How to help your kid with homework without losing your mind

While on vacation recently, I took my nephew to see Incredibles 2. Of course, his favorite parts were all the action-packed scenes between the bad guys and the Incredibles. My favorite part was watching Mr. Incredible trying to help his younger son, Dash, with his homework. In the scene you see the superhero trying – and failing – to solve his son’s math homework while he repeats “Why are they changing math? Math is math!” I thought of all of my parents over the last four years.

And by “my” parents, I don’t mean my own mom and dad. As an elementary special education teacher in Washington, D.C., I get at least three calls from parents a week. Most of them sound like this:

“Ms. Vigo, we’re doing math homework. He’s stuck on one of the problems, and I have no idea what to do. This isn’t how I learned how to do it.”

“Ms. Vigo, you talk to her. I tried to help her with No. 5, but now we’re in a fight because she keeps telling me I’m not doing it right.”

When I first started teaching, I had to learn new ways of doing almost everything I learned in elementary school. Second-grade addition and subtraction problems stumped me.

Third-grade writing prompts ask for opinion pieces about what students think happened to Amelia Earhart. (Aren’t adult researchers still confused about her disappearance?)

Parents, if homework seems harder, you are not imagining things. Over the past couple of years, school districts across the nation have implemented shifts in curriculums and standards. With these shifts come different ways of solving, analyzing, annotating, and explaining school material than we may have learned in our time as students.

But here’s a secret, one I try to tell the parents on the phone. The right answers are the least important part of the homework assignment. Yes, you want your child to do well. But you also want them to practice the concepts they’ve learned at school, practice critical thinking, and even work through the frustration that may come with grappling with a new school. For that reason, sometimes the best way to help your kid with their homework is to stand back, offer encouragement, but also realize that the challenge is a part of the process. Promise!

Here, some other ways to minimize the struggle.

Create a homework zone

There should be a place in the home designated for homework that has all the supplies your child needs (think pencils, sharpener, extra paper, computer charger, snack, water). Having everything they need near them limits the number of reasons your very creative child will invent for getting up when it’s time to work. Make this the place your child does homework every day.

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Set up a routine

Pick a time — maybe right after school, maybe before dinner — when your child sits down to do homework, and follow this routine as closely as possible every school day. Some parents let their kids go out to play for 20-30 minutes when they get home. Some parents have their kids work until dinner time. Whatever your family decides, give your child a choice: “Do you want to finish homework right when you get home and then play, or do you want to play for 15 minutes and then do your homework?” Pick two options you are comfortable with and let your child decide. This creates an illusion of choice. It’s a win-win secret that saves teachers from classroom meltdowns.

Resist the urge to swoop in

My favorite rule in class is “Choose 3 before me” (or for younger kids you can shorten to “choose 2 before you”). My students know that when they don’t know the answer, they are not allowed to ask for help until they try to solve their problem in three different ways. After that, if they still need help they can raise their hands.

Most of the time, they find their way to an answer or solution without me and gain confidence in the process. If they solved their issue, then I usually offer a quick high-five or thumbs up and go about my business. If they’re still stumped, I jump in and help. I especially like this strategy because it limits learned helplessness and also buys you time to Google the answer if you need to. Never let ‘em see you sweat!

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Prioritize process over outcome

Beginning in Kindergarten, math shifts to the Common Core Standards (in states that have adopted it), which makes it so that it’s not enough for students to just answer the question correctly. These shifts require students to have a more robust understanding of how and why they arrived at the solution. It’s not only the answer, but also the route of problem-solving that is now evaluated and graded. By 6 and 7 years old, students learn to verbally explain why their answers make sense.

Talk through language arts

Most of the classrooms I know place emphasis on purely reading more – read for at least 20 minutes a night anywhere you can. Anyone can do that, right? But to push your student and prepare him or her for the level of questioning in the classroom, parents should have comprehension conversations every night that build in complexity with their students beginning in kindergarten. Asking why, what happens next, and the motivation behind the decisions of any main characters can help your kids engage with the text more critically.

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Have your own “cheat sheet”

Sometimes, you’ve gotta call in the big guns. Yup, I’m talking about Professor Google. One thing that a lot of parents stumble over is the so-called “new math.” Beginning in first and second grade, kids begin to model word problems in drawing, model place value in charts, and begin to relate addition and subtraction by basically learning algebra – using their knowledge of subtraction to help them solve a missing part problem like 7 + __ = 13. This is also where students learn how to add and subtract with regrouping or “borrowing. “ The way it is taught always throws parents for a loop. This is a video I show my students when they need a refresher, but it also might be helpful for you (No shame. I had to watch it a couple times to understand the strategy!).

I’ve also found these online resources helpful to brush up on skills or understand concepts.

  • LearnZillion – A site that is mostly for math, but has videos that teach students lessons based on a particular skill. Use the search bar to type the skill by name (hello, “equivalent fractions”)
  • Khan Academy – Another site that offers video tutorials about certain skills (mostly math).
  • Reading Rockets – A reading initiative that offers information and resources for parents and teachers to help kids learn about reading. This article is especially helpful for learning how you can support Common Core reading standards.
  • YouTube – Believe it or not, my colleagues and I use YouTube a lot to reinforce topics at school. Type a homework topic in the search bar like “main idea” or “double-digit multiplication” and see what comes up. You might have to watch it first to make sure it’s appropriate, but more often than not, some good things pop up. Some of my favorite channels are NumberRock, The Electric Company, and Flocabulary.

Finally, give (everyone) a break

I always tell my parents that they are their child’s best and first teacher. Just sitting next to them while they struggle already helps them more than they will say to you – even if you hear a thousand times in one night “…but this isn’t how Ms. Vigo taught me how to do it today!”

Teachers appreciate parents who work with their kids, kids appreciate parents who are there for them when they struggle. All you need to do is take a deep breath, remember or ask for resources, and dig in with your child. The rest will work itself out.

Monica Vigo is an elementary special education teacher in Washington, D.C. She has taught in both public and charter schools in the district. She is the recipient of KIPP DC’s Board Award for Excellence in Teaching (2017), was voted Teacher of the Year at KIPP DC (2016), and is one of less than 100 teachers nationally to be recognized in The New Teacher Project’s Fishman Prize Honor Roll for classroom excellence.

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