What teachers want you to know about helping your kid with homework

Guest post by Carla
Paper and pencil cookies from Etsy seller  SugarMamasCreations
Paper and pencil cookies from Etsy seller SugarMamasCreations

As a 4th and 5th grade teacher, I rarely use homework for grades. I simply use it to ensure the kids 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.

But of course you want to help your kid learn! So here’s how I would advise you to help your kid with their homework:

Start 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?” Or “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.)

Show the child a different way of solving a problem

I love it when parents show their child a different way of solving a problem, particularly in math. I only have time in class to usually teach two 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.

Don’t give them the answers

Make sure you’re not just giving your kids 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.

If you don’t get it and they don’t either

Write me 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! 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.

Don’t stress too much if you can’t help

Quite frankly, sometimes there are things you learn 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 those concepts. 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.

Comments on What teachers want you to know about helping your kid with homework

  1. Wow this is so timely. I have twin kindergartners who are getting more and more homework as the school year goes on. It’s totally age appropriate but as the year has gone on the homework is getting more difficult as their classwork is getting more difficult. Since they are only in K I want this to set a good base for them. Being self directed to come home and know to start doing homework with out much direction or ‘help.’ But some nights homework just turns into a big fight or results in a lot of tears. My husband philosophy is homework needs to be perfect, so if they kids aren’t getting it he just gives them the answers. My philosophy is more school is fun and the fun comes from figuring it out and less about it being right. So we are trying to find a middle ground. Your post is really great and I am totally sharing with my husband. We will be using some of your tips come Monday evening.

    • There’s no such thing as “age appropriate homework”, especially in the lower grades. Homework* has only been shown to be helpful when it comes to high school math class. There should absolutely not be tears and fights involved and I’m 100% sure your kids’ teacher(s) would say the same. In my experience as a teacher and as a parent K teachers only give out homework because some parents demand it. Chances are if you ask the’ll tell you as much. If you’re not willing to ditch the homework entirely they should only be spending 10 min on it a night and then it’s done. Set a timer and when it beeps everything gets packed up.


      *by homework I mean things like worksheets. Assignments like reading 20 min a night and enrichment projects like book reports and science fair projects are different.

  2. I wish my teachers “rarely used homework for grades”. I was that kid who did great on the tests, but failed the classes because I literally did zero homework, which would be 35% or some other absurd percentage of the final grade.

    • You have to also consider the other kids who generally do well on the assignments and homework, and understand the concepts, but then do horribly on the tests due to many issues. Often, homework is the “easy points” to help buffer the grade of those who are putting in the work, but are having difficulty with tests.

  3. Not a teacher but as a former child I’d also add: please consider the age of the child and the level of knowledge they are supposed to have. It was not at all helpful when my mums answer to anything science related started with “Well you have to start from first principals and work forward from there”. I was a child, not a university student! I hadn’t even been taught the concept of first principals and if I’d included it that would just have proven that a) I didn’t understand it and b) I’d had help.

  4. I teach K-5 special education inclusion (i.e. all of my kids are in the general education classroom most of the time), and the biggest thing I want my parents to do at home with my kids is just practice: practice letters/letter sounds, practice reading common sight words (the, and, there, with), practice doing math flashcards, etc. The classroom teachers I work with are under a lot of pressure to keep moving and keep moving quickly, and most kids (not just children with learning disabilities) need more practice on these basic skills before they can ever build up to the bigger skills. Each grade gets infinitely harder if your child can’t automatically draw these basic facts to mind. Rote learning gets a really bad rap in education today, so teachers aren’t able to spend as much time on practice and drill, but this is something that you can and should do at home with them for just 5-10 minutes every day.

  5. Coming from the high school side (I teach high school physics and math), no one expects you, as the parent, to remember what on earth the law of sines is (although a quick google can help there) or how to calculate the final velocity of a projectile. But what you CAN do is help with the meta-cognitive skills. Basically, the ‘How can I learn more’ skills.

    So if your student isn’t understanding something, first try to get them to see if there are any examples that they have in their notes or in their book (or in any other resources given – we don’t use books much as the geometry book is awful, but I have a lot of resources available for them in class and on the internet) that are similar. Ask them what the general way to go about the problem is. Just like with in lower grade math, try drawing a picture! Write out what you know. Write out what you’re trying to find. Write out any equations or terms that might help.

    Finally, encourage your student to make a list of things that they don’t understand, and to be as specific as possible. Someone asking “I didn’t know how to do number 5” is incredibly unhelpful. What about #5 didn’t you get? Are you confused about what equation to use? Are you not certain what stuff is positive or negative? Have you written down all your givens?

    This is all stuff I’m trying to make a more purposeful inclusion in my classroom with getting students to rank all the subjects in a unit by how confident they are with the idea, and regularly asking for specific lists of what they do and do not understand. And it’s all stuff that parents can help with, even if they may not know how to do the problems themselves.

  6. I’d love to add the following, as a middle school special ed. teacher:

    Helping your child get their homework questions right is not mandatory for you to support their learning. The most important thing you can do to help your child enjoy and do well in school is to just show that you care, that you believe in their capabilities, and that you expect them to take school seriously. I have read dozens of studies of how parental involvement impacts a child’s academic achievement and all the evidence tells us that helping with homework or re-teaching material is just not that important. Just casually talking about books, current events, and art (including movies and tv!) around the dinner table does more for your child’s education than sitting with them as they do homework.

    Let them know you’re happy to help when they need it (obviously if your kid asks for help you shouldn’t be like “No, some lady on the internet said a thing about research that proves helping you is a waste of time!”), but don’t agonize over it.

  7. As another former school kid I’d say that it’s not always that important for the parent to understand the topic beforehand especially in higher grades. When I was a teenager I often found that by explaining the subject to my parents I’d understand it better myself. In reinforcing my understanding I could then get further in my homework.

  8. When I was in school I struggled with math. So I really did need that extra help at home. But my parents didn’t sit down and do each individual problem with me. Rather, if I had an issue, my dad would look to see what kinds of problems I was struggling with. He would then write out his own problems that were similar enough to what I was learning, then we would go through those together, setting aside the homework for a little while. I’m a very visual learner, so it helped that he would draw representations of the different concepts, then he would take me through his math problems one step at a time. “Okay, to solve for x you need to get all the numbers on one side. How are you going to do that? What should you do first?”

    After he felt I had a good grasp of how to solve the problems, he would write out several for me to do on my own. He would check them, and once he saw I understood it he would leave me to do my homework in peace. It worked out fairly well. I ended up competing and placing in math competitions for a few years after that.

  9. That’s awesome that you have the freedom to teach a few different ways of solving a problem. I work in an after-school center for K-6th, and I run the homework room. I will often have kids coming to me with math homework that they are having trouble with, but when I walk them through it using a method that I learned at their age, I get one of two responses. It’s either ‘That makes sense, but my teacher says we’re not allowed to do it that way’, or ‘My teacher said I did it wrong’ (using the method I used, even though they got the right answer).

    It’s frustrating for me, because I want to help them so much, but many of them are being taught methods of solving problems that take longer and/or are more confusing for both them AND the adult. You’re right that there is more than one road leading to Rome, but it seems not all schools are able to teach that due to time constraints and class size.

    • I think this post’s advice is great about showing kids multiple ways to do a problem, but I think a lot of parents are going to run into that issue. I have a lot of parent friends who say they “can’t” help with math homework because “They don’t do it the way I was taught anymore.” A lot of times the way the parents were taught is actually easier and makes more sense to the kids, but like your situation, getting the right answer isn’t enough. They have to show their work and show that they’re doing the way they’re being taught which I feel is just wrong.

  10. “Show your child a different way of solving the problem”

    Don’t do this without checking with their actual teacher. I’ve been getting emails about this all week from my son’s math teacher (3rd grade but they’re doing 4th grade math). The curriculum now has the kids learning very specific ways to solve problems at very specific times. These strategies are different from the “standard algorithm” that most of us were taught and in this case (multiplication and division) the curriculum doesn’t have them learning the standard algorithms for another year. Instead of helping the kids practice the strategy they’re supposed to be using so many parents are teaching the standard algorithm that the math teacher is sending out daily emails reminding us* not to do that (including links to videos of the correct way) and sending homework home to be redone correctly.

    *We haven’t needed the reminder since my son is on the spectrum and therefore insists on doing everything exactly as the teacher says. The videos have been helpful though so I know what he’s supposed to be doing and can check that he’s doing it correctly.

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