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Who’s Doing the Homework?

Former teacher, Erica Fehrman, offers tips on how to find that middle ground between Helper and Doer.

Do you remember walking into school with your social studies project and feeling proud of your handiwork? The diorama of Johnny Appleseed, stuffed inside a shoebox, is perfect. You collected the seeds from your family’s apple snacks for two weeks, and feel sure of an “A” grade--until you look over at Susan Smith’s diorama with store-bought figurines, placed inside a custom-made plexiglass box. Hers is impeccable, and your spirits fall. But when it’s time to present your project to the class, Susan doesn’t have much to say. She’s quiet, can’t answer the teacher’s questions, and doesn’t seem that pleased with her display. What’s wrong with her?

It could be that Susan is just shy in front of the class, or it could be that she didn’t make her project, and has nothing to feel proud of. The only thing worse than the latter is when a kid doesn’t make their own project, yet still comes to school full of themselves and the fib of their work.

I’ve seen this firsthand as a student, and later as a teacher. I had a seventh-grade student whose mom often did her at-home work for her, yet the girl would come to school with a swelled chest and lord her accomplishments over the other students. It’s difficult to prove such goings-on, but teachers know the difference between a student’s abilities and efforts in the class and what suddenly appears during “homework.”

Surprisingly, however, I can sympathize.

I am the product of a perfectionist father and a hard-driven mother. Each time I had a paper to write, my mom was beside me at the library, looking up books that were beyond my scope as a sixth-grader. Then I had to sit with her and comb through the books while she taught me to take notes. We also did this for each chapter I studied for each subject, in preparation for tests. The morning of a test, I would board the school bus with a stack of notes that broke down the chapter into easy bullet points, facts and figures.

So Mom was into school, but she didn’t do the work for me. I guess she was an enforcer and personal teacher, and eventually I learned how to perform these study tricks on my own.

The real trick is to find that middle ground between Helper and Doer.

* Show your student how to do something new 1-2 times, and then let her sort it out on her own. The result may not be perfect, but she’s learning the task and gaining confidence in her abilities.

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* Hold back. Don’t always rush in with the correct answer, but hold back and let him problem-solve on his own before seeking your help.

* Ask questions. Rather than correcting your student (“Trees are green, not red!”), find out the reasons for her choices. There could be creativity at work if it’s an art project, or she really may need help following directions if they stipulate coloring the tree green, the apples red, etc.

* Communicate with the teacher in a positive manner. At the beginning of each school year, my mom would meet my teacher and basically say, “I’m here for my daughter, and I’m also on your side. Let me know if there are problems or if there’s a way I can help.” This is a way to let the teacher know you support him or her in the pursuit of your child’s education.

* Listen to your child, but don’t always assume he’s the victim. Sometimes kids blame their school problems on their teacher. If this happens, call the teacher and voice your concern in a positive way. Rather than saying, “Matt says you don’t like him,” try “Matt is having trouble in math, and says the pace of the lessons is too fast for him. Have you noticed any difficulty with him in your class?” This is an open-ended question, rather than a blame-game.

* Let your child do nightly homework on her own, and then check it over. Say, “You may want to look over #5 again,” and then see if she finds the mistake on her own.

* Spending money on school assignments is almost never a teacher’s intentions. If you spend more than $5-10 on basic materials (poster board, markers, glue...), you may be over-thinking the assignment. Read the instructions carefully, discuss the project with your child and feel free to ask the teacher for clarity.

* If your child wants to try something he doesn’t know how to do, teach him. My brother once decided to make a wooden duck for a project, but had never done such work before--he was in second grade. Our grandfather taught him how to glue wood together, cut out a basic shape and sand it into a duck form. It was a great learning and bonding experience for them both. It helps that our grandfather is very patient and nurturing.

* Possibly the worst culprit in parent over-involvement is a lack of time--as in, your kid remembers a big paper at 7pm Sunday night, and it’s due Monday morning, so everyone desperately pitches in. It’s better to be very involved in your child’s daily homework schedule than in the project itself. Give your son or daughter a calendar where he or she writes the assignments and due dates. Check on it each day. If using this is a chronic problem, have the teacher sign off on it at the end of each day. I had eighth-graders who needed to use this system, but it works--and it helps your family schedule large projects out for a realistic time frame.

* An “A” grade isn’t the most important component in school. Learning is. Give your child the space to learn at his own pace, enjoy the process and retain the information for the rest of his or her life.


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