If you’ve been around Educational Connections for a while, you’ve probably heard me talk about my first encounter with tutoring—and it wasn’t as a tutor. I was a student. It was the summer between fourth and fifth grade, and I simply could not figure out long division.
All the steps confused and frustrated me, and I never could seem to get it right. That summer, my mom got me my first tutor. I biked to her house every week until I finally mastered long division and regained my self-confidence.
I bring up that story today to say this: Math concepts are hard to study. I experienced it myself as a student, and we hear it from kids and parents every day.
The biggest challenge is that math is incredibly hands-on. You can’t just throw some definitions on an index card or quiz your child aloud on the ride to school. Fortunately, our head tutor Jan Rowe has a technique that can help.
Watch this short video to see how you can turn the math homework your child is already doing into a helpful study tool that can be used again and again before their next big math test:
Don’t you just love how simple that is? Here’s all you need to do to use this strategy with your child. (It works for all ages!)
1. Grab some graph paper.
This isn’t required, but many students find it easier to keep track of numbers when using graph paper to line them up properly.
2. Write the steps on the right side of the sheet.
Using your child’s textbook or notes from class, help them write out the steps on the right side of the sheet, so they can easily follow them as they work through their homework problem.
3. Work the problem on the left side of the page.
Help your child write the homework problem on the left side of the page, beside the steps they need to follow. This allows them to stay focused and on-track, especially when working through a lot of steps.
4. Keep the homework sheet handy for easy access later.
Now that you have a sample problem and the steps to solve it on one easy-to-read piece of paper, don’t throw it away! Store any practice sheets you create in one convenient place, so your child can use them to review steps and work through more sample problems leading up to their next big test.
It’s that simple! This strategy isn’t complicated, time-consuming, or expensive to try, and it makes studying math much easier and more effective. Try it out with your child this week, then hit reply to let me know how it went!
Studying math is hard. We can help!
If your child needs a bit of extra support to conquer confusing math concepts, please don’t feel like you have to relearn it all yourself just to help out. (Math has changed so much since we were kids, hasn’t it?)
Instead, click below to request a tutor, and we’ll send someone to your home to help your child one-on-one. It’s the easiest way to give your child the skills and, more importantly, the confidence they need to conquer math, school, and any other challenges life throws their way!
“Collaborative teams may choose to apply a penalty when work is turned in after the due date. Though if a student has made a reasonable attempt to complete work, teams are encouraged to assign a grade no lower than 50 percent.”
So for example:
Let’s say a student had three assignments he had to complete and he only turned in two of them.
On both of them he got an 80 percent, making his traditional scores 80, 80, and 0. If you average those scores together, that would be 53 percent (an “F”).
But let’s say the same student got an 80, got another 80, and instead of getting a zero for that assignment he didn’t turn in, he was automatically given a 50 percent. Now the student has a 70 percent (a low “C” – which one might argue better reflects their understanding of the material).
Is this a good or bad thing?
Argument A: It’s good in that it decreases the negativity cycle, and better reflects how well students are doing with a greater weight placed on tests.
Often, if a student doesn’t turn something in and knows they’re going to get a zero, they may be less inclined to try as hard for the rest of the quarter, knowing that their grade is now “screwed up.”
Argument B: Giving kids credit when none is due is inappropriate, and breeds a lack of accountability.
“A no-zero grading policy allows students to do minimal work and still pass, pushes students forward who haven’t mastered the content, and doesn’t teach students the real-life consequences of not meeting their responsibilities…”
We may be making positive changes in the short term, but we’re also potentially sending kids off to college unprepared to deal with the consequences of not completing their work.
Overall, I believe that the no-zero policy for most kids is a good thing, but would love to hear from you.
Or if your child is struggling with test taking or a specific subject, our hand-selected subject tutors can help improve their confidence, grades, and understanding of the material.
This is even the case for the most motivated and diligent students we see who for some reason have inconsistent test and quiz scores, and routinely stress out about schoolwork despite the time they put in.
Our tutors help students like this get comfortable with learning again and build confidence through effective study strategies and prioritization skills.
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“I just wanted to let you know that Meredith got an 87 on her Biology chapter test!!! She is still floating about 9 feet in the air. Thank you so much for saving our girl, she has gone from an F and a slim chance of returning to school to a B. She never could have achieved this without your help.” – Carrie O.
When kids do nothing at all in math and reading, the research shows that they can lose two to three months of learning progress over the summer.
Just think: That’s almost as if they decided to end the school year in March!
And if left alone, those losses accumulate over time with respect to their peers.
A 2007 study out of John’s Hopkins University showed that while students (on average) make similar gains in reading comprehension throughout the year, students without access to learning opportunities make no progress over the summer, while students with access outpace them year after year.
Ultimately, by the time they reach 5th grade, disadvantaged students are the equivalent of 3 full grade levels behind their advantaged peers in reading ability!
But, this trend need not apply to your son or daughter…
Because studies also show that kids who read just four books over the summer are able to almost completely eliminate that summer learning slide.
So here’s my take:
If your son or daughter is being required to…
Read three books, probably classics that they really don’t want to read
Write multiple essays
And complete stacks of math assignments
… that’s probably a bit overboard.
Yes, we want kids to keep their minds sharp, but not at the expense of having fun over the summer.
So my recommendation is to create a balance. Get your summer assignments done, but try to structure it in a way that makes learning fun.
Here’s how to do it…
Required vs. Recommended Summer Homework
First off, we can break down summer homework assignments in terms of required vs. recommended.
Most schools send out a recommended reading list, and sometimes subject review packets to their students to complete over the summer.
And some actually require that their students complete a certain amount of those assignments over the summer, which are included in their grade for the upcoming school year.
Now, it does make sense to prioritize required assignments over recommended assignments… especially if your school went overboard with what they handed out.
But as long as it’s not too much material, regardless of whether reading is assigned or not, I recommend working with your child to map out a plan of attack for the summer to get it done (on their terms – see below).
How to tackle summer reading (The Amazon Method)
By far, the most popular category of summer homework assigned are reading lists.
And although most schools have a recommended reading list, they tend to be very broad (umm, should my 8-year-old really be reading MacBeth right now?)…
Specific reading requirements
Sometimes though, there are specific books that your student needs to read over the summer (see the “required” section above), especially high school students, and you’ll need to work with them to figure out a plan of attack.
Block off some time at the beginning of summer (don’t let it wait until July!) to sit down and ask them:
“You have these 3 books you have to read this summer. How would you like to tackle these?”
And then let them answer. Help them formulate a (realistic) plan with their input, and they’ll but much more likely to follow it… and not end up in the last-minute reading rush on August 30th trying to get their summer reading done!
Flexible reading requirements
But on the other hand, if you do have some flexibility in terms of what your student is assigned to read over the summer, what I like to do is create a reading list tailored specifically towards the age or interests of your student.
And one of the best ways to do this is: Amazon!
Step 1: Go to Amazon.com and type in “Books for… [insert description of your child]”
For example, if I had a 7th grader at home I would search: “Books for middle school”
Or if I was looking for something more girl-oriented for my daughter I would search: “Books for middle school girls”
It’s amazing what books will pop up on the top of the list for kids…
Step 2: Review the list and make sure that the results are relevant (sometimes they require a little tweaking), and pay attention to the options on the sidebar where you can filter by subject, age rage, etc.
Then run them by your child and ask: “Which one of these do you want to read this summer?”
Look over the summaries and let them pick the books they want to read.
Word of caution: It’s not your responsibility as a parent to pass judgment and say:
“You know what honey, this year you’re not reading a graphic novel. You can only read books with words, no pictures.
We don’t want to do that as parents. We really want to let our kids decide, because when they’re invested, they’re much more likely to meet that four book goal over the summer.
Step 3: Either order online or head out to the library…
Make sure to do this before July 4th so the summer doesn’t get away from you, and use your list of books that you picked out.
Then, when you get your books back home…
Step 4: Sit down with them and make a plan.
Don’t assume your child will gleefully run up to his room and begin flipping the pages. They’re much more likely to read consistently if you have “READING TIME” marked off on the calendar at a consistent time each day.
You can even make it a family routine! Having everyone in the house reading at the same time will help encourage your child to get their reading done, especially if they’re reluctant or easily distracted.
Now, many kids are reluctant readers and may need a parent to help them get started… And you need to be willing to make the time to lend a hand.
This can be in the form of “you read a page, he reads a page” or for a really reluctant reader, “you read two pages and he reads one,” until he’s into the story.
Make this a habit, and before long you’ll have a bookworm on your hands!
How to handle math packets and workbooks
The same principles hold true for other assigned work as well.
Don’t assume your child will be chipping away at those math packets one day at a time (and the thicker they are, the more daunting they’ll seem).
Truth be told: we get lots of calls from parents mid-August, panicked that their kid hasn’t read and annotated a three-hundred-page book and completed a bunch of review worksheets – even though the parent has reminded him at least ten times!
This situation isn’t unique.
The value to any summer learning is doing a little bit at a time over a long stretch. The brain retains information best in bit sized chunks, not by cramming.
And this is even more important for math because it’s a subject that continually builds on itself. So if you miss something early on, you’re probably going to have to back-track when you run into that same concept again in the future.
So just like with reading assignments, if your son or daughter are assigned a math packet (or any other type of subject packet) over the summer, make sure to site down and set the plan early.
Aside from your typical reading lists and workbooks though, you can also encourage learning in other (more fun!) ways this summer…
Using the Amazon Method to make summer reading more fun
Alternatives to summer workbooks that are actually fun and effective
Whether you should spend the time to try and “preview” material they’re going to see in the coming year
And a whole bunch of other useful ideas for staying engaged over the summer
Here are some of those great ways to get your child into learning, outside of school recommended assignments:
For writing: use a dialogue journal.
One of the best ways to get your child comfortable with writing on a regular basis is to make a game out of it.
So try designating a “special” notebook or journal that lives in your kid’s room that you can use to communicate with them through writing.
Then, simply leave them a note each day, that they read and respond to.
Maybe you say something like, “I noticed how you helped your brother pick up those puzzle pieces. What a nice idea. How did you know he needed your help?”
Leave the journal on his bed and allow him to write back that evening. The next day, you respond.
And be sure not to fix grammar or spelling, just let these be a carefree way to practice writing and even illustrations.
At the end of the summer, not only will they have improved their writing skills, but you’ll also have an amazing keepsake to look back on for years to come.
For reading: listen to audiobooks!
Don’t forget that audio books can be very helpful for developing comprehension and fluency.
Studies show that when kids want to read a book just above their level and listen to the book while following along with the lines, they improve their skills more than if they read independently.
So using a site like Audible.com or going to your local library website to download audio versions of the books your son or daughter has picked out (or has assigned) for the summer isn’t cheating, it’s just another way to “open the door” to getting them involved in reading.
Plus, it’s great for long summer road trips!
For math: play (math) games on the iPad.
For most of us, it’s a constant battle to keep our kids AWAY from the devices over the summer… but it need not be either or.
One of the best ways to “bridge the gap” is to give your child the opportunity to use educational apps or websites on their phone or iPad that will keep them learning, without feeling like math always has to involve drudgery.
Multiplication.com is great site for staying sharp on math facts. And pretty much every elementary schooler needs to practice their addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division over the summer to stay sharp.
Funbrain.com is also perfect for allowing a little screen time in-between reading or homework sessions, while still learning at the same time.
For learning that’s fun: find local adventures!
Yes, you could have your kids spend their summer doing workbooks and refresher material, and that would probably help them stay sharp… but most kids find that to be a drag on their motivation to learn.
Instead, find a local museum or science center and take field trip!
Use the outing to ask your kids to guide the learning session and pick out what they want to explore… and then tell you about it.
And then watch in amazement at how excited they are, not even realizing that they’re “learning,” but just enjoying the moment and experiencing something new.
Summer camps are great for this too, so do some Googling and find out what’s going on in your area.
Now let’s hear from you..
How have you handled the balance between required summer schoolwork and fun?
What have you done that’s helpful in your family to keep summer learning alive without going overboard?
At this time of year, when the homework starts piling up, and motivation is at a low coming off of winter break, it’s pretty common to start questioning what the point of it all is:
Should kids have this much homework? Why is homework important even?
In fact it’s one of the most common questions I get asked at parent workshops. Something along the lines of:
“It’s taking my fourth grader two hours to complete his homework; is this right and how can I help?”
I’ll admit, it’s tough to send your kids off after dinner to spend hours each night, seemingly toiling away on something that brings out visible misery on their faces (especially when they’re struggling). Sometimes it’s as if they’re wearing this huge weight that you wish you could lift off of them.
But then… there’s that little voice in the back of your head that says: “This has to be good for them. They need to learn to work hard and take responsibility.” And you know there’s a kernel of truth in there too.
Bottom line: it’s hard to tell what’s right with homework when you’re a parent.
Thankfully, there are some well-informed answers out there, and actions you can take as a parent to make a positive difference, reduce frustration, and help your kids get their homework done.
And in this post, we walk through exactly why homework is important for students, and 8 ways you can make homework helpful and productive again (rather than a drag each night).
You can jump into our recommendations and best practices here:
Whether it’s become an after-school battleground, or whether your son or daughter works diligently and are just simply overwhelmed, homework can quickly become a problem for both us and our children alike.
Unfortunately, when this happens it’s tempting to do one of two things:
(1) Jump to placing the blame on our children: Why won’t he just sit down and focus? Is there something wrong? She just doesn’t seem to care about school.
(2) Or, jump to placing the blame on their teachers and school: What’s with all of this ridiculous homework? This isn’t right – kids should not have this much to do at night.
The truth, much of the time, lives somewhere in the middle. And homework sparks such divisive emotions because it happens… well… at home – the central location where everything your family does comes together.
That being said, let’s take a look at some facts.
Why do my kids have so much schoolwork to do?
There’s no doubt that kids now have more homework than we ever did. But why the increase? There seem to be two main culprits.
First, the increase may be a reflection of school administrators responding to the requirements for their students to perform well on state-mandated tests. As these tests grow as barometers of success, so do the parents’ expectations to have their students be prepared through teacher mandated work.
Second, many argue that there is a trickle-down effect coming from colleges because it’s harder than ever to gain admission to a top tier school.
For example, in 2007, the average incoming freshman at the University of Virginia sported a grade point average of just over 3.7. In 2013, the average GPA was 4.21. Why?
Because more than ever before, students are taking college level high school courses while still in high school. In the DC area alone, the number of students taking AP (advanced placement) classes increased by 45% between 2010 and 2014. And along with AP and honors classes come lots of extra homework.
Stress and overwhelm: The new norm?
The added workload and pressure, while producing higher marks overall, has had some seriously negative side effects.
Over 4,000 students in ten schools were surveyed. They averaged three hours of homework per night (many reporting up to five hours) and had the migraines, ulcers, stomach problems, and sleep deprivation to prove it. Fifty-six percent of students reported that homework was the biggest stressor in their lives.
As Sara Bennett, co-author of The Case Against Homework, argues: situations like these to do not add value to a student’s academic progress. Students are constantly being given homework to complete outside of their abilities, and teachers put too much dependence on parents for assistance.
“That’s not real achievement. Real achievement is learning long-term skills, the ability to be a creative thinker and work with others. Those should be the goals of education.”
Some parents take this sentiment to the other end of the spectrum, asserting that these skills can be learned in the home environment through chores and other responsibilities. The home is meant to be a place where parents and children can enjoy time together and not feel burdened by additional assignments away from work and school. It causes strain on family relationships and puts too much pressure on a student’s education.
But as we’ll see in a minute, this perspective isn’t quite right, according to the research.
Why is homework important for students?
Is it because it reinforces what students have learned in class, allowing them to practice their errors and figure out solutions on their own?
Does homework actually teach students responsibility and instill the proper organization and time management skills?
Here’s what we know:
Is homework actually effective, or is it just busywork?
The answer is, it depends.
On the one hand, there is such a thing as too much homework, as the Stanford study we mentioned demonstrated. But on the other hand, when given in the right context, homework has been shown to be beneficial.
“Homework appears to provide more academic benefits to older students than to younger students, for whom the benefits seem to lie in nonacademic realms, such as in improving study skills and learning structure and responsibility. The amount of homework provided to younger students may therefore be less important than simply assigning something to help them establish routines and learn personal responsibility.”
“The amount and type of homework seem to be more important factors for older students… Having teachers assign homework that prepares students for upcoming lessons or helps them review material that has not been covered recently may have more impact on student learning than assigning homework that simply continues the school day’s lessons into the evening hours.”
This gives us an idea of what we should be looking for.
The Verdict: A level-headed approach and the 10-Minute Rule of Thumb
Here’s our recommendation:
Homework and projects should be age appropriate, and allow the student to work independently and successfully, without too much aid from parents.
And to that end we’ve found the 10-Minute Rule of Thumb to be most helpful:
Students should receive 10 minutes of homework each night when they first start elementary school, and then 10 additional minutes for each year they progress.
That means a third grader should have about thirty minutes of homework, middle schoolers should have no more than 1.5 hours of homework, and high school students should have no more than two hours.
Homework Best Practices: How to make the most of homework (even when your child is overloaded)
In the end, regardless of how overloaded your child is right now with their homework, there are best practices you can follow to help improve the situation. Here are our top 8 recommendations:
1. Know thy child (a.k.a one size does not fit all)
If your child is bright but disorganized, and lacks organization and planning, you’ll need to set up structure in your home from the start of the school year. Identify a few places to do homework besides in their bedroom, and a general start time. Setting up routines now pay huge dividends later.
Alternatively, sometimes kids have subject struggles. They get just a tad bit behind, lose confidence, and can enter a downward spiral. If you catch it early enough and they know they have someone there to help them, they can overcome the hurdle. This is often true in cumulative subjects like math. Keep talking to your child so you can understand if they’re struggling early on.
Lastly, we see a growing number of kids that are stressed from studying. And without the right strategies, these conscientious kids can expend more time and energy than they might need. The key for these kids is not getting overwhelmed early on and always planning ahead.
2. Use the 10-Minute Rule of Thumb (and don’t let it go too long)
What should I do if it is taking my child a long time to finish his homework?
I always encourage parents to keep a log how much homework their child is actually doing. First, you may find that it’s simply an issue of productivity. If they’re spending time procrastinating or distracted, that’s a separate issue you can tackle.
If you find however, that your child is taking significantly more time to complete his homework daily than the recommended allotment, don’t be afraid to bring it to the teacher’s attention.
To open the dialogue about the amount of time it is taking your child to complete homework, try saying to the teacher, “I noticed that Jimmy is spending ___ minutes on homework a night. Is that normal?”
Reach out to the teacher to open the discussion. Often times, teachers aren’t aware that homework is taking so long.
But regardless what the cause ends up being, don’t let it wait too long because bad habits build, and if they’re overwhelmed by too much work your child will only continue to fall further behind.
3. Select courses wisely (and not just by capability)
There are also considerations for the beginning of the year, and one of the big ones is course selection. I’ve seen kids taking four or five college level classes in high school, and that’s just far too many.
So, when thinking about course selection, factor in the time your child is not only going to spend on homework, which is typically double that of a general course, but also the impact on their social and extracurricular life. Even if they’re capable of taking on more difficult courses, consider whether they will have enough time to handle the increased workload as well.
4. Create a distraction-free environment at home
Kids are typically far more focused in a classroom setting. They are in a structured environment and they also have peer pressure to some degree. They don’t want to look out of the norm by acting silly or not being focused when completing work in class.
But at home, it’s far less structured. So what may take one student a half hour in class might take them an hour at home because of the distractions from technology.
Thankfully, there are changes you can make, like where your child does their homework and when they do their homework that can help reduce the tendency towards distraction. You can also take advantage of apps designed to improve focus like Forest (phone) and SelfControl (desktop), which we’ve talked about in detail here.
5. Nag no more
Do you end up redirecting your child an endless amount of times to get her to simply finish one assignment and move on to the next? If you feel like the only way your child can focus and finish is with your constant reminders, try a different method.
Ask your child how many reminders she’ll need to stay on task in order to finish an assignment. For example, if she says she’ll need two reminders, then stick to that number. When she’s off track, state that you are giving a friendly reminder and then walk away.
At any point when you see that she’s doing the right thing, praise her diligence. By giving warnings and positively reinforcing on-task behavior, the constant reminders will be gone for good, and they’ll be much more likely to stay focused on their work.
6. Check for completion, not quality
Parents and children often don’t see eye-to-eye on the quality of homework, and this can lead to a big blow out or power struggle.
Rather than arguing with your child over the quality of the work he’s producing, only hold him accountable for completing the homework thoroughly. Leave the quality check up to the teacher.
While this can be very uncomfortable for most parents, it eliminates a power struggle and allows the teacher to be responsible for monitoring quality control. Often times, the teacher will intervene and provide your child with feedback. If you still feel that the work isn’t up to standard, contact the teacher directly and ask for her thoughts. Say, “I just want to make sure this work is in line with your standards and expectations.”
Ultimately this removes a potential roadblock between you and your child when it comes to getting their homework done, which can reduce the amount of time it takes each evening.
7. “Must Do, Should Do, Could Do”
A very effective tool that our educational coaches teach kids to categorize their work is a technique called: “Must Do, Should Do, Could Do”
The “Must Do” assignments are the ones that absolutely have to get done that day. A homework assignment for math class due the next morning.
The “Should Do” assignments don’t have to be done that day, but they’re still important. For example, if you have a test Friday and it’s a Tuesday, you should study for it, but it’s not the end of the world if you don’t get to studying until Wednesday. You don’t absolutely have to do it that evening.
The “Could Do” assignments are the tasks that are nice to get done. These are things like recommended reading. Students really don’t have to do the reading, especially if they’re feeling overloaded.
Another example of assignments that get tagged as “Could Dos” is the amount of time spent studying. Instead of reviewing for two hours, perhaps an hour is just fine.
Categorizing schoolwork into these three categories really helps reduce the workload and feelings of overwhelm.
Focus aside; it’s common for kids to get “stuck” from time to time. As parents, we have three choices when we realize that our children are struggling, for example, to understand how to solve a math problem:
Choice 1: Show your child exactly how to solve the problem.
Choice 2: Leave the struggle up to your child. After all, it’s his homework, not yours.
Choice 3: Ask if there are similar problems in his notes or if there’s an example in the book.
Long story short, choose Choice 3, because in doing so you’re encouraging good study skills. Whenever students can help themselves by using past examples to figure out a current problem, they’re practicing good homework habits. These skills don’t just help in the moment, but they’re the foundation for self-reliance in later years as well.
Next Steps: Making homework helpful again
As parents it’s our job to take a step back, assess the situation, and determine what the best path forward is for our kids. So to take control of your child’s homework situation, use the best practices above.
Step 1: Evaluate how much time your child is spending on their homework through observation.
Step 2: Evaluate how they are using their time and determine if there are any distractions, focus issues, or subject difficulties that may be contributing to their workload.
Step 3: Take the appropriate actions depending on what type of student they are. Use the best practices we’ve listed as a guide and choose what you think would work best for your situation and give it a go.
And finally, let us know your opinion:
When is homework appropriate? When is it too much? What do you think?
Leave a comment below, we’d love to hear your perspective!
The question “why is math so hard?” is one we come across so often with the parents and students we work with, it’s become almost a given. We hear things like:
“My son just doesn’t seem to ‘take’ to math. He’s just like his mom.”
“Why is it that even when my daughter really ‘buckles down’ and tries to catch up in Algebra, she still does poorly on quizzes and exams? But then she can turn around, spend a weekend with her history textbook, and ace her essays and tests?”
“It seems like ever since they started algebra, he’s been struggling and hasn’t been able to ‘get it’ no matter how hard he tries.”
But what most people don’t realize is, although math may present some specific difficulties for some children, most of these questions aren’t actually about math at all, but rather any of the school subjects that build on each other cumulatively.
With these types of classes, because each topic builds on the last (like layering bricks), they’re very unforgiving if your child starts to fall behind. And if you’re not on top of it, a “C” on a quiz or two can quickly snowball into a string of C’s on their next report card, or more importantly, a lack of understanding of those topics and a permanent aversion towards them for the rest of their time in school.
Now don’t worry, it’s not all gloom and doom if your child finds themselves behind in these subjects. In this post we’ll cover exactly which subjects you do need to watch out for, how to know when your child is truly struggling, and when you should step in to get them some extra help.
Why is math so hard? What most people think the problem is (and what’s really going on)
When a student continues to struggle in a complex, cumulative topic like math, language, or some of the more advanced sciences (physics, chemistry), we tend to think a few things right off the bat:
Maybe they just don’t have the “math gene,” I certainly didn’t
Maybe their teacher is just going too fast for them
Maybe they’re just more “right-brained” and don’t find math or science interesting
And to some extent, those things can be true.
In 2005, Gallup conducted a poll that showed math as the subject students found the least interesting and most challenging across the board. These students found math to be the least intrinsically motivating, either because they never found it interesting to begin with, or because they developed that attitude over time.
But apart from genetic pre-dispositions, which may preclude students from pursuing a career as a mathematician or PhD chemist, most likely this lack of interest and motivation is coming from somewhere else. Let’s dig a little deeper.
The Swiss Cheese Problem
It was 1983, and there I was sitting in my 8th grade algebra class at Hoover Middle School in Indialantic, Florida. I look up at the board and I see yet another equation, and my neck starts to get stiff, and my shoulders get tense, and I thought to myself:
“I’m never going to learn this”
But I really wanted to. I was sitting in the front row of the class, talking myself into learning. However, inevitably within a few minutes I was off daydreaming about something else as my teacher droned on and on and on.
And when I would go home to do my homework, I didn’t really know what I was doing. It started off where I would do most of it, but maybe leave a few questions blank. But then slowly but surely that turned into: I only did about half of the homework questions. And then after a few weeks, not much of it at all.
And what happens when you aren’t really doing the homework?
(1) You don’t get any of the extra practice, which means
(2) You don’t know what’s going on in class the next day when you move on to more complicated problems, which means
(3) You’re even further behind when you go to do the next set of homework problems…
And on, and on, until that unit test grade smacks you in the face with a C or a D, and your motivation continues to dwindle.
This was all a complete surprise to my parents and teachers, because for all intents and purposes I was the model student. I always came to class, sat in the front, and acted as though I was paying attention.
But behind the scenes, my understanding of what was going on in these cumulative classes looked more like “Swiss Cheese:” I had some of the pieces put together, enough to struggle through at first. But there were holes in my learning and those accumulate over time.
This was my issue with math, and it’s the same issue we see over and over with the students that we help.
School subjects that are cumulative are like building a brick wall
Math, the languages, and many of the sciences are cumulative: if you don’t learn the fundamentals, you’ll continue to be more and more confused, and fall further and further behind as the class progresses forward.
This was my problem in algebra class. But you can see this problem happening with far earlier than that. Take fractions, for example.
If your child has difficulty understanding fractions, they may be able to remember a few simple concepts like:
1/4 = 2/8 or 1/6 + 5/6 = 1
But if when it comes to adding fractions with different denominator (e.g. 1/4 + 2/7) they don’t grasp the method, then what happens when they get to more complicated arithmetic problems like this:
102/7 + 25/4
A gap in understanding appears.
As these gaps accumulate, it becomes harder and harder to fill them in, and more unlikely that you will be able to fully grasp algebra or calculus later on. If a student becomes discouraged at an early age and it is not remediated quickly, then it is probably that the student will become disillusioned with the subject entirely.
It’s like building a brick wall: if your foundation is weak, whatever you stack on top of it is going to be unstable, and quickly be reduced to rubble if put under scrutiny.
Cumulative vs. non-cumulative school subjects
Now the story can be much different for subjects like english and history. If your son or daughter struggles with the “Hamlet” unit in english class, or misses class during “Roman Empire” unit in world history, they may end up with a few poor grades on some essays and a unit test, but beyond that it’s relatively straightforward to recover.
You figure out what they did wrong, why they missed what they missed, and approach the next topic with a renewed study strategy. These non-cumulative subjects are much less “dangerous” to fall behind in, because a short-term concerted effort can recover much of what was lost during the period they missed.
Here’s a quick breakdown of which subjects fit into which category:
If they fall behind…
English, Reading, Social Studies/History, Earth Science, Biology
Pay attention, use questions and reminders to guide them in the right direction, but no need to immediately step in. Unless they repeatedly struggle, or show aversion to multiple different topics, books, or units some gentle guidance and suggestions should be enough to ensure they get back on track.
All Math classes (Arithmetic, Geometry, Pre-Algebra, Algebra, Calculus, Statistics, etc.), All Foreign Languages (Spanish, French, German, Latin, etc.), Chemistry, Physics
If they show any signs of multiple poor grades in a row, uncharacteristically low grades, a big unit test failure, or an aversion to the subject, take action now to either step in yourself or hire a tutor to help them catch up as quickly as possible.
Other potential signs include: when they don’t want to show you the homework portal or say they don’t have homework in that class, or you suggest they go see the teacher and they refuse to.
Now the real question becomes: what do we do about it?
Step 1: Are they really falling behind, or just temporarily struggling?
Now how do we know whether our kids are actually starting to slip in class, or whether they just had a bad week or two that led to some uncharacteristic grades? When do we need to think about stepping in?
The good thing is, like we briefly summarized in the table above, there are some telltale signs that indicate whether or not your child is falling behind in one of these cumulative subjects.
You probably DON’T need to step in yet if they:
Had one or two low homework or quiz grades, but then quickly recovered (still pay attention though)
Came home with an out-of-the-ordinary test grade with a clear cause you can point to unrelated to their understanding of the material (e.g. a stupid mistake, were sick when they took the test, etc.)
Are having trouble with one or two specific concepts, but are open to help and willing to work through it
You probably DO need to step in a get some extra help if they:
Come home with a string of low grades on quizzes and assignments
Bomb a unit test or come home with a highly uncharacteristic grade
Are spending an inordinate amount of time studying each night with no improvement in grades
Seem “down” about the subject or aversive to studying it
Say they don’t have homework or studying for that class
Don’t want to go see the teacher if you suggest it
You know your kid best, so use these guidelines and your best judgement to evaluate whether they’re having real trouble or are just going through a temporary sticking point. And if you do suspect something is up, it may be worthwhile to have a brief dialogue with their teacher to see what they say about their performance in class.
Step 2: How to help them “catch up” in cumulative school subjects
Once you have recognized that your child is struggling, there are two paths you can take: either (1) step in to help yourself and work with them and their teacher to get them back on track, or (2) hire a tutor to help them “fill in the gaps,” rebuild their foundation in that course, and get them confident and motivated to keep up during class again.
Steps you can take as a parent
The first thing you can do in the case of a poor test grade, is to help them take advantage of the retake policy if the teacher has one. If your child isn’t making test corrections or letting you know about a chance to retake the test, it’s a good sign they’re feeling defeating. So take this opportunity to discuss options with their teacher and see if there’s still a chance for kid to retake test.
Second, kids are usually afraid of rejection and typically won’t be willing to write the teacher an email with a question or an ask for help. So sit with them and help them write out an email to their teacher:
“Hi Mrs. Smith,
I’m working on my homework due this Tuesday and I’m really not understanding how to use the Pythagorean Theorem. Can I stop by after class tomorrow to ask you about it?”
Most of the time just writing and sending that one email will lift a huge load off of their shoulders, especially when they realize their teacher is most likely going to be very receptive to helping them out.
Third, see if they can attend study hall after school and sit in the classroom with their teacher while they do their homework. Inevitably they’ll end up asking for help with problems they’re stuck on and feel more comfortable doing so with their teacher in the room without the pressure of their classmates present. This will help them get in the routine of asking for help when they need it without feeling embarrassed.
Steps you can take with a tutor
Although many parents are fully equipped to help their children with homework and studying, a tutor is, in the large majority of cases, are more effective means for getting your child back up to speed in a subject like math or foreign language if for no other reason than: they’re a new face and an outside voice with less “stake” in the game.
Additionally, if a tutor really knows what they’re doing, they’ll be able to diagnose where your child is struggling, and take progressive steps to close those subject gaps, catch them up, and build up their ability to keep up with the new material. Here’s for example, what our tutors will generally do:
Assess where the student is right now, and identify any gaps in the fundamentals that will need to be addressed right off the bat.
Build an execute a plan to fill those holes in understanding and re-teach that material expediently so that the child still has time left over to work on the current work going on in class.
Spend additional time helping them through their homework, and helping them prepare for upcoming quizzes and tests. Because the worst thing that can happen is to have them continue to lose ground and lose confidence as they go back to the basics and try to re-learn older material.
Once the student has started to master the old material they missed out on, then ideally the tutor will have them start to preview what they’ll see next so that they feel more motivated and focused by the time they get to school and take on that topic during class. This is much more powerful than remediation alone, and will improve grades and confidence more than simply reviewing and correcting material after the fact.
Work with the student to take practice tests ahead of their actual exams. In general, kids who perform poorly in specific subjects like math tend to have a very inaccurate idea of how much they actually know. Tutors can create and administer practice tests to both help students identify where they still need work, and also to prepare for the pressures of solving problems within the testing format and timeframe.
Whether you decide to step in yourself first, or move forward with a subject tutor for your child, the most important thing is to work quickly to get them moving in the right direction.
If you’ve done the work to identify that they’re really struggling, further delay will only make things worse. So put together a plan, and start working towards stopping the cumulative snowball effect from progressing any farther.
If you think tutoring may be the best option to get your child back on track, and you live in the DC/Virginia/Maryland area, you can contact us here or call (703) 934-8282 and we’ll be happy to walk you through some options we have available.
If you’re not local to us, a quick Google search for “Algebra tutor” or “Spanish tutor” within your area should yield some good options to choose from. Feel free to use our math or foreign language tutoring overviews to give you a sense of what to look for.
And finally, if you have any comments, questions, or feedback for us, leave a comment below! We love hearing from you and would be happy to help where we can.
Because you’re here, reading this post, we already know you’re committed to helping your child improve their attitude towards school, habits surrounding homework and studying, and academic performance.
Chances are you’ve also picked up some ideas along the way on how you might help them to get organized, overcome procrastination, or study smarter.
But herein lies the problem:
You, as “Mom” or “Dad” may know what to do, but your son or daughter may have other ideas…
Anyone who’s tried to feed broccoli to a toddler, or get a teenager to clean there room with any sort of consistency knows that no matter how much “sense” it makes, or how much logic is involved, there’s not much arguing with “I don’t want to do it that way.”
And this couldn’t be more true when it comes to schoolwork. Unless our kids are ready and willing to make changes to their homework and study habits, no matter how hard you push, nothing meaningful is going improve until they take it upon themselves to do those things independently.
So how do we do that?
This is where Powerful Questions come in.
What are Powerful Questions?
Now looking back, Socrates figured this out loooong before any of us did:
Asking questions to spark thinking is far more effective than “telling” someone what they need to do.
Apply that idea to your kids and their approach towards homework and studying, and you find that if you can frame your questions in the right way, you’ll actually facilitate the self-awareness, empowerment, and independence they need to become self-starters and take on the behaviors you’ve been encouraging them to.
But the way these questions are framed is a key point. Here’s an example of a typical conversation you might have with your child:
Mom:“Jimmy, do you have homework today?” Jimmy:“Yeah.” Mom:“Well, you better start it now because you have soccer at 6:00 and I don’t want you staying up late again tonight because you started your work too late!” Jimmy:“Ugghhhhggg…”
The problem here may seem like it’s as simple as: Jimmy just doesn’t feel like doing his homework.
But it actually starts off on the wrong foot because the question Mom asked is a non-starter: it doesn’t get Jimmy thinking about the things he needs to do to get started on his homework.
This is what we refer to as a Yes/No/Why Question, and Powerful Questions are the opposite. They are instead:
Open-ended and non-judgmental
Not intended to give advice or to solve the problem for the student
Intended to get them thinking in the right direction that will provide a much higher change of a solution they come to themselves
Here’s a side-by-side comparison of some common Yes/No/Why Questions you might naturally ask, and some powerful alternatives you could replace them with to encourage independent thinking.
Do you have homework?
What are your priorities today?
Did you study for that science test?
What’s the one thing you might do to study for your science test?
Are you ready for your big English exam?
On a scale of 1-10, how prepared do you feel for the English exam?
Why didn’t you study?
Going forward, what’s the one thing you might do differently?
Why didn’t you turn that in?
Did something get in your way of getting that assignment done?
And here’s the process to go through when you do go to re-frame that conversation:
Ask an initial powerful question to spark thinking
Listen to responses without passing judgement
Restate or paraphrase what the student is saying
Give positive acknowledgments along the way
Okay so now with that in mind, let’s reframe our conversation with Jimmy using Powerful Questions instead:
Mom:“Jimmy, what are your priorities today for homework?” Jimmy:“I have to science test tomorrow and some math homework.” Mom:“Oh, okay, a science test and math homework. What might you do first?” Jimmy:“Probably study for science.” Mom:“Okay, that sounds like a good plan to study for science first. I can tell you want to get that out of the way. Great idea. How will you know you’re ready for the test?” Jimmy:“I’m going to work through the study guide again and practice the vocab words on Quizlet.” Mom:“Sounds like you have a good plan. You’re going to work through the study guide and Quizlet before soccer. Let’s leave by 5:30. Sound okay?”
Now, let’s not pretend that this is how your conversation will go the first time you try this.
More likely you may encounter:
Mom:“Jimmy, what are your priorities today for homework?” Jimmy:“Huh??”
Mom:“Jimmy, what are your priorities today for homework?” Jimmy:“I don’t think I have any…” as you stand there with his math assignment in your hand.
So if this happens don’t get discouraged, this process takes some getting used to on both sides. The important thing is to keep trying, and to gently lead and prod them in the right direction, trying your best not to outright tell them what they need to do.
Why Powerful Questions work
Powerful questions work well with kids, even the resistant ones, for two reasons:
First: By asking the right questions, you’re not telling kids what to do
And no child (or adult for that matter) likes to be told what to do. It puts people on the defensive… and when they’re on the defensive, they’re far less likely to engage in conversation.
When kids feel defensive or judged, they can begin to shut down. However, when you ask open-ended questions more out of curiosity, kids are much more likely to listen and to talk to you.
Second: They foster executive functioning skills (EF)
When it comes to schoolwork, EF skills have to do with getting started (being a self-starter), focusing well enough to get the work done, and then moving on to the next assignment. The problem is that at times, parents can end up being the Homework Police, by nagging, prodding and negotiating to get their kids to do three things: get started, focus and finish.
By asking the right questions, you’re encouraging kids to think ahead about how they might get started on their own, what’s important to get done, and how they’ll go about doing it.
For many years, our educational coaches have found that this approach works incredibly well for all kids, and it can work in your home, too.
I remember in elementary school memorizing my math times tables… what stands out most to be is the “mad minute.”
It was a short quiz of 20 multiplication problems and we were given one minute to complete them… and it could probably be defined as the most stressful 60 seconds of my young life!
Now, imagine doing that exercise, but at the same time not being able to keep track of all these operations in your head and constantly losing focus on the problem.
This is what most of our children with ADHD face when they look at a math problem.
ADHD and math don’t seem to be a “natural” fit, and there are various factors that go into why math is so difficult for kids with ADHD.
So in this post, we’ll break down some of the struggles kids with ADHD face in math class, and some ways to help make sure your child’s math foundation is strong.
ADHD and Math: The issue at hand
Students who are affected by ADHD often have a hard time with math because their memory is not very strong and blocking out external stimuli is a struggle.
Memory, which is where information is stored for later use, is one of many executive functions. Executive functions refer to skills such as reasoning, task switching, and planning. Kids with ADHD do not have strong executive function skills, which significantly affects their performance in school.
Which brings us to our first struggle…
Struggle 1: Word problems are overwhelming
A 25 foot ladder is leaning against a house and a hose is stretched from the base of the house to the garden and passes the ladder after 8 feet and you have to find out how tall the house is and what the angle the ladder makes with the house.
Wait, what just happened?
If you read the problem above and got confused or zoned out, you’re like many people who dread word problems. For students with ADHD, the stumbling block with word problems lies in the combination of words and numbers that make it difficult to store the information in their memory as they progress through the problem.
Even if the student is able to follow along with the problem, when it comes time to solve it, all of their energy and focus is already used up!
The solution to the word problem struggle
Have your student read the problem in small parts and draw a picture of the part he just read. This breaks the word problem into chunks, allowing the student to place just a small piece of information into his head. Adding a tactile and visual dimension to his learning by drawing part of the problem at a time only strengthens his memory.
Check out the image below. It shows what the picture might look like as your child is reading. By the end of reading the word problem, he will have completed the drawing in the bottom right.
Taking this piece by piece approach to reading and drawing might mean that your child might have to change the original drawing as he goes, but that’s okay… it’s important to get something on the page before he finishes reading the whole problem.
Struggle 2:Order of operations are confusing
Remember PEMDAS: Please Excuse My Dear Aunt Sally?
It’s an acronym that stands for Parentheses, Exponents, Multiplication, Division, Addition, Subtraction and is supposed to help us recall the order of operations in complex math problems.
The struggle that students with ADHD have with math problems that require them to conjure up the correct order of operations has to do with their working memory and ability to maintain focus throughout the multiple problem solving procedures.
Solution? Make it visual
Have your student highlight math signs and symbols.
Make colored pens, markers, and highlighters your kid’s best friend by encouraging her to color or highlight the sign, – + = x ÷, of each problem.
ADDitude magazine recommends highlighting math signs because it is a visual reminder to the student of the kind of math operation needed to solve the problem.
It may also be helpful in downtime to allow use of mobile math apps that work on the topic your child is struggling with. These tend to be effective because of the very high level of visual engagement kids have with video games and screen time.
Struggle 3: Staying focused enough to finish the problem
Aside from issues with working memory, issues with focus are why students with ADHD tend to struggle with math problems.
Staying intently focused on a single task takes a ton of mental energy, which often conflicts with the desire that many kids with ADHD have for constantly changing stimulation.
This is why completing a mathematical proof, a complex word problem, or a problem involving intricate problem solving procedures can seem out of reach for your child.
Solution to the focus problem:
Have your child take a focus break. Focus breaks are 2-5 minute breaks when the student steps away from his homework, even if it’s in the middle of a long mathematical problem, and does something unrelated to his work.
This might be spending a few minutes on his phone, playing fetch with the dog, or better yet, a brain exercise to strengthen his focus. Dr. Robert Myers writes about brain exercises that are used to improve the executive functions in kids with ADHD.
If your child has ADHD it goes without saying that you’re committed to helping them become successful, resilient, and overcome their academic challenges.
But on average, students with ADHD say that 80% of their interactions at school are negative ones.
Whether that’s because of how they feel about themselves, their surroundings, their peers, or just school in general… it means they spend a majority of their day feeling negative.
And there’s one issue in particular where this negativity tends to manifest itself most: homework.
With ADHD homework can become a real struggle. But what we also know, is that it’s not a problem that can’t be overcome if we take the right steps.
In our opinion, there are 3 keys to success for students with ADHD:
Know how ADHD manifests itself in your child
Be the “Charismatic Adult”
Set them up now with healthy homework and study habits
And in this post, we’ll cover different ways ADHD manifests itself and approaches to homework and studying that will help get them moving in the right direction and turning a negative school experience into a positive one.
1. Know how ADHD manifests itself in your child
It is important to know how ADHD affects your child before you can choose the best approach to help them succeed academically.
For example, in an interview with author of Understanding Girls with ADHD, Pat Quinn, M.D. we discussed how ADHD can manifest itself differently in girls than it does in boys.
More often than not you hear ADHD and you think disruption. However, that is not always the case, especially when it comes to girls. Girls with ADHD may actually tend to be more shy and withdrawn. This is because when their minds wander away from the task at hand, they’re more inclined to not want you to know they’re not paying attention. As an avoidance strategy, it’s more straightforward to stay quiet.
Alternatively, with boys (generally speaking of course) the research shows they tend to manifest their ADHD symptoms more externally, whether through running around, interrupting vocally, or actively misbehaving. But it would also be a mistake to characterize all boys with ADHD in this way, because there are many who don’t exhibit this behavior.
The bottom line is this:
Every case is different. You know your child. So it’s essential to try to best understand your child’s strengths and weaknesses when it comes to schoolwork to determine which strategies are appropriate, and which don’t seem relevant.
2. Be the “Charismatic Adult”
Studies show the number one differentiator between students with behavioral, attention, or learning disorders who succeed and those who do not is the presence of a “charismatic adult’ in their life. As psychologist and researcher Julius Segal notes:
“From studies conducted around the world, researchers have distilled a number of factors that enable such children of misfortune to beat the heavy odds against them. One factor turns out to be the presence in their lives of a charismatic adult– a person with whom they identify and from whom they gather strength.”
Reflect on your own experiences…
How did you get to where you are today both personally and professionally? Did you have a charismatic adult in your life who encouraged and believed in you?
Being this figure in a child’s life does not mean being Mother Theresa, but it does require taking an interest in the child and their strengths rather than focusing on his or her shortcomings. And when mistakes and failures do happen, it means helping them work through them constructively so that they walk away from the situation knowing more than they did before and feeling positive about the experience.
3. Set them up now with healthy homework and study habits
You’ve heard them all before…
“It’s so booorrrrring…”
“I don’t have any homework.”
“I’ll start after I finish my video game.”
For most kids with ADHD homework and studying is filled with dread and excuses, but it doesn’t have to be. Let’s break it down by topic so we can really hone in on how to help develop these essential habits that will carry them to success now, and later in their academic careers.
ADHD and Procrastination
Your child constantly procrastinates, even after dozens of reminders. How can you get him more excited about homework and completing it earlier?
Step 1: Have a predictable schedule
Allow a thirty minute break after school before getting started on homework. When kids know what to expect they are less likely to procrastinate.
Step 2: Consider the “Tolerable 10”
Set a timer for just 10 minutes and encourage them to work as hard as they can until the time runs out. This helps give them a push to get started, and after the 10 minutes is up they can either take a short break or continue for another round.
ADHD and Time Management
Time management is the enemy of kids with ADHD. Your child is smart, but when it comes to completing assignments they can take hours longer than the instructor intended. How do you help them minimize distractions and encourage productivity?
Step 1: Make a game plan
Break homework or projects into smaller more manageable tasks. Check in, and make a big deal when he’s accomplished one or a set of tasks. For many kids, time is too abstract of a concept. Consider using candy or baseball cards and letting him know he’ll be rewarded when the task is complete.
Step 2: Help prioritize
Ask what they will do first to help them get started. Make sure they understand the directions and can do the work. Then, let him go at it alone but stay close by so you can help if needed.
Step 3: Use a timer
Once you have broken up the assignment into more manageable pieces and helped prioritize their work, set a timer and encourage them to work in short spurts (see the “Tolerable 10” above). Then slowly make the time longer, but never more than 30 minutes.
Set expectations, rewards, and consequences for completing homework and assignments. Then verify with an online grading portal if one is available. Communicate with teachers if necessary, but always do this with your child so that they’re involved in the process.
Step 2: Tie privileges to effort
Link things like screen time and hanging out with friends to the amount of time spent studying and doing homework, rather than outcomes like grades. Kids can see the direct correlation between working and learning, and a benefit… rather than feeling overwhelmed by the idea of getting better grades, when they may not know exactly how.
Step 3: Talk to teachers about emailing assignments and homework
Kids with ADHD and executive dysfunction may benefit from having the option to submit homework online or through email. They can focus on one thing at a time, and submit it right then and there, rather than having to manage organizing it, and bringing it to school and turn it in.
ADHD and Distractions
Pulling your child back into study mode from a break or video games seems near impossible. So how do you pull them away from those distractions and focus on homework?
Step 1: Put a limit on breaks
Kids may need a break after a long school day. For elementary aged kids, a 30 minute break after school should do the trick. Older kids may need more time to “chill” after school is out, but ideally assignments and studying should start before dinner time. Use this to have them indulge their break time, while still setting boundaries.
Step 2: Control screen time
Limit breaks to outdoor activities or things that don’t involve a screen. Video games and social media are specifically designed addictive and hard to detach from. So allow a mental break, but don’t let them make things harder on themselves than they need to be by getting wrapped up in something that’s hard to pull away from.
ADHD and Homework: What’s next?
Now, after all of this you may be asking yourself:
“If I do all of this will my child eventually be ready for college and academic independence?”
The best way to ensure your child will be ready for the independence they crave is to back off slowly, but stay supportive.
Set up weekly meetings, maybe every Sunday before the school week starts, and discuss upcoming assignments and offer support. You’ve guided them through this far and it is time to let them take the wheel… just make sure they don’t head off in the wrong direction.
Now lets hear from you. Do you have a child with ADHD? How do you manage it as a family? What strategies have you found successful?
One of the toughest parts about seeing your kids through school is deciding to “let go.” To let them take responsibility, make mistakes, and “learn how to learn” under their own control.
But what happens when they get stuck, and aren’t able (or willing) to figure it out on their own?
Whether that’s on their first algebra assignment, a year-long science project they don’t know how to start, or a lingering book report where the due date has come and gone…
Sometimes it’s really hard to know when to step in and how to direct them without helping too much.
Ultimately the question we’re asking is:
Should parents help with homework? And if so, how much?
It’s one of the first questions we get from the parents we work with, so we put together a guide that you can use to find an answer that works for your family. Below is a breakdown of when it makes sense to lend a hand, and how to do it effectively.
Should parents help with homework? 5 common questions
First off, let’s address some common questions. Then we’ll outline some more general recommendations on what to do.
Question 1: How involved should I be when I review my daughter’s math homework and I see that there might be a wrong answer? Should I correct it or let her bring it to school with incorrect answers?
When your child starts a math assignment, it’s a great idea to make sure she understands the directions and watch her do the first few problems so she’s off to a good start and knows how to solve them.
A parent’s job is to make sure a child’s homework is complete, but not to critique it for accuracy – that’s the teacher’s job.
If it’s every now and then and your child is receptive to help, asking her to fix one or two answers is fine, but often what happens is that parents get in a power struggle over making sure the entire assignment is correct. Again, because you just want to aim for completion, don’t worry about one or two answers being wrong. I would let it go and let her get feedback in class from her teacher and classmates.
Question 2: What do I do when my daughter has a math question on her homework and I have no idea how to do it? The way that she is learning math is completely different than the way I learned. How should I direct her?
When your child is stuck, you have three options:
First, you can say, “Let me show you how to do it. This is the way.” However, it’s likely that your child will say, “Mom, that’s not how Mrs. Smith does it,” and there may be an argument or two on how to do it correctly.
You could also say, “You know what, honey? I already went to fourth grade. It’s your homework, not mine. You figure it out.” That’s probably not a great option either because your child won’t feel supported when they are frustrated with work.
The third and best way to assist with homework struggles, is to ask, “Are there other examples like this one in your book or in your notes? Have you ever seen this type of question before?” By encouraging your child to look for examples or similar problems, she’ll be more likely to solve the problem on her own.
Question 3: It takes my son a loooong time to complete his homework because he is constantly distracted or unfocused. How can I help him get it done in a reasonable amount of time?
Kids who toil for hours on seemingly simple assignments can be difficult to handle. And we actually have a name for them: “Super Bowl Kids” – the game is on for four hours, but they only play football for an hour.
Interestingly though, it isn’t that they’re not working diligently when they do finally sit down to work. They’re just easily distracted and taken away from that work frequently.
Research shows that when a task seems too large or difficult for kids (and students of any age), they often procrastinate more.
So in this situation, a timer is a surprising effective solution. Set the timer for 15 minutes at first, and let your child know that if they work as hard as they can for that 15 minutes, they get to take a 5-minute break when it’s done. Then repeat that process, slowly increasing the working time up to 25 minutes. Before they know it, the assignment is done, their confidence is up, and they’re onto the next thing.
Question 4: My daughter doesn’t write down her assignments since she thinks she can remember them. What are some tools we can use to work on this?
This one is much more common than you would think. The best solution?
First, set the expectation: they need to record there assignments somewhere. Then (and this is the key) allow them to choose how they’d like to do that. Whether it’s a good old fashioned pencil and paper in a planner or agenda book, or by using an app on their phone, when kids get to choose the method, they’re much more likely to follow through.
Now keep in mind, writing down assignments is an important first step, but it’ll only take you so far without learning how to get organized and prioritize. Organization starts when your child walks through the front door after school get home, and should be an integral part of the evening routine each school night before they go to bed. Here are some easy organization tips you can implement in addition to recording assignments.
Question 5: My son struggles with tackling long-term assignments, so he procrastinates. How can I help him start his projects early?
As it turns out, this problem is actually very similar in nature to the “Super Bowl Kids” problem, in that students often procrastinate more the larger the project. And long-term assignments that may span an entire month or quarter exacerbate this tendency.
Because these projects are so large though, simply jumping into work generally makes the issue worse rather than better. Instead, we need to add in some planning into the process, and this is where you can help.
A great way to do this is to make Sunday dinners the jumping off point for planning. They’re already at the table, away from distractions, so start by tacking on 15-20 minutes either before or after dinner to review upcoming assignments for the week.
You can ask “What is coming up in class that you might need to start working on?” If your child says, “I have a test on Friday” or “I have a science project due in two weeks,” you can then take the opportunity to help them talk through some forward planning. You can ask, “What might you do to break down that project into smaller tasks?” And then have them outline the steps they need to take.
Now, keep in mind that this may not apply to elementary students, who are going to need more parental help planning out long term assignments until their executive functioning skills are developed enough to plan weeks ahead.
Your role as a parent: How to oversee homework and studying without going too far
When it comes down to it, our problem as parents is this:
It’s incredibly tempting to check online or in your kid’s backpack to see what’s due… or to jump in to help with homework at the first sign of struggle, especially if our children aren’t forthcoming about their workload or issues they’re having in class.
And on top of that, when our students struggle with motivation, it’s common for them to do the bare minimum or avoid homework altogether.
But in an attempt to “help” we often go too far. We end up enabling our children by constantly checking to see what homework is due, and helping them get it done on time, even though this task should be their job.
Here’s what we recommend:
1. A certain amount of involvement is appropriate for elementary-school students.
Like I mentioned above, kids who are elementary school age haven’t fully developed their executive functioning skills, and so aren’t quite ready to go it alone when it comes to planning and working through long assignments independently.
All this means in practice is that when you know there’s an assignment coming up, sit down with them and ask “What are the steps you’re going to need to do to complete this ?”
Then, instead of fully leaving it to them to work it out, open up a dialogue and try to let them come up with the steps. Then, when they get stuck, assist along the way. As they get the hang of it, you can help less and less over time. But don’t be afraid to help the process along when they’re young. The question shouldn’t be “should parents help with homework?” but rather, “how much should we help?” at this stage.
2. If your kids are in middle or high school, resist the impulse to help.
I recently spoke to one mom who called our office in Fairfax looking for a tutor. She was in quite a quandary. She was making it a regular practice to tap into her freshman son’s school portal each day and print out his assignments so they would be ready for him when he came home from school. When asked why, she responded, “If I didn’t he would never do them.”
One of the most important gifts a parent can give to their child is the ability to navigate life, including schoolwork, independently. Middle school is definitely the time to start. And in high school it’s a must.
They’ll never have the opportunity to develop the skills they’ll need to do that if you don’t set the stage for them to do these things on their own. So again, work with them to get the process started, but then adopt a “hands-off” philosophy so that they have the chance to work through it themselves.
3. Give them the tools.
Now once your kids start working through their homework independently, inevitably you’ll run across some issues with staying organized, getting their work done on time, and studying ahead of time for tests.
So it’s not usually enough to just set them loose on their work without helping them develop the skills they’ll need to make their way through it. These include:
Organizational skills, which help kids feel more in control of their work and confident that they have a handle on all of the homework and studying they have to do.
Time management skills, which will help them get started on their work, stay focused, and understand how long things actually take to finish.
Study skills, which help them make better use of the time they do dedicate to homework and studying.
As the old allegory says: “Give a man a fish, and you feed him for a day. Teach a man to fish, and you feed him for a lifetime.” And that couldn’t be more true when it comes to studying and doing homework, so it’s worth the investment.
4. Give them a choice.
Expect that your student has a system in place to track assignments, projects, and dates of quizzes and tests. It should be up to the student to determine which system works best for him or her, so give them a choice on how they want to accomplish this.
Some students find that apps that run on smartphones or tablets are ideal for this application where they are permitted. Others, although very few these days, prefer the old-fashioned assignment notebook.
5. Trust but verify.
Trust that your child has completed his daily assignments and planned out those that are long-term, but be wise enough to verify. This means that you may want to cross-reference what he says he has for homework against what is documented in the portal.
“Trust but verify” shouldn’t be daily, but should be used when you have that uneasy feeling that work has gone undone. Ask your child to log onto the portal with you there; do not do it on your own.
6. Work on communication rather than the schoolwork itself.
The question remains, “What do you do if the work still goes undone without your support?” The answer is complicated because the obstacle is typically deeper than missing assignments. So often, there’s a problem with communication.
Schedule a time to sit down with your child and discuss the issue without nagging or judging him. When kids feel as if their parents listen to them, they are more likely to listen to their parents. I can recommend a fantastic book and one that changed the way I deal with the students I teach and my own children. It’s called, How to Talk So Kids Will Listen and How to Listen So Kids Will Talk. Check it out. It’s an easy read and so worth it.
In the end, communication is key and will help you navigate sticky situations when it comes to helping with schoolwork.
How much do you help?
Now over to you: How much do you help with homework?
Despite our recommendations above, we know full well it’s certainly not easy to find the right balance, and there is no one-size-fits-all way of handling it.
So let us know: What level of involvement works best for you and your child?
Leave us a comment below, we’d love to hear how you tackle it.