What's the best way to help with homework? You might be surprised to find out

Kara Powell Image Kara Powell | Apr 15, 2014

Photo by Bindaas Madhavi.

Parents, you think what you’re doing is helping your kids with their homework. But you might actually be sabotaging them.

Researchers have just finished looking through three decades of longitudinal surveys to examine the relationship between parental participation and kids’ academic performance. Here’s the kicker: Most typical forms of parental involvement help very little, and sometimes even hurt.

  • Reviewing kids’ homework every day doesn’t help them score higher on standardized tests. In fact, starting in middle school, parental help with homework can actually lower kids’ test scores since parents might be mis-teaching their kids.
  • Meeting with kids’ teachers and principals, or observing kids’ classes, doesn’t improve kids’ test scores.
  • Imposing disciplinary measures such as punishing kids for getting bad grades or setting strict parameters about when and how homework is completed doesn’t improve kids’ school performance.

So what can parents do that seems to help?

  • Read aloud to young kids.
  • Talk with teenagers about college plans.
  • Set high expectations for your kids, but then step back and give your kids space to navigate their own path.
  • Advocate for your kids to be placed with a teacher with a strong reputation. (This is one of the areas where race mattered most; white parents were more than twice as likely than African-American and Latino parents to request a specific teacher.)
  • Expose your kids to college-educated adults with interesting careers (which is one of the advantages of upper middle class kids; they aren’t just told a good education will help them succeed; they are more likely to be surrounded by adults who serve as visual aids that it’s true).

What difference is this research making to me as a parent?

  • To my children’s chagrin, I’m still going to look over their homework regularly. But I want to make sure my goal isn’t to get a certain assignment “correct” but rather to make sure they understand the content. I’ve already started that to a degree by not telling them which math problems (i.e., #3) they got wrong, but telling them they got one wrong between #3-#5 and making them figure out which one is wrong and why.
  • Talk with my kids about their own goals for their schooling. The good news is that starting in fifth grade, my kids’ school actually works with them to help them set their own goals. My growth area is to help our family review these goals on a regular (i.e., monthly) basis instead of only at the end of the quarter.
  • Help my kids come up with their own plan for when they will complete their homework. I often do this by letting the kids know what general buckets (homework, music, showers) they need to accomplish before a certain time (say 6:30 pm). But sometimes the hecticness of our family schedule causes me to be overly prescriptive (i.e., “Do your homework now and then do music”.)
  • Because of our Sticky Faith research, Dave and I are already committed to surrounding our kids with a team of adults. I want to make sure that my kids are exposed to the educational and professional achievements and dreams of these adults.

Parents, what else do you do to set your kids up to flourish academically?

Kara Powell Image
Kara Powell

Kara Powell, PhD, is the chief of leadership formation and executive director of the Fuller Youth Institute (FYI) at Fuller Theological Seminary. Named by Christianity Today as one of "50 Women to Watch," Kara serves as a youth and family strategist for Orange and speaks regularly at parenting and leadership conferences. Kara has authored or coauthored numerous books, including Faith Beyond Youth Group, 3 Big Questions That Shape Your Future, 3 Big Questions That Change Every Teenager, Growing With, Growing Young, The Sticky Faith Guide for Your Family and the entire Sticky Faith series. Kara and her husband, Dave, are regularly inspired by the learning and laughter that comes from their three teenage and young adult children.

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