Your child’s homework: should you help or not?

By Kim Abrahams
17 January 2019
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You arrive home, tired after a long day at work. You have to prepare supper, pack lunchboxes and see to it that their school uniforms are ready and clean for the next day.

On top of that you then need to help your child, who’s just as tired as you are, with homework. How do you do this daily task without both of you ending up in tears?

Do you help or not?

Yes and no. You need to help during the foundation phase, because you help your child develop work and study methods that will form the basis for the rest of their school career. But don’t take over and do the homework for them.

“Parents should allow a child to do as much as possible on their own,” says Melanie Hartgill, an educational psychologist from Cape Town. Doing a child’s homework for them is an injustice to the child.“

If a parent sees the child repeatedly getting something wrong, they must determine whether they understand the method or not. If not, the teacher must be consulted,” Hartgill says. Your child’s homework should be a true reflection of their ability.

You can explain something to them, but in the end it is the teacher’s duty to divide the work into manageable sections.Beryl Lello, another educational psychologist in Cape Town, says parents can help their children manage projects and orals.

Sit with them and plan what needs to be done and how the research will be done. They have to do the research themselves and complete the task. Only then can the parent read and give advice.

Lello says you can encourage your young child to take responsibility for their homework by giving them the right tools. A blackboard or diary can help them plan their week. It helps them remember and also gives the satisfaction of ticking off what’s been completed.

Lello believes that parents can stand back a little when children reach the intermediate phase. She says it’s best to let children of this age and older do their homework on their own and just help when they come to you with a problem.

“You can sit with them at the table where they work, but do your own work on your computer. That way you can keep an eye out without actively helping. ”Experts agree it’s important that parents not distance themselves altogether from their older children’s homework.

Poor academic marks could be a sign of emotional problems and can be a useful barometer for a parent who wants to know if their child needs help. Children should also always know that the parent is available in case they need help, whether with school work or any other problems.

After they’ve reached Grade 3, it shouldn’t be necessary to work with your child. But you should check on them regularly to see if they’re not lagging behind.An easy way to stay involved is to monitor their daily schedule. Check that tasks are done and that their work is up to date. Left unsupervised, children often take shortcuts and then they could quickly fall behind.

If your child continually scores too low in tests, it’s time to speak to their teacher and find out what can be done.

When is the right time?

Don’t do homework the moment you come home, says Sharon Aitken, a child and educational psychologist from Cape Town.

Children need time to catch their breath first. Even if your child is in aftercare where homework is done, you still have to go through their work with them at night, Aitken says. It’s never a good idea to make young children stay awake past their bed time to do homework, especially when they’re still in the foundation phase.

If there’s a valid reason why they didn’t get around to their homework, you could either send a note to school or wake your child up early in order to finish the most important homework.

What to do if your child is stressed

  • Your child is in a state. She has a maths assignment for the next day and now you realise she doesn’t understand the sums she should be able to do. You’ll have to intervene and help but the problem is she’s so upset, she’s unable to listen to you. How do you help?
  • The first step is to take them away from the work and give them a chance to calm down. “A panicking child is not able to listen to reason,” Hartgill says.
  • Give them a snack and something to drink away from the work and talk about the problem calmly.
  • You can try to explain the work yourself, but remember, curricula have changed completely since you were in school. You may just confuse your child even more.
  • Find help on the internet, in a textbook or call a friend.
  • Help them divide the work into manageable pieces.
  • Set yourself an alarm to monitor your child’s rest periods and progress.
  • If nothing works, then you need to talk to the teacher. Be honest. “Write a note explaining why the homework wasn’t done and ask for help,” Hartgill says.

Where is the best place to do homework?

“There should be as little distraction as possible. Your child need to be able to give their homework their undivided attention,” Hartgill advises.

No cellphone, television or radio. Also, rather have the child work in the dining room or another living room, because their bedroom can often make them feel sleepy or distract them. They should sit upright at a table or desk and, if possible, not together with their siblings.

“It’s best if they work on their own so that you can see what their abilities and understanding are without a brother or sister’s help,” Hartgill explains.

When are parents taking it too far?

It’s often easier to dictate to your child what to write down but that doesn’t help them at all. “Parents should let their children do as much as they can on their own,” Hartgill says.

There’s a big difference between helping children when they struggle and doing their homework for them. She says it’s the parent’s job to help them remember what they’ve learned in class and to ensure there aren’t gaps in their knowledge. 

“When a parent discovers that their child’s answer to a question is incorrect, they must determine whether it’s a methodological problem and if the child is struggling to use the correct method to solve a particular problem,” Aitken explains.

“If this is the case and the child is consistently making the same mistake, you should contact the teacher.”

Make it enjoyable

  • Homework doesn’t have to be a pain in the neck. Aitken and Hartgill are happy to share their tips for making it enjoyable – but Aitken warns that children shouldn’t be taught to think everything in life will always be easy or nice.
  • “You can tell them that not all aspects of your work are nice, and it’s something that one should accept.” YouTube is a font of interesting videos. Let them google videos, especially about topics they’re struggling to master.
  • Here are some top tips to make homework more enjoyable, especially in the foundation phase:
  • Sing songs about multiplication tables or the periodic table. Let them make up their own songs.
  • Reward your children when they reach a milestone. 
  • Convert any topic into a story or make a scrapbook by letting them scour magazines in search of pictures related to particular topics.
  • Cut letters from clay and let them play a word game – this way they will easily learn the alphabet.
  • Children love anything out of the ordinary. Let them write with chalk on the driveway or with whiteboard markers on a window while you explain something. 
  • Create a performance board in table format on the fridge and keep track of each child’s successes every day (homework completed, book read, studied for a test, and so on). At the end of the week they can receive a small reward.

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