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Harvard Commentaries
Harvard Commentaries
Reviewed by the Faculty of Harvard Medical School

A Parent's Life A Parent's Life

Helping Your Child With Homework

August 12, 2013

By Claire McCarthy

Boston Children's Hospital

Every September, there's excitement in the air. The start of the new school year means new teachers, new friends (and seeing old ones again), and new clothes and school supplies — backpacks, pencils and fresh notebooks waiting to be written in.

There's nothing that can put a damper on that excitement like the realization that along with all the fun stuff, September means that homework is back. Homework has a way of feeling like the bad part of school.

Of course, it isn't the bad part of school. It's actually one of the most important parts of school. Homework gives children a chance to

  • review and understand classroom lessons
  • learn more about a topic beyond what is covered in class
  • learn organization, responsibility, and self-discipline
  • learn how to do research
  • be creative in their writing and projects.

For parents, homework can be a window into their child's education — and one of the best ways for parents to support that education.

Here are four suggestions to make sure your child gets all the benefits homework offers.

  1. Let your child know that you think homework is important.

    As with everything, it's not what we say that kids pay attention to — every parent says that homework is important — it's what we do. So make sure your actions are saying the right thing.

    • Create a space for homework that is conducive to learning: well-lit, well-supplied, and with enough room to spread out.


    • Make homework time a priority. It shouldn't be less important than sports, music lessons, or play dates — if something has to be missed, it should never be homework.
  2. Work with your child's temperament.

    Each child is unique and will approach homework in a slightly differently way.

    • Does your child get distracted by things around him or is he more likely to find his own distractions when not supervised? The answer will help you decide if he should do his homework by himself in his room or at the kitchen table with you nearby.


    • What are your child's energy rhythms? If she's bouncing off walls and ready to play right after school, delaying homework until she's had time to burn off extra energy may make sense. If, on the other hand, she's tired and cranky by dinnertime, getting homework out of the way right after school is a better idea.


    • What is your child's attention span? Experts say that roughly 10 minutes per grade is the amount of homework children should have, at least through sixth grade. If your third grader has trouble sitting and working for 30 minutes (which can be totally understandable on a sunny day when being outside would be more fun), consider having her do half of the assignment, take a play break, and then finish.
  3. Work with the teacher.

    Good communication and a respectful, collaborative relationship with the school are crucial.

    • Understand the teacher's, and the school's homework policies. Read everything that comes home in the backpack, go to any parent meetings or open houses, and ask lots of questions so that all of you are on the same page.


    • Keep in regular contact with the teacher about your child's overall progress and work habits. This doesn't mean talking to him or her at every school pickup. (Teachers understandably prefer a scheduled conversation, with some privacy for all involved.) Make sure you have a conference sometime in the fall or early winter. A scheduled chat one or two other times during the year would be a good idea. If your child is struggling, see if you can arrange regular conversations.


    • Let the teacher know if your child had trouble with a particular assignment — or if she's breezing through everything in five minutes — by sending a note to school.


    • Don't complain about the teacher or assignment in front of your child. If you have a concern, talk to the teacher directly. If that's not productive, talk to the principal.


    • Volunteer in the classroom! Not only can this help the teacher, but it helps you understand your child's educational experience and gives the homework some context.
  4. Supervise and support — but don't do more than that.

    Your job is to be supportive. Your child's job is to do the homework.

    • Be available while your child is doing homework, in case he has questions, but don't hover. Your child needs to learn to do things himself.


    • If he does have questions, try to help him answer them himself rather than supplying the answer — otherwise, he's not going to learn as much from the assignment!


    • If your child has a larger project due, such as a written report or a diorama, help him think about what he will need to do it and what his timeline should be. Check in with him frequently as to his progress.


    • Resist the urge to take over on assignments, such as dioramas. We've all seen those projects that were clearly done by parents. Nobody is fooled. Not only does your child learn less, but he comes away with the message that you think he can't do it himself.


    • Look over the homework when he is finished to make sure it's complete.


    • Watch for signs of frustration. If you see them, suggest a break. If you are seeing them often, talk to the teacher.


    • Be positive! Praise your child when he does a good job on his homework. It's another way of showing how you value his effort — and his education.

With the right perspective, the right attitude and good communication, homework doesn't have to be the bad part of school. In fact, it can be one of the best parts — and another way to show your child just how much you love him.

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Claire McCarthy, M.D. is an assistant professor in pediatrics at Harvard Medical School, an attending physician at Children's Hospital of Boston, and medical director of the Martha Eliot Health Center, a neighborhood health service of Children's Hospital. She is a senior medical editor for Harvard Health Publications.

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