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Raise your hand if supporting your kids over four months of distance learning earlier this year showed you sides of them you’d never seen before. “One positive thing a lot of parents told me is they now know much more about their kids—their strengths and weaknesses, as well as their attention span and perseverance,” says Lisa Kaul, senior vice-president at Kumon Canada, an educational enrichment company with centres across the country. These insights are helpful, but even after playing teacher for a few months, parents still have a lot of questions about how to best support their kids’ at-home learning.
This school year could look different, depending on where you live and your personal decisions. But whether your child spends every day in class or is distance learning (part time or full time), they’ll inevitably have some work to do at home, be it traditional homework or projects assigned after Zoom school. Here are some answers to your biggest homework questions. Parents, take notes.
A: Homework guidelines vary across the country and between school boards. The Toronto District School Board, for one, recommends homework for elementary students after a day spent in class but doesn’t prescribe a set amount of time. Other boards are more specific. The Calgary Catholic School District, for example, recommends occasional five- to 10-minute blocks of homework for kids in kindergarten to grade three, and a maximum of 30 minutes per night for students in grades four to six. That said, the amount of homework assigned depends on the teacher more than the school board, says Kaul. And the amount of time it takes depends on your kid.
The types of assignments given also varies by grade level. In general, kids in kindergarten and grade one tend to get reading assignments (to do with their parents), and by grade four or five, it could be book reports or group presentations that require at-home internet research.
A: “In elementary school, parental support should be more about setting students up to do their work successfully rather than actually helping them do the work itself,” says Kaul. Put otherwise: Parents will need to organize their kid’s homework, at least to some degree, but doesn’t mean you have to sit with them the whole time or correct their work. In fact, Amal Boultif, a professor in the faculty of education at the University of Ottawa, says to leave the corrections to their teacher so they get a sense of how your kid is really doing. It means you need to make sure your kid is organized with their assignment, ensure they’ve read it clearly and know what to do. By around grade two, in most cases, you should be able to do this and then walk away for 10 or 15 minutes while they work, checking in from time to time to see if they’re still on track. If they have a question that you aren’t sure about it, simply say, “I don’t know. Let’s make sure you ask your teacher tomorrow.” If you try to figure it out or complete the question like you remember from your own schooling, it might create more confusion, since your method could be different than the teacher’s.
Learning responsibility and time management are as important as mastering geography and math. Start giving them the tools early on by empowering them to call some of the shots. Even a first grader can decide whether they work before or after dinner or which book they want to look at for reading time.
A: Little kids will definitely need support, encouragement and frequent reminders to get their work done. This is not a failing on their part. It’s really not until middle school that kids should be taking over their homework entirely, and you shouldn’t feel the need to ensure that each assignment is done (although a quick reminder doesn’t hurt). “The goal is to gradually release the responsibility of learning to our kids,” says Boultif.
If you are struggling to support your kid with their school work at home—due to a hectic work schedule, the demands of your other kids or for any other reason—your family might benefit from the help of a tutor (if that’s an option for you). “Tutoring isn’t just for helping kids who are falling behind,” says Kaul. Some parents hire a tutor to help tackle projects and prioritize assignments to give their kids extra support.
A: It depends on your child. For some, having a quiet, dedicated spot where they always go to work can help encourage good study habits. But other kids are as productive on the sofa or in the kitchen, and they may not feel comfortable being alone in their room, says Boultif. You don’t need to be rigid here. There’s nothing wrong with having your kid work at the kitchen counter while you make dinner so you can keep an eye on them while cooking and maybe watch younger siblings, too. The main thing is that they are relaxed and aren’t struggling to concentrate on the task at hand.
A: Some teachers don’t, and kids are usually pretty game to go along with it (unsurprisingly!). Truthfully, there’s scant research to prove homework is essential to a kid’s overall academic success. But as kids head into grades three and four, there could be a long-term benefit to helping them create a predictable homework routine, since the workload will increase dramatically in the higher grades, says Kaul, and it’s good to get kids used to the idea. “At Kumon, we advocate daily homework, or the idea of doing something daily, to establish the expectation and routine,” she says. So if assignments are really sporadic and you're concerned, you could consider implementing your own homework schedule.
A: If your kid can’t get it all done, prioritize reading. “Literacy is the essential skill,” says Boultif. “First kids read to understand, then they read to learn math, science and all other subjects, so it’s really the most important in the elementary grades,” she says. You can help them establish a strong foundation by always reading to them at bedtime, encouraging them to read to you, and also by asking them questions about the materials they’re reading, to gauge comprehension.
A: Consider your motivation. Are you thinking of scrapping it because of the demands of a hectic home life? Because you don’t personally think it’s worthwhile? Because your kid is struggling with the workload or the work itself? If your student is consistently complaining about the work, start by having a straight talk with your teacher. Maybe the difficulty level needs to be adjusted for your kid’s pace of learning or they simply can’t handle the load right now. Either way, you and the teacher can likely arrive at a compromise, like swapping math worksheets for increased reading time at home, for example.
A: When COVID-19 first arrived, many parents had to take stock of their child’s access to, and relationship with, technology. Clearly, to participate in a live video class from home, they need to be online with a computer or an iPad (along with an internet connection). In the younger grades, parents often have control over how much learning and homework happens online. Many assignments can be done with a pencil and paper, and you can often opt in, or out, of online math games or reading apps, which is helpful if you have two or three kids sharing a computer or tablet for school work.
A: Kids moaning and groaning about school work is a tale as old as time. How you react is the key. “This idea that homework is something that has to be endured is such a missed opportunity,” says Kaul. “Making it positive will help them later on—and us, as parents, when we don’t have to go to battle about homework every night."
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