I can still remember my daughter’s first day of kindergarten; she had carefully selected which outfit she wanted to wear, distractedly picked at her waffles during breakfast, and nervously approached the school playground holding onto my hand. As I walked her over to the kindergarten line, I hoped her years of education would be fulfilling, that her classmates would be friendly, that her teachers would be kind and wise, and that she would be successful. What I didn’t know then is just how important my participation would be to her scholastic achievement.
Parental involvement is actually one of the greatest predictors of a child’s school success. Numerous research studies demonstrate that family engagement promotes “a range of benefits for students, including improved school readiness, higher student achievement, better social skills and behavior, and increased likelihood of high school graduation.” (Harvard Family Research Project, 2010). But what exactly are parents supposed to do?
Consider The Messages You Send
You model your attitude toward education through your own behavior. The messages that you send to your children, both directly through your words and indirectly through your actions, are quite powerful. Are you open to learning? Do your children see you read? Do you take an interest in what is happening in the world? Do you get excited about their new knowledge and growing understanding?
Your questions are an important way to convey your interest. But rather than interrogate your children when they come home from school, let them tell you about their day. You can start with broad, open-ended requests, such as “Tell me something exciting that happened today.” What they choose to focus on is an indicator of what is really important to them. Afterward, you can ask specific questions to satisfy your curiosity or help fill in the details.
Another way you communicate your values is through complimenting certain behaviors and not others. In regard to school, do you want your kids to care more about good grades, a love of learning, staying out of trouble – or all of the above? Ideally, your kids will value all of these things, but sometimes it is not that easy. Let’s say that your child gets lost in a science website while completing a homework assignment. Are you glad that your child is showing intellectual curiosity or are you disappointed or frustrated that he ran out of time and rushed through the actual project? What if your child didn’t complete classwork because he chose to stay with a sick friend in the nurse’s office? How you respond and the messages you send depend on the values you hold; and sometimes your values conflict with one another.
Consider the Help You Provide
Parents are often at a loss as to when and how much to step in to help their children with homework. Checking over an assignment to be sure it is complete and that your child isn’t missing any major concepts is important. But that is very different from completing the work for your child. Only one person can be responsible at a time and so the more you take responsibility, the less your child will.
I knew I was in trouble when I would greet my children with “Hi. How much homework do we have tonight?” We? I had been out of school for way too many years to have homework!
By taking over, you are denying your children the opportunity to learn many of the lessons homework can teach, including:
- Remembering to bring papers and books to and from school
- Listening carefully to instructions in order to understand what is required
- Learning time management skills
- Figuring out when to reach out for help when having trouble, and how to approach the teacher, a classmate, a parent, or a sibling for that help
- Reinforcing learning that has taken place in the classroom
When parents offer indirect and general supervision but allow their children to do the work, the children take ownership of the task and learn to be independent and reliable. By giving children a chance to take missteps and then correct the problem while they are still young, you prepare them to take responsibility when they are older.
As much as parents need to give kids some freedom early on, they need to not let go entirely once their children leave elementary school. Kids still require their parents’ involvement when they are in junior high or middle school – all the way through to high school. They need guidance as the demands on their time grow, as the decisions they make become more important, and as the social pressures and options increase. They need you to ask about their days – about their struggles and their accomplishments. They need you to be available to answer questions, to be a sounding board, and to be a resource. They need to know that you are on their side and rooting for them from the sidelines.
Consider How You Address Problems
There are times when children struggle with schoolwork; they may forget needed materials, be unclear about assigned tasks, or be unable to complete a project in a timely manner. Everyone can have an off day, but if the issue persists, then it is a good idea to contact their teachers and/or guidance counselor.
When approaching the school staff, you will want to be as clear as possible in describing your concerns. For example, “At least three days a week, Sally forgets either her homework or lunch or a book that she needs for school.”
You can determine if these are issues that arise just at home by asking if the teacher notices the same sort of problem in the classroom. If they seem just to come up at home, perhaps you can remedy the situation by eliminating distractions, organizing a work area stocked with supplies, and creating a schedule for completing work and packing up for school. If the teacher has observed unfinished work or inattention, then together you may need to consider if your child has a problem grasping certain concepts or if an underlying issue is standing in the way of your child’s success.
A frequent culprit in uncompleted homework, however, is the Internet. As children use the computer to tackle assignments, a quick, “Let me ask a question to a friend on Facebook” can easily become a one-hour distraction. Looking up information for a project can lead to clicking on a related link for more information that leads to another site and then another. If this happens repeatedly, then assignments may not get completed. Staying focused is difficult for most people, but for a distractible child, the temptation may be so overwhelming that she cannot direct her efforts to the task at hand.
Some children can handle the responsibility of having easy computer access, but if you find that homework is taking too long or the quality of the work is not up to par, then you may consider limiting computer usage.
Consider Your Connection to School
Parental involvement, such as attending school functions like back-to-school nights and concerts or volunteering in the library, is as important as helping with homework. Many working parents find it particularly hard to be a presence in their children’s school; however, research indicates that it is worth the effort.
Although you initially may be puzzled as to how your presence can make such a difference, it’s not so difficult to understand. You get to know the teachers and the administrators, and they get to know you. If you already have a relationship, you can more easily approach school personnel if problems occur, as suggested above. Also, teachers are more likely to approach a parent whom they see at the school and whom they know is committed to their child’s education. Finally, engaging the school has been shown to be effective in getting to the bottom of a problem and providing the child with whatever support might be needed.
Parents without a connection to the school are more likely to ignore problems or to try to fix them on their own, often through closer supervision and increased demands, which typically leads to conflict with the child. Or if parents intentionally keep school personnel out of the loop in an effort to have their children look “good,” the silence can backfire because learning disabilities or missed concepts are best addressed as early as possible in a child’s academic career
It is a fine line that parents walk in determining how to assist in their children’s academic success. By showing a genuine interest, by refraining from actually doing the child’s work, by addressing academic concerns, and by being a presence in the school, parents can help their children to do their best – now and in the future.By Deb Cohen, Certified Parenting Educator
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