Homework: Are parents hurting by helping? 

Can helping your children with homework actually hurt their academic performance? Some surprising research indicates that students who receive regular help with homework actually under-performed those who didn't get this kind of assistance from parents.


Hands-on with homework?

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) has undertaken a global project called the Programme for International Student Assessment (PISA). PISA looks at academic results in a variety of countries, both to compare results among countries and to correlate results with a variety of influential factors, such as economic status and family involvement.

As part of the 2009 PISA assessments, data on specific parental activities was collected to measure impact on academic results. In most cases, the results were what you might expect -- when parents actively engaged their children, academic results were usually better.

The glaring exception, however, was in the area of assisting with homework. The OECD study found that in all 14 of the countries that undertook these expanded PISA assessments, academic performance was lower among 15-year-olds whose parents regularly assisted with their homework. This drop-off in academic performance was observed both before and after adjusting the scores for economic, social and cultural factors.

So what's the story here? Can helping a child with homework actually impair academic development? The PISA scores certainly raise enough of a possibility to warrant careful consideration of what might make assistance with homework helpful or harmful.

Exploring the link between parental involvement and results

The PISA scores don't mean that helping a child with homework is necessarily harmful, however. There are a variety of possible explanations for why the OECD found a connection between parental involvement with homework and lower academic performance:

  • - This connection was found among 15-year-olds, an age at which students are encountering more complex subject matter. It is possible that the parents simply weren't able to help with such material.
  • - Some parents may be doing too much -- essentially taking over some assignments, so the work is that of the parent rather than student.
  • - The lower test scores may be a cause rather than an effect -- in other words, weaker students may require more parental assistance, hence the connection between that involvement and lower academic performance.

Whatever the explanation, the OECD information highlights the fact that helping with homework doesn't automatically lead a child to improved academic performance. It is important that parents understand the right type of assistance to give.

Two people who've given this subject a great deal of thought professionally are Joyce Nagle and Pam Golden. Nagle is the Social Studies Curriculum Supervisor grades 7-12 in the Irondequoit, NY, Central School District. Golden is a parenting expert and author who focuses on scientifically-proven methods of raising children. Both see parents as playing a key role in helping children learn how to get their assignments done.

"When parents communicate that education is of value, and that they have expectations about doing your best… that's invaluable for supporting the student," says Nagle.

Golden sees the importance of homework as going beyond academics.

"Parents can make a massive difference. Look at it as an opportunity to teach critical life skills. Homework can help teach a child self-regulation -- controlling impulses and channeling efforts to get results."

How to help your child SUCCEED

If you're a parent and just can't pull yourself away from your child's homework, take these seven tips to heart before diving in.

  1. Set the stage. Nagle recommends that parents provide "a quiet, well-lit place to work, free from electronic distractions, with a parent who checks in from time-to-time to monitor progress."
  2. Understand the child's needs. The extent of a parent's involvement should be driven by the child's needs. Is your child a self-starter, or someone who needs a bit of a push to get going? Does your child typically have a good understanding of what's being taught, or does he or she often need extra help to understand new concepts?
  3. Communicate your expectations. Different children are going to achieve at different levels, but you should make it clear that you expect homework assignments to be completed on time, and to the best of the student's ability. "Give them a voice in when and how they do their homework," advises Golden, "but let them know that doing the homework isn't optional."
  4. Consult with teachers. Get a sense of what teachers expect from homework assignments, and how well your child is meeting those expectations. If there is a problem with homework avoidance, Nagle recommends that parents and teachers work together to overcome it. "Double-team with the teacher. Set up a system to check agendas for homework, and be willing to monitor."
  5. Emphasize problem-solving skills. Sometimes, parents feel intimidated because they are unfamiliar with the subject matter, especially in later grades. Nagle feels the parent's level of understanding of the homework material should not be an obstacle. "That's not the parent's job. The job is to help the child to problem-solve -- have the child work through how it was done in class, and use that as a starting point."
  6. Encourage progress. Positive feedback is key. Even small steps in the right direction are something you should encourage your child to build upon."Acknowledge effort, persistence, and accomplishments," suggests Golden.
  7. Diagnose problems. Is the problem difficulty in understanding material, or simply one of homework avoidance? A parent should focus on trying to diagnose the reasons for any failures to meet expectations. Often, distractions are to blame, says Nagle. "If your child is taking two hours on a task the teacher believes should take 20 minutes, investigate electronic distractions -- the mobile phone, music, having multiple screens open on the computer, and so on."

The steps making up the acronym SUCCEED are designed to help children find their own paths towards greater academic success -- and to make sure parents help rather than hurt when it comes to homework.

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