Helping Children With Homework

As we approach the end of another school year, homework will probably start to ease off. With most of the curriculum covered, and with school tours and sports days providing some much-needed relief for pupils and teachers alike, the focus of June will be about wrapping things up for the year and having a bit more fun.

Homework throughout the rest of the year has the potential to cause a headache for some pupils and for some parents. If you see a child struggling with something, your natural reaction is to want to help them. This is where the problem lies – there is a wrong way to help a child with homework (as well as a correct way, that will be discussed as well).

With all the best intention in the world from parents, homework may end up as a meaningless activity. Let’s look at a maths activity. A number of unhelpful approaches are as follows, and in no particular order:

  • Telling the child how to do the problem
  • Showing the child what number goes where
  • Confusing the child with an alternative method not yet learned , a prime example being the two popular subtraction methods: renaming (regrouping); and borrow and pay back.

Telling the child how to do a problem deprives them of their ability to think about the problem. It doesn’t matter if the child goes to school the next day with wrong answers. This is valuable information for the child’s teacher. The teacher can then have a conversation with the child (time allowing, of course) about where they went wrong and can offer them an opportunity to think again about the problem, to verbalise it in their own words and to maybe use concrete examples to assist. Even better, the parent can do this at home.

If that fails, should you just tell them the answer? Please don’t. Again, the child learns nothing, practises nothing and is deprived of the opportunity for their teacher to assess their work meaningfully for the purposes of future learning.

My last bulletpoint dealt with alternative methods for figuring out calculations. These are fine, but it’s worth letting a child master one method with a real understanding of what’s happening with it before showing your child how you used to do it in school. If a child is having trouble with one method, introducing another method will not help them to understand the original method better. Instead, talk to the child; ask what they were learning about; maybe have a look at the maths book; or simply ask the child’s teacher what method is being used.

The bottom line with this is that it’s ok for a child to experience difficulty, or even failure. Let them make their mistakes, let them think about their mistakes and let them learn from their mistakes. They will get there eventually – every child progresses at a different rate.

There are arguments for the total abolition of homework in primary school. Finnish schools don’t give homework and, amongst other reasons, are doing pretty well educationally. The question is: why subject children to even more work after spending five or six hours per day engaged in formal learning activities? Shouldn’t their free time be used for other activities so that they can experience a balance throughout the day?

There are also arguments to retain the practice of assigning homework. It is a way for parents to get some idea of what their children are learning in school. It reinforces what was done that day or that week. These are valid points but there are answers to these. Parents can ask their child or their teacher what has been happening in school lately. Communication can definitely be improved between schools and parents and there are, no doubt, many innovative ways for this to be done effectively and meaningfully. As for reinforcing learning? With home-school communication taken care of, parents can use their time with their children to reinforce their learning out in the real world, making memories and away from the abstract nature of the textbook.

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