish the homework.
  • He is so defiant that unless I am standing over him, it won’t get done.
  • She has a learning disability and needs extra attention.
  • He rushes through and makes careless mistakes. I have to go back and check it.
  • I don’t want her to fail.  We go over it to make sure that she gets it.

All of those reasons make sense to me as a parent.  I’m just saying that the research doesn’t support the thinking.  The same research looked at all kids (those who were performing well in school and those who were struggling) and the effect was the same across the board. Not to mention that the negative interactions that you are having each night are also taking the joy out of your parent child relationship. And that concerns me.

The more help with homework a child received, the poorer the academic outcomes overall. 

Essentially, helping with homework makes parents feel good.  It doesn’t really help kids learn, do better in school or improve their confidence level.

Limit your involvement to making sure homework is completed (this includes setting up a routine time and place to complete homework) and holding children accountable for doing the work.

What Matters More Than Homework?

If you want to actually help your child, researchers suggest that these three things make a bigger difference than helping with homework:

  1. Request a particular teacher. Find out who the best teacher for your child is by talking to other parents and then advocate at the school for your child to be in that class.  It’s not always up to you, but when you can make an influence here, do it.  Stuck with a teacher that isn’t a good fit? Look for a tutor that is a better match!
  2. Talk about going to college.  Parents who talk to their children about the value of college have children that do better.  Want to do even better? Make sure that your children interact with professional people who were successful in their careers after college. Kids need to see that the work pays off.  (This will help academic achievement even if your child ends up choosing a non-college vocation).
  3. Discuss school activities with your child. Talk to your child about what is happening during the school day.  Being connected to the whole experience that your child is having is more helpful than focusing solely on homework or grades.

Final Thoughts:

Be mindful of other research that says that homework in elementary school doesn’t really have any impact on academic performance.  Actually, it can make kids hate school even more and hurt them in the long run.

And consider this, would you rather your child have some bad grades in elementary or middle school while figuring all this out or do you want them to learn this lesson their first semester in college?

About the Author

Jen Taylor, LCSW-C, RPT-S is an EMDR Approved Consultant and Certified Journal to the Self Instructor.  She is a therapist specializing in complex trauma, an international play therapy teacher and a published writer of multiple play therapy chapters.  Jen is the creator of the original 2017 Play Therapy Summit and many other innovative programs for mental health professionals.  Jen uses writing therapy, play therapy and expressive arts for her clients and for other mental health professionals so they can lead more joyful and meaningful lives.  Jen encourages people to try new things and create daily habits that allow for incremental progress towards previously unimaginable results.   Jen is a travel enthusiast, an avid reader, and a girl who lifts weights and runs for fun.  

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