Susan Magsamen
Susan Magsamen
Director of Interdisciplinary Partnerships
Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Brain Science Institute

Top 5 Ways Parents Can Help With Homework

1. Don’t Do It for Them

For one, doing your child’s homework is dishonest. Occasionally a child needs to feel the shame of not completing a required task. Second, it suggests that it isn’t important for him to do. Children have to learn to complete tasks that aren’t on their hit parade just like adults do. Finally, doing a child’s homework suggests that she can’t handle it herself. “This is too hard for you” might be what the child takes away. Communicating that the task at hand is beyond the child’s ability is not a way to build confidence. (Not doing homework for them, however, does not mean it’s hands off at homework time. Parents can help by offering support.)

2. Teach Them Learning Tricks

Offer support by providing tips, breaking tasks into small chunks or suggesting creative ways to memorize poetry or spelling words like songs or jingles. Many children don’t know how to generate mnemonics or divide big tasks into smaller ones to make them doable. Ask, “Do you think these would be easier to memorize if you organized them in some way?” Voila! The child is looking for groupings and will begin to generate her own devices for learning information.

3. Stay Nearby

Homework shouldn’t be isolating for a child while everyone else is having a good time. Read a book, do dishes, hang out. When children are young, it’s difficult for them to concentrate while others play. Of course, children will not need this kind of support for long, but it never hurts to be in the vicinity so they can ask questions and get feedback.

4. Make It Fun

Talk about your struggles when you were a kid. It helps children to know that even their parents occasionally moaned and groaned over their homework but did it anyway. Encourage frequent breaks, join your child in calisthenics, do yoga, walk around the block. . . . Children love to have something to look forward to; a healthy snack can punctuate a homework section too.

5. Praise Their Effort (Not Their Intelligence)

Research by psychologist Carol Dweck and her colleagues suggests that children will persist longer with tasks when they are praised for how hard they are working rather than for how smart they are. Praising smarts is paradoxical; it has the effect of making children feel less like taking learning risks for materials they can’t master immediately. But helping them see that hard work is what matters (and is in their control) gives them the confidence to keep trying.