"Room for Debate"
November 12, 2014
|Autumn Raubuck helped her sons with homework in their|
home in Long Beach, N.Y. Yana Paskova for The N.Y. Times
Sociologists at the University of Texas at Austin and Duke University have found that parental involvement, including homework help, can have a negative effect on a child’s academic achievement.
As parents fret to give their children the tools to be successful in the future, are they doing more harm than good? Is parental involvement out of control?
Whose Work Is Homework? Should parents help children with homework? Or do they end up doing more harm than good?
Help Children Form Good Study Habits
Erika A. Patall is an assistant professor of educational psychology in the College of Education at the University of Texas at Austin.
When it comes to helping with homework, education and psychology research suggests that it all depends on how parents become involved.
When kids feel like homework has value and doing it is their own choice, it will seem more interesting and lead to greater achievement.
What is essential is that parents focus on supporting students’ motivation. Parent help can backfire when it involves providing instruction on homework content. In contrast, parents will support their kids’ school success when they communicate clear expectations and help students develop a homework routine.
Students who have a clearly defined routine around homework — a set time, a set place and a set way to complete homework — are more likely to believe they can overcome challenges while doing homework, take more responsibility for learning, and ultimately do better in school.
Homework is an especially good opportunity for parents to help young kids develop self-regulatory skills, by modeling study strategies and helping students set goals and make plans for completing homework.
Parents should also give kids autonomy. When kids struggle with homework, parents sometimes have an instinct to take control by using commands, incentives, threats, surveillance, or just doing the work themselves. These tactics may work in the short term, but won’t benefit kids in the long run.
A better strategy is to explain why even the most boring homework could help students accomplish personal goals (aside from just getting a good grade). Providing choices related to homework and emphasizing that students should work in their own way is also important. When kids feel like homework has value and doing it is their own choice, it will seem more interesting and lead to greater achievement.
Finally, whatever parents say or do related to homework, it is critical to communicate that mistakes are a welcomed part of the learning process and effort is at the heart of kids’ success.
The Homework Parent Trap
Alfie Kohn is the author of 13 books, including "The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing."
"...'back off and let 'em fend for themselves' is poor advice. What's needed isn't less parenting but better parenting. But that's not an argument in favor of homework."
When parents aren't being faulted for insufficient involvement in their children's education – which often means failing to enforce the school's agenda at home -- they're being criticized for getting too involved. In particular, a subset of parents stands accused of providing their children with excessive homework help.
The most vociferous accusers seem to be animated not by any empirical finding that such help is actually counterproductive, but by a conservative narrative that consists of growling about how kids get everything too easily these days (A's, praise, trophies), that an epidemic of helicopter parenting shields them from “useful” failure, that we ought to promote self-sufficiency and self-discipline instead of self-esteem.
I've responded to this position at length in a recent book, challenging its false descriptive claims and dissecting the ideology that underlies them. In general, I think “back off and let 'em fend for themselves” is poor advice. What's needed isn't less parenting but better parenting.
But that's not an argument for helping with homework. It's an argument for asking why homework is being assigned in the first place – particularly to kids below high-school age.
Remarkably, no research has ever found any benefit to any sort of homework in elementary school. It hasn't been found to correlate with superficial measures like standardized test scores, let alone promote meaningful intellectual growth. And as far as I can tell, no study has ever supported the folk wisdom that homework contributes to independence, responsibility or good work habits.
The main effects of making children work what amounts to a second shift when they get home from a full day in school are: frustration, exhaustion, family conflict (whether or not the parent decides to help), less time for pleasurable activities, and diminished interest in learning.
Asking whether, or how much, parents should help with homework distracts us from the question that matters: How can parents organize – and join enlightened teachers – to challenge the question's premise?
What happens during family time should be for families to decide. Besides, six hours of academics is enough; we want our children to develop not only academically but artistically, socially, emotionally and physically. And we want them to have a chance to just be kids.
Not All Students Have Access to Homework Help
H. Richard Milner IV is the Helen Faison professor of urban education at the University of Pittsburgh. He is the author of "Start Where You Are, but Don’t Stay There: Understanding Diversity, Opportunity Gaps and Teaching in Today’s Classrooms," and the forthcoming "Rac(e)ing to Class: Confronting Poverty and Race in Schools and Classrooms."
"Questions about the uneven distribution of resources should be at the very heart of our philosophies and practices in deciding on homework assignments."
When teachers assign homework, we must ask ourselves just whose work is being developed and evaluated. For instance, a mother who is a chemist probably has the ability to help her child with chemistry homework in ways that most people cannot. And even if that parent is unable to help with homework because she is too busy, she may have the ability to hire a nanny or tutor.
In both scenarios the student is at an advantage because of opportunities that many children do not have. These advantages are a direct result of affordances – frankly, privileges – that are far beyond the control of the students themselves. The assigning of, expectations for, and assessment of homework, then, are equity issues that are not trivial by any means.
In my forthcoming book, "Rac(e)ing to Class," I discuss how a reasonable number of middle and high school students living below the poverty line work part-time jobs (babysitting, mowing lawns, working at fast food restaurants) to support their families. Many of these students are motivated to learn and aspire to earn good grades. A large number of them plan to attend either a two- or four-year institution of higher education. However, they struggle to complete homework assignments after school and on weekends, when they usually work long hours.
We should be looking at the ways homework further perpetuates inequity. Although I agree that homework could potentially enhance in-class learning, questions about the uneven distribution of resources to assist students should be at the very heart of our philosophies and practices in deciding on assignments. These decisions should be made with our heads and our hearts.
Teachers and administrators should be mindful that not all students have access to people and resources to help them reach their full learning capacity after school. Every child matters in our educational system. It is time for us – all of us – to act like it.
Autonomy Works Best for the Classroom
Jessica Lahey is a contributing writer at The Atlantic, columnist at Motherlode, and author of the upcoming book "The Gift of Failure: How the Best Parents Learn to Let Go So Their Children Can Succeed."
"The children of controlling parents, who intervene and manage every detail of their child’s performance, tend to give up when faced with challenge and frustration."
Research has shown that the children of autonomy-supportive parents – parents who give their kids independence and control over their work – are subsequently better able to complete tasks on their own when that parent is not present.
Conversely, the children of “directive” or “controlling” parents, who intervene and manage every detail of their child’s performance, tend give up when faced with challenge and frustration. Once these kids are in school, the children of autonomy-supportive parents are at a distinct advantage, because challenge and frustration during learning, so-called desirable difficulties, are among the best ways to turn fleeting, short-term realizations and memories into long-term, durable learning.
Parents should help students with their homework by being mindful of the purpose of high-quality assignments: to achieve mastery of academic material, strengthen organizational skills, and reinforce work habits.
Unfortunately, the sort of “help” many parents offer children at homework time undermines these goals. I’m not talking about the counterproductive help teachers rail against: those parent-provided answers on math homework and suspiciously adult edits on English essays. I’m talking about the habitual micromanaging, directing, and controlling of the when, where, and how of children’s school work.
Parents help when they give their children the time and space they need to work through frustration and challenge on their own. And ultimately, when those children have given it their best shot and need a parent to step in with additional help, it can come in the form of redirection and loving encouragement rather than solutions and easy answers.
Support Your Kids By Letting Learning Happen
Martha Brockenbrough is a former high school teacher and the author of books for young readers. Her next novel, coming in 2015, is "The Game of Love and Death."
"My daughters have handed in homework that’s less than perfect. And this might look like incompetence, but when I see it, I see learning in progress."
My daughters are 10 and 14. Once upon a time, I did everything for them. Then they learned and took over. This is a core principle of parenthood for me: If my kids can do it themselves, I don’t do it for them.
My daughters sometimes wear questionable outfits and pack questionable lunches. Likewise, they’ve handed in homework that’s less than perfect. And this might look like incompetence, but when I see it, I see learning in progress.
The principle seems to work equally well for all kinds of kids. One of my girls has learning disabilities and is in a private school that specializes in such things. The other is working two years ahead academically in a public school. Both have learned they prefer better grades and fewer corrections on their homework, so both do it carefully and on time.
In part because I have plenty of my own work, I decided early on that I wasn’t going to be a poster polisher.
My job is to ensure the girls have supplies, fuel, routines and the principles that support the work. This means snacks, sharp pencils, no distractions, and clear expectations about completing work and handing it in. I occasionally answer simple questions about the process that keep my kids moving along (a must with homework).
Otherwise, the good, the bad, the ugly of homework is between my girls and their teachers. Anything else gets in the way of the teacher’s ability to see where my kids are academically, and where their class is over all. It also cultivates incompetence — and insecurity for both of us.
Don’t Bother, Homework Is Pointless
Sara Bennett is co-author of "The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Children and What Parents Can Do About It."
"Educators should realize that homework sets up a pattern of dependence that continues throughout the school years, rather than instilling responsibility and self-discipline as they claim."
Almost all research shows that elementary school homework is pointless. If families understood that, they would be thrilled to lose that nightly routine where the adults cajole and bribe, and the kids cry and throw tantrums.
I would love to see a one-week experiment where all parents agree not to say a word to their elementary school children about homework: not ask whether they have it, not lay out the supplies, not set aside the time, not read the instructions. I bet that most kids would not think about their homework at all.
And, at the end of that week, educators would have to acknowledge that homework actually sets up a pattern of dependence that continues throughout the school years, rather than instilling responsibility and self-discipline as they claim.
What if parents stopped asking about or helping with homework through middle, high school, and even college years, too? Teachers would finally see the true quality of students’ work. And parents would stop having crazy conversations like the one I once had with a middle school English teacher when I remarked on the differences between essays written at home and in school.
The teacher believed that, at home, students had time to focus on grammar, sentence structure, vocabulary and ideas, and that explained why their essays were so much more developed than their in-class work.
I tried to tell him that he was actually seeing the work of parents or tutors, but he refused to see the obvious.