Helping a child of any age with homework, especially after a long day at work, can be daunting. Writer Kemba J. Dunham uncovers the best ways to get the task done with less stress and more success—whether you're a parent, mentor, volunteer or tutor.
When my daughter, Khaya, entered kindergarten at a Brooklyn charter school two years ago, I knew her homework would be considerable. Her school, like many others, strongly believes that nightly reinforcement of the day's lesson helps to ensure each child's educational success. But teachers promised no less than 40 minutes of work per night. During registration week, the school went so far as to have Khaya, my husband and me sign a "homework contract," pledging our commitment to Khaya's completing every assignment. As I blithely scribbled my name, I thought, This is only elementary school. How hard could all this be?
Fast-forward to the present. I can now say that homework represents the most trying part of my day. I get home after 7:00 P.M. each night, feeling spent after a long workday and a one-hour commute to Brooklyn from Manhattan. By then, I have little energy—and let's face it, desire—to work with Khaya, now in second grade, and my son, Nile, who is in kindergarten. Even if their exercises consist of simple addition and coloring, getting them to write a basic sentence can take an eternity when the kids are tired and hungry. At low points, I've relied on a glass of moscato for reinforcement or just finished the homework myself by forging their handwriting. While I'm not proud of these actions, at the time I felt completely at a loss.
I know I'm not alone. For many parents, particularly those who are employed, helping their child with homework can feel like a trying second job. With parents working long hours and kids participating in after-school activities, the window to get homework done is shrinking, causing stress to families who are facing a time crunch. It's particularly tough for parents impacted by the economic slowdown, who might be working multiple jobs to pay bills. And while one hurdle is finding the energy to attend to homework, the other is ensuring that your child actually completes the assignment correctly—and in a timely fashion. "Students seem to be getting more homework, and the work that they're getting is more advanced," says Otha Thornton, president-elect of the National Parent Teacher Association, the largest volunteer child advocacy association in the U.S. "It's harder to keep up with everything."
But today's parents don't need to feel beaten down by the prospect of homework. They can employ numerous strategies to avoid teary brawls with their children and meet the challenge head-on. Here, a few parent-tested and -approved ideas:
Take a Breather
For Jatosha Sanders, a single mother of three from Charlotte, North Carolina, it's all about the approach. Although she's often fatigued after her long day as a call center associate, she has discovered a way to rejuvenate before she dives in to assist son D.J., 16, and daughter Jamani, 10, with their assignments. "When I get home, my kids know that they're not allowed to talk to me for 15 to 20 minutes, because I need to have a little time for myself," says Sanders, whose daughter Janique, 19, also lives at home. "My job is emotionally draining—I'm talking to customers all day and helping them with problems. When I get home, I don't want to talk right away. I walk in, hug the kids and do things like take off my work clothes and check e-mail until I can calm myself down. After I've had a little break, I can go into homework mode feeling less edgy than I did when I walked in the door."
Establish a Routine
Tamara Thomas Smith, a middle school principal, and her husband, Jerome, a psychologist, find that blocking out a nightly working hour for the entire household helps focus their children. "Every night from 6:30 P.M. until 7:30 P.M., our whole house shuts down, and everybody is doing the same thing at the same time," says Smith, who lives with her family in Wynnewood, Pennsylvania. Jerome, Jr., and Taylor, the Smiths' 16-year-old twins, along with their 8-year-old daughter, Jai, focus on their schoolwork during the designated hour, while Tamara checks lesson plans, types observations from teachers and calls parents. Jerome, Sr., works on patient reports. Even 9-month-old Tyler has been trained to take a nap during this time. "It's important that my youngest child knows the older kids are working, and it's important for the older children to see my husband and me working," says Smith. "It keeps everybody on track."
Jerome, Jr., and Taylor, who attend a private school, typically need more than an hour to finish their homework and are often up late into the night studying for a test or writing a paper. But Smith has found that her designated working hour is an effective push. "Sometimes it's difficult for kids to get started on homework, so that hour definitely gets them going and they feed off the momentum and finish the work," she says.
Another trick Smith uses is to make sure that pens, crayons, calculators and reference tools are accessible even before the start of the 6:30 P.M. session. "Nothing irritates me more than 'I can't find this' or 'I can't find that,' " she says. "It's a stalling tactic. I make sure that we have all of these tools on hand so that there are no excuses."
Divide and Conquer
Some parents with multiple kids split the responsibility. Leslie Luck, an attorney in Atlanta, and her husband, Phillip, an educator, have two children: Jasmine, 13, and Jordan, 11. When they get home at 6:30 P.M., Phillip handles Jordan's assignments while Leslie takes care of Jasmine. They developed this approach because both kids have a lot of homework and projects, and there is limited time in the evenings.
Because he needs a bit more hand-holding, says Luck, Jordan works with Phillip, who she feels is probably better equipped to keep their son on track since he works in education. "I would suggest partnering the kid with the parent who is best suited to his or her learning style or where it makes the most sense because of someone's after-school schedule," adds Luck.
She says this strategy has made their evenings easier because she and her husband have each cut their homework and project time in half. "I feel like my brain has to hold less information about what is due, what needs to be done for school and what I need to buy for X project," Luck says. "I also find that I enjoy it more because I can focus on Jasmine's stuff without thinking I have only one hour for her because I need to help Jordan for an hour as well."
Work in Shifts
Single parents may not have the luxury of sharing the homework detail with a partner. Lisa Betts cites homework sessions with her 7-year-old twin sons, Justin and Jordan, as the most stressful part of her day. After all, by the time she and her sons reach their Brooklyn home and get settled, it's nearly 8:00 P.M.—with at least two hours of homework ahead.
Betts used to sit down between her sons and work with them simultaneously. But this joint effort was not successful. "I thought I was handling it well, but it was actually Jordan who pointed out that they were getting distracted even though I was sitting right there between them," says Betts, who works in financial services. "He was telling me that they needed my undivided attention." Now Betts works with them in shifts, particularly since there is a small window to complete their evening ritual. When she's working with one son, the other will eat dinner, read, play on the computer or watch TV. And then they switch. "Doing it this way has helped out tremendously," says Betts. "The boys like the individual attention, and it gives them the one-on-one time they really want and need."
Fit it in
The reality for many families these days is that children have after-school activities, which further shortens the time available for homework. Yolanda Williams, a registered nurse in Raleigh, North Carolina, says that her three children, Seve, Selvyn and Sierra, who range in age from 8 to 14, often have sports or church commitments after school. But she expects them to leverage their commuting time to do work. "I make sure they keep supplies in their book bags, so if they're waiting for the bus or on the road to practice, they know to get started," says Williams. "We have such busy schedules that we have to fit the work in whenever we can."
Dinnertime presents another opportunity to fit in homework. Yolanda, her husband, Dexter, and the kids will discuss assignments as they are eating their meal. "We all can participate and help one another," she says.
Parents often put unnecessary pressure on themselves to make sure their children's homework is perfect. In turn, the child is often handing in work that isn't entirely their own. And if the homework requires a skill set that exceeds that of the child, parents should question the value of the assignment. "Homework that cannot be done without help is not good homework," says Cathy Vatterott, a professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of Rethinking Homework (ASCD).
Ronnie Tyler says she has altered her approach. The Atlanta mother of four, who runs the Black and Married With Kids blog with her husband, Lamar, admits she used to throw herself into her children's assignments. "I found myself working hard on their projects until I realized that the volcano in the science project doesn't have to spew real lava," she says. Now Ronnie says she is much more relaxed: "I think homework is important, but I'm not so stringent as far as everything having to go 'just so.' When my 5-year-old has to write a sentence, I'm not going to spend a lot of time on it and have her write a word like 'computer,' which she doesn't know how to spell on her own. We need to let our kids do their own homework."
Connect with the Teacher
If busy parents continue to feel overwhelmed, they should reach out to the teacher, experts recommend. Until recently, Rhonda Williams, a senior project manager and writer in Farmingdale, New Jersey, was commuting to a job in New York while taking evening classes in pursuit of a graduate degree in legal studies. Her mother often watched 13-year-old Alioune and 10-year-old twins, Mohamet and Ibrahima, as Williams rarely arrived home before 8:00 P.M.
Although she wasn't as physically present as she wanted to be, Williams tried to e-mail her children's teachers several times a week for details about assignments and projects. "My way to stay ahead was to communicate more with their teachers," says Williams. "I needed to prepare for what was coming and not wait until the last minute to do things. The teachers knew about my hectic work and school situation and were always receptive to my calls and e-mails. They knew when I had gotten home too late to help with homework and when my children needed to bring in an assignment at a later date."
Lisa Betts also found that communicating with her son's teacher about his workload led to a marked reduction in his homework. "Jordan's teacher had been complaining that he seemed tired during the day, so I had to tell her that he was staying up until nine and ten each night finishing homework," says Betts. "It didn't occur to her that children with working parents weren't going straight home at 3:00 P.M. and doing homework. She had been oblivious."
Here are other strategies to help you master the challenge:
1. FIND A TUTOR
Hiring a high school or college student to tutor your child can be an effective and often inexpensive way to help your child.
2. TAP YOUR OLDER CHILD
If your child has an older sibling, he or she could probably offer assistance, having learned that subject more recently than you did. And the familiarity between the siblings might make the learning process go smoothly.
3. ASK THE TEACHER FOR ASSISTANCE
When you feel unable to help in a particular subject, ask your child's teacher to suggest books, Web sites or guides to help you understand the assignment enough to relay the information.
4. GO ONLINE
These days, numerous sites offer instructions on how to solve a problem or provide answers to questions.
5. ENCOURAGE PARTNERSHIP WITH PEERS
Here's where the power of peer influence could work to your advantage. If your child is older, suggest that he or she partner with friends at school to discuss and work through assignments that may be challenging.