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How to Help Your Kids Help Themselves : Homework

Ask yourself:
—Am I too involved in my child’s school/homework?
—Not involved enough?
—Do I know how to be involved in constructive ways?

Running a tutoring service, facilitating parenting workshops, and raising my own children have brought me in touch with many a harried New York City parent. In today’s educational climate, we struggle to balance supporting our kids and fostering their independence. But we need to step back and take a deep breath. We must practice the skills of patience, listening, and forgiveness while learning to allow our children to experience the consequences of their choices.

Most of us start with noble intentions — we want our kids to enjoy learning and have all the advantages a good education provides. But when the competition heats up, or our kids become resistant to our influence, we tend to lose sight of our goals. We then need to restore harmony (or create it for the first time!) around the subject of school and academic achievement.

Your Philosophy
The first step is figuring out your own educational values. My workshops always start with a self-assessment. I ask participants about what is truly important to them regarding their children’s education: What do you want for your children? What do you believe to be the purpose of school? What does success in school mean to you?
Then you need to ask yourself another important question: Does my child know and understand my philosophy?

Your Expectations
Are you looking for particular grades — on each test, in each marking period, for the year? Are you looking for improvement, hard work and effort, or a sense of mastery in a particular subject? What are the quantitative and qualitative results for which you are holding your child to account?
If you want your child to produce a particular standard of work, you must make sure he/she understands what you are expecting — and appreciates the consequences for not succeeding. This may seem harsh, but most kids feel supported by, and thrive on, clear expectations and boundaries. Firmness and consistency matter, and should not be confused with being mean or insensitive.

Setting Up For Success
Begin by defining your child’s current relationship to academics. Identify strengths and weaknesses. Determine what level of effort is acceptable. Ask if your child is happy with how he/she is doing? Does he/she think improvement is possible?
Find out what your child knows about time management and stress the importance of making and keeping commitments. Teach your child to use a day planner effectively.
In these conversations with your child, you should also determine the conditions that are most likely to support learning. Make sure you cover:

—rest (bedtime, study breaks)
—eating habits (proper nutrition, timing of meals, etc.)
—study environment (light, noise, distractions, desk/work space)
—ideal times of the day for studying/homework
—physical activity (exercise, sports)
—medications (if applicable)

Based on this “research” and deeper knowledge of your child’s relationship to school, you can now co-author an agreement — a “contract for success”. In it, you should include:

1. A clear statement of expected results.

2. What needs to be done and when, including what your child is responsible for executing and how it will be accomplished.

3. The role of the parents, including a schedule of check-ins and what support they will provide.

4. A system of rewards/consequences based on effort and results.

5. A means of amending the contract to evolve as the student does.

The Daily Grind

The next step is to implement this plan — the rituals, routines, rewards and consequences. Be patient, accept mistakes, and keep communicating and reinforcing your values. Make it clear that you are an ally in this process, there to help your child achieve academic success.
If you are going to be the primary one helping your child master the material, make sure you are equipped to do so.

—Make sure the family gets together for at least one weekly planning session to preview all assignments, events, responsibilities, etc. in the coming week.

—Break down large assignments into their component parts and set deadlines for accomplishing each.

—Reduce difficult concepts into discrete “nuggets” of information (for example, use flash cards to reinforce facts).

—Make knowledge applicable to real life and to your child’s experience.

—Think “outside the book”: Draw a picture or tell a story to illustrate a concept. To aid memorization, make up mnemonics, songs, or drill while engaged in a fun physical activity.

You must also recognize when you are not helping, either because you can’t figure out the content (e.g. how your kid’s teacher is teaching math this year), or because you and your child keep getting into conflict. If your child continues to struggle, talk to his/her teachers, outside experts, visit the school’s learning center, or find someone else who can help. There are so many resources available both in the school and in your community; take advantage of them!

What you don’t do with regard to your child’s academic life may be equally important. Don’t:

—Do your child’s homework/give answers.
—Talk to your child’s teacher without first warning your child.
—Criticize harshly or without explanation.
—Conversely, give inauthentic praise.
—Forget to wean your child off your support and toward independence using clear communication, advance warning, and structure.

Assessing Progress

Ideally, the relationship between you and your child (as it relates to academic success) will progress through the following four stages:

1. Begin to move your child away from seeing you as the one responsible for academic success. (In this scenario, you’re the boss; your child is off the hook).

2. Become someone whose primary role is to check in on your child’s progress. (Your child is on the hook, but you are playing an active part).

3. Progress to the role of co-researcher who provides help and a second set of eyes when needed. (Your child is still on the hook, but uses you mainly as a resource).

4. Evolve into a real audience for your child’s academic expression, only occasionally critiquing or coaching. (Your child is independent while you sit back and enjoy!).

Move through these stages at a pace that is right for your family. But take the time to tune in to your child’s progress. If there is conflict, you may be moving too fast or too slow — or you may be missing an important ingredient (communication, patience, a support structure, etc.). Although this journey is unique to each family, and should be honored as such, remember that many families are having the same struggles. Count yourself ahead of the game if you have reflected upon and communicated your educational values to your family. Now, perhaps you have some homework to do!

LAURIE GERBER is the president of Partners With Parents, Inc., a comprehensive in-home tutoring service that helps New York City parents looking for a customized educational experience for their children (including tutoring, academic coaching, homework help, music lessons and homeschooling). She can be reached at (212) 928-5014, or The website is

Homework Advice?
We asked local moms …

By Alison Hogan

When we talked with local moms on the subject of homework, one theme came through loud and clear — the best results are attained when kids equate homework with structure.

“Homework should be a scheduled time of day, just like dinner, TV time and activities. It's either done before dinner or after dinner, before TV or after TV time. Regardless of when, it shouldn't be negotiated every day. Kids do better on a schedule/routine and homework should be part of the routine,” summed up Mt. Kisco’s Pam Socolow, mom of two, ages 10 and 7.

Marisa Gorman, of Croton on Hudson, who has five kids — ages 15 and 13, plus 7-year-old triplets (Go, Marisa!) — couldn’t agree more. “I find that doing homework can be a nightmare if you don't stick to a routine. My younger children get a snack when they get home from school, and then we do homework. My kids sit at the dining room table and do their work and I sit there with them. I find that doing it right away is best. The later it gets, the harder it gets. This is especially true for my 13-year-old son. He needs to do his homework as soon as he gets home, or he ends up sitting at the table until wee hours of the night. My 14-year-old daughter is always diligent about her work and does it on her own in her room, but that's only because we started out doing all the things I’ve already mentioned. Homework needs to be a routine that, in the beginning, includes Mom or Dad.”

Linda Daniels, of Greenburgh, has three children, ages 19, 14, and 11. She advises: “Make homework as smooth and productive as possible by setting structured time and a quiet place every day for the child to do their homework. And set this time shortly after the child comes home from school. Allow half-an-hour for a snack and relaxation, then let them get straight to their homework. I think waiting until later in the day or the evening is too late; the child may be just too tired.”

We also talked with Karin Harris for a dual perspective. Harris is the mom of three girls (ages 12, 9 and 5), and she teaches 4th grade at Central School in Larchmont.

“My philosophy,” says Harris, “is that homework should be inspiring, interesting, reinforcing, and sometimes mind bending. Having said that, I believe the child should be able to do it independently. If they cannot, they should be instructed to return to the teacher the next day with a note (from the child) stating that they had a hard time but they at least tried to do it. This empowers the child and takes the responsibility off the parent. So many times I have heard of the battles between parent and child because ‘the teacher taught it this way’ and the parent ‘learned it that way’, and in the end, a battle embroils. The parent already went through school and does not need to go through it again. This only helps to make the child more dependent on the parent (which is sometimes the need for the parent, unfortunately).

“Each year at back-to-school night I explain this, and most if not all parents sigh in relief to be relieved of the homework duty. If the parent is doing it or helping too much this does not serve to give the teacher knowledge of the child but rather of the parent's ability in that subject!

“What I recommend for a parent faced with a challenged child: Remind the child to look back in their notes, call a friend for notes only (I teach the students about gentle assistance), or write the letter to me. It is a pact that I have with my students. This way I am informed about how much understanding the child has left the classroom with. If I didn't do a good job in my explanation, then I’d better fix it up really quickly.

“I think empowering children to be independent and think for themselves is one of the most important things I can impart to them. Homework is merely one tool of assessment — watching to see what they do, on their own, at home, without help. What level do they rise to? What time did they take? Is it neatly done, or haphazard? Is it a good effort for that child or a less enthusiastic one? Does it reflect their knowledge of the subject? Does it inform me of anything important? I am not a ‘ditto giver’. To me, that is busy work. If they can do three, why make them do 20? Homework should be a reflection of how they learn in the classroom.

“At home, if the parent starts getting into ‘What were you doing when your teacher said this or that?’, you will create an unsafe, judgmental place for your child at home. Home is home — peaceful, safe and non-judgmental. It should stay that way.

“I also offer homework for some parents who cannot stop correcting spelling mistakes or math miscalculations. Just kidding, but I was thinking about that!!”
Two Queens moms we spoke with (both came recommended for their sensible approach to homework) told us that from the very beginning, they have tried to instill the need for routine and focus.

“The best ‘habit’ we got into early on (from pre-K) was to sit at the kitchen table as soon as we got home from school to start homework,” remembers Karin Gully, of Rego Park, who has two children, ages 15 and 13. “My kids attend Catholic School and wear uniforms and they didn't change into ‘play clothes’ until after homework was done. My husband and I felt it best they did homework while still in ‘school’ mode and the material was still fresh in their minds — it's difficult to get children to concentrate on homework after they have watched TV or played. Then, as a reward for completing their work, they were treated to a snack and could relax.

“As for studying, that was done after dinner, while I was doing dishes. I would ask my son or daughter to read his or her notes or the chapter to be tested and we would discuss the subject matter. Since this was a routine we established from the beginning, the kids developed good homework and studying skills. It's extremely important that the parent(s) get involved with the homework/studying,” Gully believes. “Even when my children were in an afterschool program where homework was done, I still went over the homework to make sure it was done completely and neatly!”

Lily Zivkovic lives in Forest Hills. She says: “The best piece of advice I can give? Make it fun!”

Zivkovic has two children, ages 13 and 7. “They have different interests and obviously a different academic range,” she says.

“My oldest one is a gizmo wizard so I make sure that anything that is available to him has a correlation with what he covers in school (as much as it is possible). The American Revolution, and some coverage of Greek mythology, for example, generated a frenzy with video games and interactive videos that he enjoyed a lot. These days I have search engines and favorite places set in Internet Explorer for 9th grade as he will be attending a very competitive private high school in the City. He likes challenges and I try to play games with that competitive edge. Q & A marathons are of great help for me to realize where he is at in terms of general information and current affairs.

“With my little one, my approach is more hands-on and more traditional but also quite engaging in terms of questioning and playing — as if it is a story telling exchange where she places the missing information as in a puzzle.
“Reward their knowledge with praise, too. Kids love that. And mention it to your family; kids love that, too. Every time I said to my in-laws that the kids knew something new, my children would repeat it and that reinforces the knowledge, while building up tons of confidence.

“Cover, in advance, the material the kids will be looking at. I do that by covering their books one week in advance; it makes it easier for them to know ahead of time what the work will be. And as much as some teachers recommend against it, I have gone so far as to make my kids do the homework ahead of the explanation.

"I believe that ‘luck is opportunity meets preparation’. Both my children are straight A students and I can honestly say it does not seem to be overwhelming to them because it’s all about having fun while acquiring knowledge .
“It works for us that way. At least it does so far!”

Laura Pynn, from Kensington, Brooklyn, has been in the homework trenches for some time; she is the mother of a 16-year-old and a 14--year-old.

“I think it's important to really know your child's personality, and work with it to make homework time as smooth as possible,” says Pynn. “If your child arrives home from school and requires a bit of unwinding time before settling down to work, it might be better to allow that and approach the assignments a little later. You may be surprised to find that your child will be less combative that way.

“On the other hand, if you know that your child really starts to fatigue soon after dinner (or has an early bedtime), getting a quick start to homework may be essential, before he/she loses ambition and attention.

“What worked for one of your children may not work for another — you've really got to read them correctly, and go with the flow.”

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