Honey, I ate the kids’ homework

Many parents dread helping their children with their homework, but with the right approach, it can be a rewarding time, writes Ronan McGreevy


Homework can cause as much stress to parents as it does to their children. Some parents like the idea of helping their children with their homework. It gives them a sense of active participation in their child’s education. For others it can awaken feelings of their own intellectual inadequacy. Some simply don’t have the time or the inclination to pitch in.

Not everybody is sold on the idea of homework in the first place. In a somewhat surprise intervention, the Irish Primary Principals’ Network recently told the Oireachtas Committee on Education there was “little evidence to suggest that homework as we currently know it has any real benefit. Some serious concerns exist amongst principals and teachers about the impact of homework,” it stated.

Homework causes a lot of stress between parents and children and erodes the already brief amounts of “quality time” parents have with their children, it said. Parents also frequently report being unable to help their children with homework.

In conclusion, the network maintained there is no substitute for effective teaching, which “far outweighs any value of homework”.

The National Parents Council Primary (NPCP) takes a more benign view. Its members say homework is a way of creating a “partnership between the home, school and child”. They prefer to call it “learning in the home” rather than homework, given the pejorative connotations around the word.

Some of the council’s advice is common sense – most notably that children should do homework in a quiet place without distractions, and that a set time should be allocated for it. It recommends parents be near their children when they are doing homework, but adds the caveat: “Don’t take over”.

Parents should acknowledge “effort, honesty and enthusiasm” but, equally, they should allow children to make mistakes. “Children must be able to accept that making mistakes is part of the learning process and it is important that they can go back and try a different method or approach,” it says.

The council’s chief executive, Áine Lynch, says parents assisting children with homework can be one of the most critical things that they can do for their child. “It is the main time that parents can engage with their children’s learning. We know from all the research that parents engaging in children’s learning has one of the biggest impacts for children in education. It really is that critical,” she says.

“The way that homework is often constructed and developed, it can nearly force the issue to be quite a negative experience in the home. We are now characterising parental involvement in children’s learning in a very negative way which is not how it should be done. The child will do an awful lot better within their educational life if the parents are involved. We know from decades of research that parental involvement will have more of an impact for children and their learning than social class and level of parental education, which we traditionally thought had a bigger impact.”

The Irish National Teachers Organisation offers similar advice to parents as does the National Parents Council. It includes:

Encourage your child to keep books and copies clean and tidy.

If your child is working independently be available to help.

Show an interest in what is being done. Praise efforts at every opportunity.

When working with your child, if you feel yourself becoming impatient you should stop. Don’t bully or threaten, as this will only have a negative effect.

If your child is persistently having problems with homework contact the teacher and discuss the difficulties.

At secondary level, children are more inclined to motivate themselves, and homework is harder both for the children and for the parents. The majority of parents can help a child with their times tables, but few can assist in an honours maths project.

Sally Maguire, the new president of the Association of Secondary Teachers of Ireland, says homework causes unnecessary stress for parents. “The idea should be to encourage independence in terms of homework as much as possible while being aware of what their child is doing.”

“My biggest advice to parents is not to get stressed about it. Homework is just a reinforcement of what is done in class. If it is causing major stress, they should do something about it. It is very important that homework doesn’t take over completely. There shouldn’t be hours and hours spent on a maths problem, for instance.”

The prospect of State examinations, particularly the Leaving Cert, is a motivating factor for most secondary school pupils, who don’t need reminding of the stakes involved.

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