Could helping your child with homework actually hinder their learning?

Homework help that works
What are the right – and wrong – ways to help with homework? We take a look at how to offer the most effective sort of parental support.

Throughout our children’s primary school years, we all encounter homework that seems to be aimed at the parent rather than the pupil. From complicated maths methods that our kids swear they’ve never been taught to building scale models of the Leaning Tower of Pisa, we often need to step in and help.

Now, though, a new study from the University of Eastern Finland and the University of Jyväskylä has shown that giving children the ‘wrong’ sort of help with their homework could actually have a negative impact on their learning, rather than a positive one.

The researchers looked at two different types of homework support: help, where the parent gives concrete, hands-on assistance; and autonomy granting, where the parent gives their child more independence in tackling tasks.

The study showed that autonomy granting makes children more persistent and independent with their home learning, while help makes them less likely to persevere.

Help with homework: what works

According to associate professor Jaana Viljaranta, who worked on the project, autonomy granting is the most effective way of supporting children with homework. This is where parents allow their children to take charge of their homework independently, without too much supervision or interference.

‘This doesn’t mean that children are left alone to take care of tasks they can’t handle by themselves,’ Jaana explains.

‘Rather, it means that when the child has the ability to do their homework independently, mothers allow that to happen and don’t actively try to help or participate in other concrete ways.’

So why does this type of homework support work so well?

‘By allowing your child to take responsibility for their own schoolwork, you communicate your trust in their abilities,’ says Jaana. ‘They then feel more competent, and therefore put in more effort and persistence.’

Allowing your child to be autonomous with their homework helps them develop vital learning skills such as problem-solving, critical thinking and research skills, all of which will stand them in good stead in secondary school and beyond.

Being given the space and time to solve problems independently will also give them a greater sense of satisfaction and accomplishment, and build their self-esteem.

Help with homework: what doesn’t work

In contrast to giving children autonomy with their homework, giving concrete help – such as sitting next to your child and doing the task with them, telling them how to do it, or correcting their mistakes – was found to be less beneficial.

‘This kind of help is appropriate if your child needs help and asks for it,’ Jaana explains.

‘However, if they don’t ask for help, or they ask for it but don’t really need it, it can be somewhat intrusive, and give the message that they are unable to do their homework independently. This could then lead to diminished feelings of competence and, as a result, less persistence with their homework.’

This then leads to poorer skill development: for instance, if you do their history homework research for them, they won’t develop the ability to research topics for themselves.

It could also have a knock-on effect on their self-esteem, as they come to believe that they’re no good at studying, and therefore there’s no point trying: a vicious circle that can affect not just their learning, but also their sense of wellbeing.

What about dads' homework help?

Although the Finnish research looked at homework help given by mothers, it’s likely that the same advice would apply to dads. Indeed, research has shown there are long-term benefits for children whose fathers are involved with homework and reading.

‘My tip for dads is simply to be there for the child,’ Jaana says. ‘It's important for all parents to show that they are interested in their schooling and are there to help, but that they also trust in their ability to learn and take care of their school work.’

What if your child needs lots of help?

At times, all children will need help with their homework. They may not have grasped (or remembered) a concept that was explained in school, for example. They may need an extra pair of hands with an art or design project, or someone to test them on their spellings or times tables.

If your child constantly needs lots of help with their homework, however, it could be that they’re struggling with the level of work or amount of homework set. In this case, it’s worth having a chat with their teacher.

‘Parents and teachers may see a child's strengths, needs and working habits very differently, because they see them in different learning situations and environments,’ says Jaana.

For example, if your child is shy and quiet, they may not raise their hand in class if they’re finding a task difficult. Their teacher may then assume they understand, and set their homework accordingly.

‘It’s very important that parents and teachers can trust each other and work together to help each child to learn new skills, to work as part of the class, and to “learn to learn,”’ Jaana explains.

5 ways to help – not hinder – your child with homework

1. Agree on a homework plan. Will they do their homework straight after school, or later in the evening? Do they want to sit at the kitchen table or do it in their bedroom? Let them take charge of their learning.

2. Help them develop research skills. Don’t just give your child the answer to a question. Suggest ways that they can find it out for themselves, for example by using the internet (supervised!), reference books or a dictionary.

3. Keep your knowledge up to date. Find out about how spelling, writing and maths are taught in your child’s school: there will often be a meeting about teaching methods early in the school year. Teaching has changed since we were at school, and using ‘out of date’ methodology will just confuse your child.

4. Encourage them to check their own work. Rather than pointing out errors in spelling, punctuation or maths problems, support your child in spotting and correcting them by themselves.

5. Communicate with school. If your child is finding their homework too hard (or too easy), or if you think they have too much, make a note in their planner for their teacher to read. If homework is sent home with corrections, go through them with your child and support them in working out how to put them right.