How Much Should You Help With Math Homework?

As parents we all want our children to be successful in school. Watching our children struggle can be difficult to handle, and at the same time, in order for children to develop inner strength and a sense of efficacy, they need to struggle, and sometimes, they need to fail. In a recent study on over-parenting (Locke, et al, 2012), a number of psychologists and guidance counselors were interviewed about “overly effortful parenting” and possible negative consequences of such parenting. The top concerns expressed by these professionals were, “a lack of resilience,” “a sense of entitlement,” inadequate development of life skills,” and, “a transference of high parental anxiety to children.”

Of course, no parent wishes any of these things on their children, but by shielding our children from struggles we prevent them from developing a wide range of skills they’ll need to cope with challenges that are simply a natural part of life.

What does this mean for a parent’s engagement in their child’s schoolwork? Without a doubt, parents need to support their children, and, in particular, support their effort over their grades. How parents demonstrate this support, however, should change as the child gets older. Having spent many years teaching lower school and middle school math, I observed a wide range of parenting styles and their effects on children. Every year, back to school nights for middle school parents included exhortations to step back, to let the students struggle, and sometimes, to let them fail. In my experience, most parents were comfortable doing this, but the ones who had the most trouble scaling back their involvement were the ones whose children had been struggling for some time. They wanted their children to get better grades; they were concerned their children wouldn’t get into a good high school or college and they were determined to do whatever they could to help. Unfortunately, the help they wanted to provide was not help at all, and, in fact, tended to create new problems. I had students turn in homework assignments that clearly reflected a level of understanding they didn’t possess. They couldn’t answer similar problems on tests, they couldn’t do similar work in class, and they couldn’t explain how they got their answers. Sometimes they would claim they forgot how they did it, and sometimes they would say they had received “help” on it from a parent or a tutor. There’s a fine line between helping in an appropriate and an inappropriate way, and that line is often too fuzzy for the student to determine; it’s up to the adult, or the one providing the support. So what is a parent to do who genuinely wants to help without crossing the line?

Here are two scenarios that illustrate effective, constructive support that move a child forward instead of holding him/her back:

Terrell comes home from school with a homework assignment on long division, and he complains that he doesn’t know how to do it. He has five problems, and he says he was able to do them at school but doesn’t remember what to do now.  Terrell’s mom, Louisa, sits down with him and looks over the five problems to get a sense for the level of difficulty on this particular assignment. She sees that every problem consists of a three-digit number divided by a one-digit number, and they all divide without a remainder. Louisa takes out a piece of paper and creates a problem just like the five on the assignment, and she uses this new problem to help Terrell remember how to do long division. Using this problem Louisa walks him through the step-by-step process, and by the end of that problem Terrell is ready to tackle his homework. Halfway through the first problem he struggles with what to do next, so Louisa brings his attention to a similar point in the problem they did together and helps him see the connection with his current problem. Terrell looks back and forth between the two, makes the connections, and is ready to finish on his own.

So what happened here? Louisa provided critical support that helped move Terrell forward, but by doing this with a well-designed problem that she made up, she helped him understand the process and still allowed him to do his assignment on his own. In addition to helping him understand long division, she also helped him transfer knowledge from one situation to another, a very important skill in school and beyond.

Leanne was struggling with her Advanced Algebra assignment, and her dad, Carl, really wanted to help, but he took one look at it and realized it had been way too long since he factored quadratic expressions and he no longer remembered how to do it. However, he knew of a number of great online resources for math support, so he and Leanne sat down at Khan Academy (www.khanacademy.org) and typed ‘factoring quadratic expressions’ into the search window. By clicking on the first link they found a series of instructional videos, followed by practice exercises. Leanne and her father watched these videos and tried the sample problems together, and when she felt ready she turned to her homework and found that she was much better prepared to tackle the challenging assignment.

Leanne’s father wanted to help but didn’t understand the material himself. However, he knew of a great online resource, and more than simply pointing her in the right direction he sat and learned alongside her, modeling the important point that we can and should be learning and growing at every age. He also equipped her with a strategy for helping herself the next time she struggles with something in math class.

Remember: It’s important to support our children, but how we attempt to provide support can either help them learn and grow or it can create a whole host of new challenges. It’s up to us to support them in ways that will foster resilience and self-efficacy, and in doing so we’ll be helping them in ways that go well beyond the subject matter at hand.