Not All Ways of Helping Kids With Homework Are Helpful
Most of us, when confronted with kids in need of homework help, worry about whether we remember the material. But according to a new study, they might be better served by us worrying over how we go about helping kids with homework — not all types of assistance have the same positive impact.
Researchers at the University of Eastern Finland and the University of Jyväskylä found that the more opportunities for autonomous work a parent offered the child, the more persistently the child worked on an assignment.
However, when a parent provided assistance by concretely helping the child, the child became less motivated to complete the assignment. The link between type of assistance offered, and the child’s level of persistence remained even after children’s skill level was controlled for.
The study (which followed only mother-child pairs) revealed how easy it may be for families to get trapped in a positive or negative homework cycle. When kids displayed more persistence, mothers were more likely to encourage them to work autonomously — which led to more persistent behavior. Kids who received more homework intervention from their mothers became less persistent in finishing the assignment — which led mothers offer more and more help.
“One possible explanation is that when the mother gives her child an opportunity to do homework autonomously, the mother also sends out a message that she believes in the child’s skills and capabilities,” explained Jaana Viljaranta, an associate professor in the University of Eastern Finland’s School of Educational Sciences and Psychology. “This, in turn, makes the child believe in him- or herself, and in his or her skills and capabilities.”
Concrete homework help — especially if not requested by the child — may send out a message that the mother doesn’t believe in the child’s ability to do his or her homework, she added.
Viljaranta’s research may help explain previous findings on how some ways of helping kids with homework predict better academic performance than others. The positive or negative cycle described above can lead to strengthened skills, or not: When the mother offers the child an opportunity for autonomous working, the child will work persistently, which leads to better development of skills. If, however, the mother’s homework help involves plenty of direct intervention, the child will work less persistently, leading to poorer development of skills.
“It is important for parents to take the child’s needs into consideration when offering homework assistance,” Viljaranta said. “Of course, parents should offer concrete help when their child clearly needs it. However, concrete help is not something that should be made automatically available in every situation — only when needed.”
The takeaway for parents helping kids with homework is that in most cases, it may be best to offer guidance, then let kids figure out an answer or homework assignment for themselves, rather than sit and walk them through it. That is, of course, until schools figure out that homework is bad for families.