Jill Houk's 10-year-old son is bright. So why is homework a constant battle? "He often claims he can't do it," says the 41-year-old chef from Chicago. "For the most part, I have him tough it out. Sometimes I cave and give more help than I probably should. I'm constantly unsure if I've taken the right approach."
Houk is grappling with what Kenneth Koedinger, PhD, calls the assistance dilemma. "It's finding that sweet spot, the right level of help that will get them up to speed but not take the learning away," says Koedinger, director of the Pittsburgh Science of Learning Center at Carnegie Mellon University. The key, he says, is to be flexible and adaptable, jumping in when a child gets stuck and then backing off as soon as he's over the hump.
Kids learn best when they're given examples of how to solve problems, Koedinger says. Instead of doing the work, show your child how you'd do a similar task, step by step. After each step, have him explain to you why you did it. For example, in the infamous algebra problem where two trains are converging at different speeds, you might begin by drawing a diagram of the two trains. Ask your child, "What can this diagram show me?"
You can also offer alternative ways of approaching a task. If a child struggles with math equations, put them into a story format. "Let's say Brian worked four hours and earned $24; what would his hourly wage be?" This lets your child apply different parts of his brain. Research shows that we use the anterior prefrontal cortex to solve a story problem, and the posterior parietal cortex for equations -- but using either one can lead to a correct solution.
When it comes to learning, "no pain, no gain" is a misconception, Koedinger says. While a certain amount of struggling is normal, "pointless pain -- banging your head against the wall -- is a waste of time." If your child drags his feet on assignments, he has likely missed a key concept. Without enough basic knowledge, his homework won't be up to par and learning as a whole will be slower. You might have to review earlier lessons to find the sticking point.
Are you learning the material along with your child? Show him how to find the resources and examples he needs, whether in his class materials or on the Internet. "You're modeling how to be a good learner, rather than being a know-it-all. That can be an even broader lesson," Koedinger explains.
Houk finds that having her son do homework in the kitchen while she makes dinner keeps her from giving him too much help. She says, "I'm just distracted enough to make sure he's getting it done without taking over."
Tips for Homework Helpers
Take another route. Suggest alternate ways to tackle a task. If an algebraic formula seems inscrutable, use a diagram to understand the problem and clear up the mystery.
Set an example. Let your child watch you solve a problem, discussing why you did each step. "First, I'm going to choose X to represent the time when the trains will meet," you might explain. "Next, I'll call one train Y and the other Z. This gives me some of the basic elements of the equation."
Get real. Don't be afraid to say, "I don't know how to do this, either. Let's look for some help." This shows your child that it's OK to not know the answer and to make mistakes. More important, it shows him how to find resources on his own.