What do you do when you can’t answer your kid’s homework questions?

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Photo by evilerin, used under Creative Commons license.
My public-schooled fourth grader is a good student, and my partner and I do our best to help him out with any questions he might have about his homework. We don’t do his work for him, but if he needs help, we give it. Every so often the three of us hit a roadblock: there are simply some questions that none of us can answer.

We have the internet at our disposal, so it’s usually not too difficult to look an answer up. However, I don’t want to just find an answer and give it to him — I want him to understand how to get the answer in the first place. I’m more about the fact that our child is coming home from school not fully understanding the work he’s assigned. We usually ask him if he can repeat the way his teacher taught the topic, which sometimes works. When it doesn’t, though, and we’re all stumped — what should we do? — Becky

Comments on What do you do when you can’t answer your kid’s homework questions?

  1. The whole point of homework is to figure out what you understand and what you don’t understand when you’re not being walked through it in class. If he can’t figure it out, that’s fine! Ask the teacher about it in class the next day. He’s probably not the only one.

    • Also, if he’s answering all the questions correctly because of your help – the teacher is probably unaware of the problem. Which goes back to your concern that your son doesn’t understand the work he’s assigned. Teachers use homework for feedback about who understands what. If he’s getting all the problems right and not asking questions in class, the teacher probably assumes he understands what’s going on.

      • Totally agree with your points – if he’s uncertain of the topic then it’s an opportunity for the teacher to try explaining in a different way, more in depth, etc.

        Depending on age, it’s also good for HIM to do the research on the internet. Learning to research and to find information is a valuable skill!

  2. ditto what Theresa said (especially if you know anyone else with kids in the same class/school) & talk to the teacher(s)! They will love that you’re involved in your son’s learning & should appreciate the feedback that not everything is getting through.

  3. There may be a disconnect between the teaching style and your son’s learning preference. I always had a hard time paying attention in class, and really depended on the reading assignments to keep me informed. If the teacher discussed something that wasn’t in the book, then I was likely to miss it completely. My husband, on the other hand, can’t remember a word of what he reads, but retains knowledge pretty easily when it’s presented by a real, live person, regardless of whether it’s a lecture or a discussion.

    It may be a good idea to talk to your son about the ways he feels he learns best, then help him develop some coping strategies for times when he’s expected to learn differently.

    • Coming late to this, but please use the library instead of FaceBook, Yahoo Answers, or Wikipedia. A librarian worth their salt will teach him how to use vetted sources, and a good reference librarian will help him refine his questions, which will be useful as his homework gets more complex.

  4. Do you know any younger people – like high school age? Often, people who are still in the schooling system have retained much more knowledge than adults will – also they’ll tend to not overthink it. (My dad was a math major. He couldn’t help me with my pre-calc in high school because he would automatically start overthinking it)

    Now in 4th grade, homework is usually a ‘assigned Wednesday, due Thursday’ kind of deal so sometimes talking to the teacher just isn’t feasible with that. But you have to become the teacher. I tutor beginning engineering classes and sometimes I cannot remember how to do a problem. I have to go and relearn it myself and then explain it to them. The internet is great for this – often there are explanations out there now. You just have to internalize the information and start laying out what’s there.

    For example, say your son is stuck on a ‘word problem’ in math. Start by asking him what the final goal is (how old is Sally). Ask him what information is given. Then ask him what he’s been doing lately in class – whether it’s fractions or whatever. Ask him how he can apply that to the question.

    So it’s not easy, but you can help with homework while teaching.

  5. My younger sister often calls me with math problems and while I was quite good at math, it has been almost twenty years since I’ve taken a math class. What I do is write down the problems and then do internet research until I’ve figured out how to teach the problems to her. The important thing is to not give her the answer, but to help her understand how to get to the answer. Especially because of the whole “math is hard” girl stigma, I never let my sister think it’s impossible. It’s more like, this one is a toughy, but we can get through it. After we’ve worked out the problem, I then have her do another one for me all by herself. Basically, I think you need to teach yourself the problem and then teach it to your kid. It’s not always fun, but it is good bonding time. Good luck!

  6. If your little guy isn’t getting it even after finding stuff online or in a book, etc…reach out to the teacher. I’m married to one- is thrilled when problems and questions are voiced instead of kept quiet. It’s his job to teach— he’s not doing it if they are confused.

  7. I ditto asking the teacher. As a college teacher, I WISH more students asked for help! Like kelley said above, I’m thrilled when someone voices a problem instead of keeping quiet. Email is a really easy way to do this if that’s available, but sometimes you need to talk out the problem in person or on the phone.

    We also homeschool my older son and sometimes, one of us needs a different explanation of a problem and so Google has been shockingly helpful. For math, you can just put in the exact problem and often explanations of it come up. In addition, KhanAcademy (.org) is awesome. There are short videos for everything!

  8. Facebook… my sister and several cousins and friends have children the same age. If i can’t figure it out, i can post it on facebook and get an answer.
    We also use facebook to compile data for tables and statistics.
    Sometimes i just write a note on the homework… my sons kindegarten teacher was notorious for sending unfinished work home with no directions…

  9. I agree with the people saying that part of what is really important is getting your child to be confident enough to ask their teacher to go over homework points they don’t understand.

    Other than that, if you can afford it, there are tutors who would likely sit down with your kid with you there, too, if you want in on the explanation. Lots of schools have programs that match up struggling students with ones who understand the material better. If there isn’t, you could be the awesome person who helps initiate one! Of course, I would have rather failed my classes than have my parent sit with me with a tutor, but I’m the kind of person who wants to knock the Scrabble board over if I’m losing 😉

    • I’ve worked off and on as a private tutor for a while, and this brings up an idea I’ve been toying with: what if, instead of tutoring the kids for several hours a week, I tutored the parents for an hour or two a month? Maybe a refresher course on what the kid will be doing next month, based on his textbooks. Then I could be available by e-mail if questions come up later as well.

      As to the cost of private tutoring, I’ve always been willing to negotiate/trade for my services when asked (you teach me guitar, I teach you geometry). Craigslist is a good place to set up this kind of swap or to just look for an affordable tutor. Agencies usually take a high percentage for their services, but there are a lot of retired teachers, college students, etc. who would be happy to help more informally.

      • That’s a great idea! I don’t have kids yet, but I fear having to help them with their math homework because I was never that great at it myself. My future husband is great at math, but what if he’s not home and math help is needed? Also, I don’t want our potential future children to learn that math is something that men are good at and women aren’t so good at, which is the message they might unintentionally get if they had to ask him all higher level math questions. When I have time, I’m planning to ask him to teach me some of the math concepts I’m not so good at so I’ll be able to help others with them in the future.

  10. When you need help quickly, facebook, yahoo answers, etc. are good places to ask for help.

    On a more long term plan, though, if you’re running into this in the 4th grade, you can expect harder assignments in the coming years. I don’t know if this is common with all public schools or if it was because it was because it was the same high school I attended and most of the staff still remembered me (for positive reasons), but when I was trying to help out my younger cousin during a summer when I was home from college, I (with her mother’s blessing) scheduled a quick informal meeting with the guidance office and one of her upcoming teachers to figure out what topics she could expect to learn the next year. They let me borrow textbooks in the subjects she was scheduled to take, the teacher let me know which sections to concentrate on, I was able to get her reading list, etc.

    Now it depends on the kid, but the bigger long term strategy might be to teach your son how to identify when he doesn’t understand something, how to articulate his questions to someone knowledgeable, and if there is no one to ask – how to go about researching the answer.

  11. I ditto (or double, or triple ditto) asking the teacher! As a middle school teacher, I appreciate nothing more than a note from a parent saying “we couldn’t do this, either!” if one of my kiddos doesn’t have his or her work completed. It not only shows me that real effort was put forth (by student and family), but it tells me what I need to do a better job reinforcing in class.

    Immediately, though, I strongly recommend calling family members or family friends for their help or advice. When I was in school, I had a disastrously tough time with math, and neither of my parents were especially helpful, so we had a few go-to other adults who we called. This was not only a great source of help, but it let me bond with other adults in my life in a way I probably wouldn’t have otherwise. I still get quizzed on multiplication facts by one particularly loving but sadistic uncle!

  12. Sometimes the lesson is how to find the answers your child (and you) don’t know. That includes how to look things up, what reliable sources of information are, and looking for the answer in more than one place to see if there IS more than one answer to consider.

    The trick is that after you’ve done all that, you also need to let the teacher know (with a note, whatever) what you and your child did and where you looked so when your child’s answers or method of calculation are different than what s/he is expecting, you’ve provided the reason why.

  13. Because I was the only one in my large family to get through college, I was often asked to help on homework assignments. Then, I became a teacher, and it’s only a matter of time before I get my niece and nephews calling me (not that I would mind). As a teacher, I think it’s great that you’re taking the time to help your Sprout…sadly a lot of parents don’t/can’t because of work or they simply don’t know what subject matter. In high school, the problem is much worse.

    Anywho, I agree that he could ask the teacher, provided that the teacher allows that sort of thing, Many schools offer after school tutoring with either paid high school or college kids. Everyone has offered really good advice. I just wanted to say ‘Thanks” for taking the time to help your kid, and I wish more parents in the districts I’ve worked for could/would do it too.

  14. I’m expecting my first baby in April so I don’t have any first hand experience with this, yet. However, we’re planning on homeschooling and it’s something I thought of the other day. What happens when I don’t know the answer and I’m supposed to be the all knowing teacher?! stress! I think it’s just as important to teach children how to access and learn knowledge and figure it out so I think whenever I’m teaching and I don’t know something they ask or want expanded on, we’ll either go to the library or search online together (with the children doing all the work!) for a credible source of information and then TALK TALK TALK about it so they understand and are not just reading/reciting facts.

    Hope it works out for you!

    • Don’t be the all knowing teacher!

      As someone who was a handful throughout school because I was too smart for my own good (I wonder where that smartness went….) the thing I hated most was when people just wouldn’t admit they didn’t know!

      You’ve totally got the right idea with making it more of a research project though!

    • Seconding the “don’t be the all-knowing teacher” comment. I tell my (college) students that I’m not the knowledge god, and that good education is like a conversation.
      Of course, my students have been brainwashed by the idea that the teacher is the be-all-end-all of right and wrong (I think my disagreement with this is one of the reasons I lost my public high school teaching gig), and this makes it hard to teach (read: learn with) them.
      (I was also the smartypants/smartass kid in school, but I know where my smart went – her name is Alice and we don’t sleep much. 🙂 )

    • That’s right, as said above, don’t be the all knowing teacher! You AREN’T all knowing, and you really aren’t there to “fill up” your empty vessel of a child.

      Think of it this way instead (way less stress!): You are helping THEM learn. You are a facilitator. This way, you learn together. And I really think the best thing I can do as a teacher and a homeschooling mom is to say, “I don’t know, let’s find out together.” Because you can’t possibly know everything and then they learn how to find things out for themselves. And that’s really the most helpful part of an education, asking questions! I think you’ve got this covered already, and the confidence will come after you mess up a few times and realize it’s okay 🙂

      And way to go! You have a lucky kid!

  15. My parents were wonderful about not telling me the answers (they helped me with homework more to keep me on task) but by providing me with the resources to find the answer myself. If I still didn’t understand it after researching it myself (as was often the case with math) then I was to ask the teacher before the assignment was due. If I still didn’t understand it then it was okay to miss the credit on my homework and to get a more thorough explanation. That process alone has been the major difference between my husband and myself, I’ve noticed. I get a whole lot more done without intervention because if I don’t know how to do something I automatically look it up instead of waiting for someone to tell me how to do it. I’m sure there’s a personality difference involved in that as well, but being drilled to go do research has proven fruitful, even if it was obnoxious in elementary school.

  16. Assuming you and your child can find the answer (google, facebook etc), take your time to work out WHY it is the answer. Work the problem backwards, trial and error etc etc. This in itself can be incredibly helpful for some children, and is a good skill to have.
    If you can’t work out why it is the answer or you child isn’t grasping the concept then make sure you note this on the work so that the teacher knows that they need to go over this with your child.

  17. Bonus points to you for not wanting to give your kid the answers! Show him how you find answers on the internet – what search terms you used, and which websites are good/bad. Eventually, have him do it on his own, with you seeing what he comes up with. He’ll use those skills long after he’s out of school.

    If there’s a textbook in the class, check it, especially if math is the problem. Textbooks often have examples on how to solve certain problems or answer certain questions.

    If you have a lot of friends on facebook, try asking there. Chances are at least one of them can show you how to get the answer (especially if any of your friends are teachers or parents of older kids).

    I also second the asking the teacher. Not only will that help you and your kid, it will say a lot about you/your kid to the teacher. Most teachers love it when parents are supporting their kids, and will hold a student who seeks help in higher regard than one who gives up. Also, teachers love to teach, and any good teacher should be more than happy to explain the material to you, or at least point you in the direction of some good resources.

  18. Whenever I’m nannying (for a 10-year-old), I make sure that he has his textbook open next to the homework. Instead of giving him the answers or telling him how to do it, I help him narrow down which page the instructions or information is on and then help him work it out if he doesn’t understand the wording. It doesn’t always work, but I like to think that I’m helping him learn how to find information on his own. I was really surprised in the beginning when I found out that he didn’t know that his workbook pages had corresponding textbook pages printed on them.

  19. As I teacher, I agree with the make sure you’re not giving him the answers. I don’t want to mark your work; I want to mark your kid’s. Also, I usually weight take home homework assignments low on your child’s grade. It’s important that it gets done; it is important that the concepts are practiced, but I want the grade to reflect the concept that has been learned, not the concept that the child is still learning. I would rather get 20 notes from 20 parents saying “I couldn’t get this” than not know that my students don’t get it until the unit exam. I don’t mind teaching a lesson over again in a different style! It forces me to examine my teaching techniques and my effectiveness.

    And quite frankly, sometimes there are things in the fourth grade curriculum that really, most people only need to remember until the end of fourth grade. After that, you can Google it. So don’t stress too much if you can’t remember it. It’s an introduction to a concept that might be picked up later in high school physics. Or it’s a rote memory fact. Or it’s problem solving, and there’s no easy answer. I just want to see that your kid tried.

    And sometimes, what you spent an hour on at the kitchen table I can clarify in five minutes in class. So give it a good shot – give it all you’ve got and show that you tried. And then give up with grace.

    • I triple agree with this comment! As a gr 4/5 teacher, I rarely use homework for grades. I simply use it to ensure they understand what they have learned. I actually prefer it when parents do very little “help” because it generally is the parents coming pretty darn close to doing the work for them.

      One thing I DO love it when parents do is when they show the child a different way of solving a problem, particularly in math. I only have time in class to usually teach 2 strategies of how to solve a problem. Often there are many more ways than that, and one of the other ways may work best for your child. I always let a child do the work in the way that they understand rather than forcing them to do it my way.

      So if you don’t get it and your son doesn’t remember, right a note to say that you tried for X number of minutes, and you think your son needs a quick refresher. I am ALWAYS more than willing to do so!

  20. From my experience, one of the biggest problems with homework is that they are using different terminology or methods to teach the same things. If I can’t easily understand it and explain it to my sons, then I just send them back to school with a note saying that they need extra help in this area. We used to spend lots of time trying to help them, but our way of explaining would just make them more confused.

    • This is very true, I think, especially in math. I’ve had parents from 7-12th grade complain about this to me, not necessarily in terms of my subject area alone. Many of the new standards/curriculum do come with new terminology, and so this can confuse parents who are trying to help.

  21. We use the internet TOGETHER. Mine is only five so right now this mostly consists of her watching the process (and suggesting alternative search terms) but as she gets older I plan to put her in the driver seat more and more. I ask her questions about how we should use the search engine “Ok, so you want to know what a catapult looks like, should we search everything, images, news, or videos? Aw gee these videos are really cool but I don’t think they are the catapults you had in mind. I think it’s because they didn’t have videos that long ago. What else could we try? Images, okay that makes sense.” This is time consuming so I don’t recommend it on a rushed project or anything, although I am sure a 4th grader will be “better” at this so maybe not quite AS time consuming.

  22. I agree with the other teachers — I teach high school, not grade school, but I believe that teachers today frequently grade homework for completion/”gave it a good try” rather than “100% correctness.” I feel like I can’t grade homework for perfection because I’m asking the kids to try something on their own, with no backup. It’s practice. An assignment that’s mostly done decently, with one or two problems/questions with a note from a parent that “Sally worked hard on this but we couldn’t quite figure out #12” or from a kid who shows me her work and then says, “I put this for #12 but I’m really not sure if that’s right,” would get a 100 on that assignment from me. I do make HW enough of a grade that you would ever FAIL because you couldn’t answer a question or two, but I do make it enough that it affects their grades, bc I want HW to first of all teach responsibility. We always go over it in class, too, in case people had any questions.

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