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. All of these comments from teachers saying that they grade homework on effort are interesting to me, in light of my own memories of elementary school and high school. I’m 29, so though it has been a few years, it wasn’t that long ago comparatively speaking.

    My homework in all subjects was almost always graded on correctness, not effort, particularly in subjects such as math. Homework often counted for a significant portion of my grade. I think this lead to a great deal of my frustration with subject that did not come as easily to me, such as math. I think it probably also fed my perfectionist tendencies that make it difficult for me write first drafts that “get it down” rather than “get it right”. Some teachers in late middle school and early high school tried to teach us proper drafting, and it did help, but staring at a blank screen is still intimidating because I’m trying to produce something closer to perfect than is reasonable.

    I also had much more homework than seems to be the norm these days, but I went to a challenging school. (I hear that high school students sometimes only do one to two hours of homework? Not even on a slow night would I have had that little homework.)

    I did well in every subject except math, where I later learned I had only average abilities, while I was above average in everything else.

  2. I am a Math Education professor (and former elementary school teacher). As hard it may be when your kid is frustrated, it’s often best to put the responsibility on your child. You can help by asking the following kinds of questions(obviously changing the language depending on the age of the child):
    -What have you done in class recently that is like this?
    -What do you already know about this topic?
    -How might you start? For math problems, you could ask, Can you start by drawing a picture? Can you use “manipulatives”? (Good math manipulatives to use at home are pennies, dimes, and dollars because they represent our base-10 number system well.)
    -Can we write a note together to your teacher explaining that you tried, but you are confused about the directions/content/format/etc.?

  3. My step-sister has severe ADHD, so would often times require hours and hours of after-school tutoring. I had to beg her teacher to borrow a text book to learn all of the things she was covering in class so I could come up with a lesson plan to re-teach her the subject matter in a way that was understandable to her. You may even want to call your son’s teacher if there is a subject that he is having difficulty with. It may be that other students are, too, which might prompt a refresher class on the topic in a way that would help him “get it”.

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