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Homework help from parents also can harm

Tracy Frank | Forum News Service

When teacher Carla Smith assigned a large history project to her seventh-graders, she had a student who never worked on the project in class.

Instead he read, telling her he would do the project at home.

Around the time the projects were due, she overheard the student tell a classmate that his mom was already done with his project.

Smith, who is now a fourth-grade teacher for Moorhead Area Public Schools, says hearing that made her sad.

“What it says to the kid is, ‘I don’t trust you to be smart enough or creative enough or hard-working enough to take care of it,’ ” she said.

“Parents think that they’re supporting the child, but the real message that kid is getting is ‘You don’t think I can do it myself.’ ”

It can be difficult for parents to know how much to involve themselves in their children’s homework. While parental involvement is usually helpful, too much involvement can be harmful.

As a parent and teacher, Smith has learned when to step in and when to pull back. She’s also a bit more limited in how involved she can be in her own child’s work since her 8-year-old son, Oscar Bergeson, is in Moorhead Schools’ Spanish Immersion Program and neither she nor her husband speak Spanish.

(Students in the program learn Spanish by learning all of their subjects, from reading through math, in Spanish instead of English from kindergarten through fifth grade.)

When parents are too heavily involved in their children’s homework, even to the point of doing it themselves, Smith says it steals the child’s feeling of accomplishment, pride in doing it themselves, and even their chance to fail.

“Failure is so important to success,” Smith said. “If you don’t fail and try again, what are you going to do when you’re in the real world and you really do fail?”

Teaching independence

Over-involvement doesn’t help as children age, either.

Smith once knew a woman who bought copies of her daughter’s college text books and took her notes for her. She’s also heard stories of parents calling an employer when their adult child didn’t get a job.

“What I say to those people is, ‘I hope you have a finished basement because your child will be living in it,’ ” Smith said. “You’re not teaching them to be independent.”

Sue Oatey, Concordia College’s vice president for Student Affairs, says if college students are struggling, instead of calling their professors, parents should talk to their children and ask them if they know their teachers’ office hours, how to use tutoring options, and what other resources might be available on campus to help them succeed.

“We’re not asking anyone to be wholly self-sufficient,” Oatey said. Instead, Oatey said, she explains to students the benefits of asking for assistance and using college resources.

Some of the reasons Oatey says parents might be more involved in their children’s college education now than in years past is that this may be one of the first generations that haven’t had a substantial increase in quality of life over their parent’s generation, and parents are trying to do everything they can to give their children an edge.

The Sept. 11 terrorist attacks were also a turning point in that people felt helpless and vulnerable and wanted to keep their children close, safe and protected, Oatey said.

>Another issue is that elementary through high school parents can access their children’s grades through online systems. But once they hit college, at many universities, it’s up to students whether or not their parents can access their grades, she said.

If parents do decide to talk to the professor of a college-aged child, Oatey says the student should be in the room and engaged in the conversation.

“Everybody focuses on the same goal, and that’s educating students to the best of our ability and to help students have the best skills and abilities they can have when they end that collegiate career,” she said.

Learning responsibility

Kids may need more hands-on help in their early elementary years. Parents will need to remind them to do their work and may need to help guide them through it. Around third or fourth grade, Smith says they should be taking more of that responsibility on themselves.

But even in elementary school, homework should be geared toward students’ levels, so it should be something they can do on their own, said Nancy Tisor, a counselor at Lincoln Elementary School in the Fargo School District.

“When they’re bringing things home, it really should be because they’ve practiced it enough in the classroom, they know it and they’re comfortable taking it home,” she said.

If children can’t do their assignments on their own, parents should talk to their children’s teacher about it, Tisor said.

Even as children learn to become more responsible for their assignments, parents should still be involved by providing them the space and supplies they need to do their work and by showing an interest in what they’re doing, she said.

“For our elementary students, what they need is a parent who is modeling the importance of education,” Tisor said. “By reading, by being excited by what they’ve done at school, asking about their day, getting engaged in your child’s education is huge.”

The most important thing parents can do is make sure children read, both Tisor and Smith said.

“Reading is such a foundational skill,” Smith said.

And if a child wants help, Smith says parents should offer it by asking questions to guide the child through their problem without taking over the assignment.

Kids need that solid foundation to build good study habits.

Just as too much parental involvement can be more harmful than helpful, a complete lack of involvement can also hurt students academically.

If kids are not taught to value education and they don’t learn the importance of completing assignments on time in elementary school, Smith says junior high and high school can be a real struggle.

Even if they ace their tests and in-class work, if they don’t turn in their homework, they could end up failing a class, she said.

At the same time, Smith says kids need a well-rounded life and homework should not be busy work.

“Homework is a wonderful thing because it does allow students to have a chance to practice, but if becomes a problem where a student is crying or there’s family strife because of it, then doing that work is not going to help the student at all,” she said.

“Parents have to be the guide.”

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