Your first-grader struggles to sound out each letter in a storybook. Maybe your fifth grader can't think of a topic for her report. And your seventh grader – he can't seem to get his science project to work out right. As a parent, what do you do?
Sometimes, you might find yourself knee-deep in hot glue and cardboard crafting a social studies diorama when your original thought was just to give your child a few pointers on how to make the trees look realistic.
As parents, we've all been there – when our original aim to give our kids a little guidance with their homework turns into us completing more of the assignment than we intended.
Walking that fine line between helping your child with his class work and becoming over-involved can be difficult to navigate. And, as parents, it might seem backward to think you need to be careful about getting too involved.
Yet education experts agree that an important part of school has nothing to do with grades and everything to do with children figuring out how to complete assignments, write papers, pose questions to teachers and even doing not-so-great on some assignments, so they can learn from those mistakes. It makes making that diorama largely on their own.
Here are five reasons a hands-off approach to schoolwork might be exactly what your child needs to succeed in school – and life.
1. It teaches independence
"As a general rule of thumb, you should help your child get started (with homework), watch them do the first few problems to make sure they understand the material, and then walk away," suggests Ann Dolin, M.Ed. author of Homework Made Simple – Tips, Tools, and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework.
She notes that by fourth grade, children should be able to do their homework on their own – with the caveat that if your child has any type of learning disability, he'll most likely need more guidance from you.
Letting your child work on his own teaches him that you have confidence in his ability to master the material solo, says Dolin.
Tip: Set up a designated "homework area" in your home away from TVs and other distractions, so that your child can focus on her studies.
2. It stresses that grades aren't what matters most
If your child measures her academic performance purely on what's on her report card, she might be missing the point of school: learning to learn. The idea is to help your child work toward "mastering the material, less about the grade," says Richard Mui, a teacher at Canton High School with Plymouth-Canton Community Schools.
"I have a couple of children myself, and I can tell you that children do pick up pretty quick on whether parents are stressing effort or the letter grade."
Discussing what your child is learning in school – beyond just the classes where they have assignments coming home – is one way to support kids' zeal for learning. Look for opportunities to connect what they're studying at school to what they're encountering outside the classroom. Basketball games can become a discussion of physics, or a trip to a restaurant might lead to a conversation about culture or history.
Tip: Mui suggests that parents discuss current events with their children. Dinner might be the perfect time to bring up what's happening in the world. To find age-appropriate material for younger kids, check out Time magazine or Scholastic News.
3. It helps kids deal with challenges
As an AP social studies teacher, Richard Mui understands that his class might pose a challenge for students in a variety of ways.
"Since many of my students are 10th graders, this might be their first AP class. It's often a real eye opener to the rigor of both the reading and the writing involved in a class like this." And for many of these high achievers, it will be the first time they won't get stellar grades on every assignment.
The steep learning curve gives students an opportunity to push themselves. Mui, who also happens to coach freshman football, gives this comparison: "We don't always win at our football games, but players can learn how to improve their performance each time, so they do better in the next game."
Tip: Resist the urge to check over every assignment that your child is turning in at school, says Dolin. "If your kid says, 'My paper is good enough,' let them turn it in and the grade will be what it is."
4. It develops problem-solving skills
When Philip Barker's youngest daughter Ellen started struggling in her high school statistics class, he wasn't sure how to help her. "I wasn't a math major," laughs Barker, president of the Michigan Association of School Social Workers (MASSW).
He reminded his daughter that her teacher was offering early morning tutoring sessions to interested students. His daughter resisted; she was already involved in school clubs and working, so adding one more thing to her schedule didn't seem possible.
This is where Barker could have stepped in and talked to his daughter's teacher for her. But he didn't. "The skill I wanted to teach her was to advocate for herself. She needed to figure it out by herself. She needed to go get the answers she needed so she could understand," he says.
His daughter didn't immediately sign up for the tutoring when Barker mentioned it again to her. He recalls that it took time, patience and encouraging words before his daughter decided to ask the teacher about the tutoring and then to attend. Ellen went in early two or three mornings a week and began to see results – the concepts that she seemed to understand in class but could never master come test time became easier.
Tip: Younger children will need more handholding when it comes to learning to solve problems on their own. For example, if your child doesn't seem to understand homework assignments, you might invite your child to talk to his teacher about it, but you can let him know that you will be emailing the teacher in advance to let the teacher know that there is a concern.
5. It fosters organization skills
Has this ever happened to you? Your child has a report/project/essay due tomorrow – and she's just getting started the day before. You swoop in to help, driving her to the library to do her research, fiddling online to guide her to resources and even staying up late to ensure she finishes her report, printing it out a few minutes after midnight.
During the entire frustrating process, you keep telling your child, "You should have been working on this a week ago. See what happens when you don't think ahead!" Dolin, a former teacher, calls these "gotcha" moments.
Dolin points out that children often have a difficult time figuring out how to manage longer assignments or projects. Parents can step in to help kids figure it out, so they avoid getting over-involved later – say 11:30 p.m. the night before the project is due.
"It's far better to be proactive instead of reactive parents," Dolin says. Telling your child in the midst of completing an assignment at the last minute, "See, I told you – you should have been working on this earlier" doesn't work well to teach kids how to manage assignments, Dolin adds.
"Even a fairly organized kid doesn't have all those organizational abilities quite yet." To help your child, Dolin recommends that you explain to her how to break down a larger assignment into chunks and then give her a deadline for each part.
Tip: Help younger children understand organization with this simple trick from Dolin. When your child gets a longer assignment, talk together about the steps it will take to complete it. Divide up a Tootsie Roll or some other dividable treat into the number of steps you've talked about, so your child understands the concept visually. You can let your child eat your visual aide then, or let her have a chunk each time she completes that step toward completing her assignment.