Homework Help—How much help is just right? - Learning Lab

Homework Help—How much help is just right?


A few summers back, my small daughter was perched next to me on the edge of the neighborhood pool. She was waiting not-so-patiently for the endless sunscreen ritual to be over and watching the teenage lifeguard settle into her chair after a break. Just out of curiosity, I asked her, “Do you know what the lifeguard is here for?”

My daugher: (giant, dramatic sigh and her best sad/Eeyore voice) “Yes, of course I know…they’re here to stop all the kids from having fun.”

When the word “homework” is uttered at school, regardless of grade level, our students often see it just the same way! Homework is a specialized torture dreamed up by teachers to ruin your evening, delay your video game, and generally prevent you from having any fun at all!

As a teacher, I completely agree that homework should be a reasonable volume. If your child is spending hours and hours into the late night working on homework assignments, it’s very likely that contact with the teacher(s) is warranted to learn more about your child’s specific learning and progress. In some cases, what looks like “hours and hours” of prolonged homework struggle is really many small bursts of on-task work followed by many small periods of attending to various interesting distractions, poor multitasking, and other avoidance.

The truth is that teachers assign homework because it can effectively accomplish the following things:

  • Provide important practice and repetition right after new skills have been learned to help store them in long-term memory
  • Allow for careful reading of longer texts outside of class (at the student’s own pace, not at the general pace of the classroom)
  • Preview the next day’s topics and important vocabulary so that the student hears the information for the second time in the larger group
  • Require students to practice/learn how to look for information when unsure of the exact answers

As a parent, I know it’s my job to facilitate my child’s academic success. Not to force it, but to set the stage for self-reliance. While it is quite tempting to jump in and show my child a better (smarter) way to go about it (sometimes I just want to go to bed, let’s be honest), I know she needs to work through problem-solving on her own. I can be physically close by, I can listen to her questions, and I can provide guidance, but I cannot actually complete her work or retain her knowledge for her. Obviously, some students certainly need more close adult monitoring than others because of individualized learning needs, attention span, and ability to self-monitor. However some principles hold true across age and ability levels.

Here’s what we, as parents, can do to make homework time meaningful and productive (post this list somewhere handy for when you’re bone-tired from work and the homework witching hour is upon you–we’re all there with you!):

  • Do help your child get started in a good workspace–then be ready to step back unless needed for a specific question. Think coach on the sidelines, not teammate on the field!
  • Remove distractions for your child until he/she develops the self-control to temporarily remove them for herself (no TV, no phone, nothing at all on the table but the needed materials for her work).
  • If needed, help your child decide in what order to complete work (it’s often very motivating to cross off a quick/easier task first to gain momentum).
  • If needed, aid in signaling breaks or timing how long your child has been working, but avoid hand over hand assistance unless absolutely necessary.      
  • Unless self-checking and item correction is specifically part of the assignment, don’t correct your child’s answers. Teachers need to see student errors on independent work to inform reteaching and next steps in instruction.
  • Every child’s learning situation is unique and will change over time! If your child is truly showing trouble understanding a concept even with your assistance, communicate with the teacher so that more focused help can be arranged.
  • Feel free to write questions and comments on the work (AFTER your child is done) and to document for teachers how long your child worked diligently on the assignment. This helps teachers tremendously when evaluating how much homework is helping students progress.
  • Always, keep an open line of communication with school staff. Teachers do not intend for homework to be punitive or to cause family conflict. If this is the case, speak up and work together toward a better solution! Students are often not the best, most accurate reporters of how homework went over the night before, for many reasons–just as you get a short answer when you ask “How was school today?”. Teacher usually don’t get much information when they ask how homework was the night before (a lifetime ago!). If there is concern, help your child write a note to the teacher or talk to the teacher yourself.
  • Lastly, provide sincere praise for self-initiative in starting homework, for strong (or improving) organizational skills, and persistence with homework, not only correct answers!