Helping with Homework When Homework’s Too Hard

By Dr. Patricia Nan Anderson

You’ve probably seen a television ad for a national chain of tutoring centers: an older boy has a question about his math homework, but his mother takes one horrified look at the textbook and runs out of the house, straight to a tutoring center. Surely there’s a different, less-costly and more immediately-helpful response. But when the homework’s too hard—even for you—what else can you do?

First off, set some mental parameters for yourself.

• Shake off your own memories of freshman algebra or English 101 and focus on your child, not yourself.
• Make the quite reasonable assumption that the work really isn’t too hard for your child. Your kid is smart enough right? She does okay in other things, right? She can get this.
• Understand that it’s okay that you don’t have all the answers. You can learn along with your child. In doing so, you demonstrate how to tackle tough assignments and plow through to success.
• Do not transfer your dislike for a subject or your helplessly confused feelings to your child. Don’t be like the mother in that ad.

Second, follow some specific steps when your child throws down his pencil and yells for your help.
1. Make time for hard stuff. Set the hard work aside, do the other homework and reserve an hour or two for the tricky thing. Just doing this takes some pressure off and opens up the space for thinking. Putting the work aside for a while calms the head and also lets the unconscious brain come up with answers.
2. Read through the assignment directions or problem together. What is asked for? Where is the disconnect between what your child understands and what she’s expected to know or do?
3. Read through the chapter together. You can read it aloud, stopping to discuss the text with your child. Realize that most likely the key to the homework’s solution is in the text.
4. Read through the assignment directions or problem again. Does the assignment remind you of anything you just read together from the text? Is it clearer now what the child needs to do? If not, where is the disconnect? Go back and figure things out.
5. By now, things should be pretty clear. If they’re still not clear, now is the time to act. Activate your school’s homework hotline or call the reference desk at your local public library. Dial up a friend from class and see how he’s managing this assignment. The reason for waiting to activate these “lifelines” is this: now your child will be able to evaluate the suggestions he gets and understand how they are reasonable or off-base. He will be able to talk intelligently about the assignment and the content it represents. Even if your child doesn’t wind up doing the assignment correctly, he will understand the correct solution once he gets it.

One word of caution. Often, halfway through these steps, a child will say, “Oh, I get it!” and dismiss you from the homework table. This might be because he doesn’t want you to help anymore or because he really has figured it out. Either way, this is your cue to say, “Fine! Let me know if you need me later….” and get out of the way.

And a second caution. Resist the impulse to check your child’s work. If she asks you to, that’s fine, but only point out where you think she might have taken a wrong turn. Don’t actually fix her answers. And if she doesn’t ask you to check her work, don’t do it. This is her work, not yours.

Your role here is not one of supplying the answers. You don’t need to know anything about the subject at all. And getting everything right in the homework is not so important as understanding how to tackle tough assignments and get them done.

Your role is to be a calm supporter, who works alongside the child in figuring things out.

© 2013, Patricia Nan Anderson.

For more information, visit www.swparents.com.

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