It's their homework, not yours

For The Baltimore Sun

With school back in session, parents are breathing a collective sigh of relief. No more wet bathing suits on the bedroom floor or kids begging for snacks at 15-minute intervals. But the school year brings its own set of challenges, many of which arrive in children's homework folders.

Every assignment — from daily math homework to science projects with months of lead time — raises an important question: How much should parents help their children with schoolwork?

The answer, according to area educators, is that it varies: Every assignment is different, and so is every child.

"It depends on the individual student," says Douglas Elmendorf, the principal at Chase Elementary in Middle River. "At school, we make sure teachers give support to students based on their individual needs." Parents, he says, should do the same.

However, there is such a thing as too much assistance.

"The purpose of homework is to assess how a child is doing and what they know," says Penny Bach Evins, the head of school at St. Paul's School for Girls. "The purpose is to make mistakes. Not allowing them to own the process from start to finish takes away their ability to learn."

Ownership of a project also leads to pride and joy, says Evins. Especially for young children, "there's joy in sharing what they do. They're so proud and comfortable, and we as parents are excited to see what they're learning."

For some parents, the best way to approach projects is to focus on the process, not the product, says Todd Wright, a world geography teacher and seventh-grade team leader at Clarksville Middle School.

"The process is the most important part," he says. "The product will come over time."

So what should parents do to be most effective? Ask questions, emphasize effort over grades, make sure children have the materials they need and teach scheduling, teachers say.

"Create a dialogue," recommends Adam Osborn, a history teacher at Boys' Latin School. "Ask, 'Why is this science project important?' Show a child that we're going to put everything we have into this project — not just do it once, haphazardly, six hours before it's due. Create a schedule. If you have four weeks to complete something, sit down with your son or daughter and schedule meetings, a first draft, proofreading. For a parent to model that professional approach can be a really cool experience."

Clarksville Middle School Principal Melissa Shindel wants parents to teach kids to be enterprising.

"When my kids come home with a deadline, I help them plan how they're not going to save work for the night before it's due. I teach them to be resourceful," she says. "I teach them to go back and look in notes, call a study buddy, look online. That's an important skill."

At the same time, teachers say they welcome parental input.

"We value our community support," Shindel says. She and Wright say many parents are experts in topics that align with the curriculum at Clarksville Middle. However, that support is most valuable when it can help the whole class, not just an individual student.

"When I'm working on project, I enjoy feedback from parents who ask if they can offer suggestions," says Wright. "If I have an expert in programming who wants to help, they make me a better teacher."

Educators also encourage parents to start conversations with teachers about homework and at-home projects.

At Chase Elementary, teachers host a pre-science project meeting with parents to discuss expectations. "It's important that the parent and teacher are communicating effectively," Elmendorf says.

Of course, there will always be parents who give their children a little more help than they should. "Parents want to help their children because they want their children to do well," says Osborn. "It's good-natured."

But kids are sure to notice when their friends' projects look like the work of an expert. Parents shouldn't worry too much about that, teachers say, and the situation can even be used as a teachable moment.

"Make it a life lesson," says Evins. "Say, 'This is our family's system.' What we let come in and out of our garden gate is our responsibility as parents. We decide our norms and establish our values."

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