NEW YORK — When it comes to helping children with homework, parents need to remind themselves what help really means.
It doesn't mean that parents should do their kids' homework, nor does it mean that children should be forced into an exercise of survival of the fittest. The best homework help is support, says Jeanne Shay Schumm, professor and chairwoman of the Department of Teaching and Learning at the University of Miami School of Education.
"In education, we talk a lot about 'scaffolding instruction.' You initially provide a lot of support and gradually take the support away. The real goal is to work toward independence. You can have that conversation even with young kids, but also emphasize there is support when needed," advises Schumm.
Environment and approach to homework can be as important as the actual answers to the math problems the students are working on.
Start the after-school homework session by laying it all out, advises Schumm, and then devise a plan to deal with it. "Do the toughest stuff early," she adds.
Go over all the details and expectations, which accomplishes two things: You'll know if your child understands the assignment, and you'll know for sure when they are done.
"Kids who are having problems might say they have no homework because they're camouflaging the problems," Schumm says.
It's not a bad idea for teachers and parents also to have a conversation about expectations, because they'll vary from classroom to classroom. Some teachers don't want homework mistakes corrected before they see them because they want to see where in the process the child is struggling; others count homework for grades and might encourage parents to work with the child until it's right.
For generations, parents have been involved in helping with homework, but today's parents are much more likely to contact teachers and question grades and grading systems than in years past, Schumm observes.
When her book "How to Help Your Child With Homework" (Free Spirit) was first published in 1988, parents were "hands off," she says. "But we're beginning to think more in terms of partnerships now, which is healthy. ... There's high-stakes classroom testing now, which is even more reason for communication."
She adds: "If kids see that there's not a lot of communications between home and school, they see there is room for games."
Teachers will react differently to parental outreach, but most do expect it, especially with many schools encouraging parents and faculty to stay in touch by e-mail. And, says Schumm, most teachers welcome any education enrichment activities that happen after school and on weekends.
It might not be "homework" but, for example, when a family goes to a museum that's featuring a particular artist or historical period that students are learning about, they are adding to their bank of knowledge. Anything that bridges home and school learning is a plus.