There are educational theories to support a variety of answers to those questions, but my response is predicated on one strongly held belief: Parents turn over too much of the responsibility for academic achievement to the school and assume their children will excel with minimal parental input. As students move through the elementary grades, parents typically ease up on their involvement in homework every year. In fact, as a child’s homework load increases from the fourth grade through middle school, his parents need to be more vigilant about monitoring and supporting his at-home study time than they were when he was younger.
When students are in kindergarten through the third grade, the focus of the curriculum is reading, writing, and math, and homework is usually straightforward. For example, parents are asked to provide a quiet study area, listen to their youngsters read, quiz them on math facts and spelling words, and ensure that completed work and library books are in their backpacks. By fourth grade, the academic curriculum has expanded. Most children are fluent readers; formal reading instruction begins to account for less teaching time, and more emphasis is placed on reading in the content areas (social studies and science). Math teaching zeros in on problem solving in addition to computation. Pupils are asked to study for comprehensive tests and to complete long-term projects at home. In addition, classroom teachers are focusing on building organizational and study skills and helping students internalize the habits of responsibility and diligence started in the lower grades. It is at this point that parents must step up, not scale down, their participation in their child’s academic life.
The task of completing homework assignments in the fourth through the eighth grades is often more time-consuming and difficult for the majority of children than in the earlier grades. Parents become increasingly less sure how to help or how much to help. In general, 9- to 14-year-olds need a lot of homework support from their parents. A common school policy on parental help is that teachers want their students to complete homework that is assigned primarily to reinforce a skill (a math worksheet, e.g.) on their own. Requesting that you not help your child with this kind of homework, however, does not mean a hands-off approach. Most teachers do want you to check his math and reading homework, for example, and have him correct wrong answers. If it is apparent he hasn’t grasped a concept, it’s usually better to send his teacher a note than to attempt to teach him what he doesn’t understand. In math, particularly, children are taught methods to solve problems that are different from how their parents were taught, and parent/child conflicts over the “right way” often produce angry outbursts and tears of frustration.
Most parents are familiar and comfortable with giving their children the help described above. The role of parents is somewhat different, however, when dealing with science and social studies homework, and many falter when children bring home assignments in these subjects. Here are some suggestions on how you can, and should, support your student as homework becomes less straightforward. The teacher may work with her class on a unit about ecosystems, for example. Although perhaps 50 minutes a day are spent on the material in school, additional at-home reinforcement is necessary to ensure mastery. Your child needs to devote time after school hours re-reading lessons, answering study questions, preparing for quizzes and tests, and working on projects. It is an unusual child who is able or willing to do those things on his own without being taught how. With guidance from the school, it is the parents’ responsibility to tell their children what is expected of them at home and to provide the support they require to carry out those expectations.
It goes without saying that parents can’t have appropriate expectations unless they know not only what their child is studying in school, but what organizational skills and study procedures are in place there, too. What is paramount to your child’s academic success, then, is your willingness to become informed about what and how she is studying in school and what her homework assignments are. It means becoming familiar with her assignment book, finding out when tests are scheduled, and working with her to make an at-home study schedule for tests and projects. It means checking not only that she has completed daily homework assignments, but that she understands what she’s doing and, if she doesn’t, writing or emailing her teacher to tell her so. It means requiring that she re-read that day’s science assignment in case there’s quiz even though she tells you she read it in school and already knows the material.
Above all, the prevailing atmosphere in your home must be that homework is a family priority. You must be willing to sit with your fourth through eighth grader and talk about what needs to be done and how to go about doing it. For many families that means reducing the number of after-school activities their children participate in. It may mean that some of your evenings will not be spent on activities you enjoy. Today, upper elementary and middle school subjects are not easy in public or independent schools. Your child will not be successful if he doesn’t work diligently in school and at home every day of the school week. He will not be successful if you expect schools to provide from 8:30 to 3:00 everything he needs to progress academically. They can’t do it. You must be an active participant; it’s one of your most important jobs as a parent.
Working with children at home can be trying for many parents. Children who aren’t used to having their homework supervised will initially balk at parental interference. They don’t want their parents involved, of course, because they know their days of a cursory reading of assignments and the slapdash completion of a math sheet are about to end. It takes effort to do your homework well, and exerting that effort is the last thing a lot of students want to do. However, if you are calm, matter-of-fact, and consistent in your insistence on solid effort at home, your children will slowly but surely realize that the conscientious completion of homework actually makes studying less arduous in the long run. For example, re-reading content area assignments nightly makes studying for tests relatively easy.
To parents who are worried about their children’s grades, I say this: During one nine-week grading period, become more involved with your child’s school experience. Work with him on his homework; help him set up a study schedule and a quiet place to work; quiz him for tests; talk to him about what he’s learning in science and social studies. At first he’ll probably fight you every step of the way, but keep telling yourself that you’re the parent, and you’re in charge. I guarantee the effort you and your child expend now to establish good study habits at home will pay off. His grades will go up, which will enhance his confidence and self-esteem. Someone once said nothing succeeds like success. And my experience with children tells me that when they start to do well in school, they are so buoyed by their success that studying becomes more enjoyable and less of a chore. Diligence can become a habit, and if our children are going to do well in high school and college when their parents’ influence inevitably weakens, it’s a habit parents must instill in them now.