Homework help: Taking a hands-off approach

Does helping your child with her homework pay off? New research might surprise you.

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When it comes to homework, Toronto mom Kristyn Gelfand has made the conscious decision not to help her kids, Azzurra, 11, Sonika, 10, and Basil, 7. It’s not an easy choice, especially when she sees her eldest struggling with grammar.

“I want the teacher to have a true understanding of where she’s at and a realistic idea of where she needs help,” says Gelfand, who believes this hands-off approach to homework help will benefit her kids more than her spotty recollection of grade school lessons.

We have long been led to believe that our serious involvement in kids’ education is one of the keys to their academic success. But new research suggests that all those hours correcting take-home assignments may not be working in our kids’ favour.

In January, professors at both the University of Texas in Austin and Duke University in North Carolina released results of the largest study to date looking at the effects of parental involvement on academic achievement. It examined almost 30 years of data and, surprisingly, found that regardless of education level, race or socioeconomic background, a parent’s direct involvement didn’t translate into better grades. In fact, once kids reached middle school, help actually brought scores down–likely because, despite their best intentions, moms and dads may have forgotten the material over time, or never understood it in the first place.

Watch: How much should I help my kids with their homework?

For Gelfand, stepping back when Azzurra struggled ultimately proved to be a wise decision. Her daughter’s teacher acknowledged that she’d done the right thing and stepped in to better support Azzurra.

Calgary mom Jana Tycholis has a similar story. She wants her 13-year-old daughter, Megan, and 11-year-old son, Rylan, to feel accountable for their own schooling so she pushes them to ask for extra support from their teachers if they’re struggling.

“I want my kids to understand that it’s their responsibility. It’s their education.”

It seems that it’s more important to be invested in your child’s success at school than actually putting in the work on that take-home quiz. Canada’s Council of Ministers of Education cites numerous studies over the past decade that have shown, regardless of socioeconomic factors, the higher a parent’s expectations of a child, the better he will do in class.

For grade-six teacher Emilia Merlo, this certainly rings true. She teaches at a Toronto school where many of her students’ families face significant social and economic challenges.

“If a student wants to please his mom or dad, he’s going to work hard,” says Merlo.

Christina Rinaldi, a child psychologist and professor of educational psychology at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, believes moms and dads can set their child up for academic success by understanding his workload and helping him to prioritize.

“If kids are getting home late from other activities or don’t have a calm place to work, it could be stressful,” says Rinaldi. “There’s a difference between the parent actually doing his child’s work and creating a setting that enables the kid to do the assignment himself.”

She also agrees with how Tycholis tackles homework . It’s important to keep an open line of communication with teachers, but your tween should be the one to ask for help, says Rinaldi, who’s seen the best outcomes when a child takes the lead on his education.

So if your strategy has been to guide your child’s homework habits from the sidelines without actually jumping in to edit and correct, relax. You’re acing it–and he may, too.

Help your child thrive in the classroom by following these pointers from People for Education, an organization in support of public education in Ontario.

• Have high expectations

• Ask specific questions about school

• Promote good work habits

• Read together for fun

A version of this article appeared in our December 2014 issue with the headline “Good grades,” p. 60

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