Wednesday, July 19, 2017

New Research Explores Pitfalls of Homework Help

One question we get a lot here at The Yellin Center is how parents and caregivers can help students grow as learners at home, during homework time, or with supplementary educational activities. We love giving parents and students strategies for building up skills at home, as long as these activities are fun and stress-free, especially during the summer. New research out of Tufts University, conducted by Dr. Melissa Orkin, Sidney May, and Dr. Maryanne Wolf, explores the ways in which parents’ helping behaviors during homework time contribute to how kids feel about their work. 

Homework time, especially for struggling readers and students with disabilities, can be a stressful time for kids and parents alike. Often, homework tasks are not differentiated to meet a student at her or his instructional level; this means that students are often sent home to do work independently that they are not yet able to do. This can lead to task avoidance (a tantrum or power struggle, for example) and negative attitudes towards learning or school. In these situations, parents naturally feel the impetus to sit with their child and help them through the task while building up their skills.

When students are given homework tasks that are too hard to complete independently, they may begin to feel incompetent at managing the academic demands. It would be natural to assume, therefore, that helping your child through the task would increase her or his feelings of competence. However, Orkin and her colleagues found that one common type of homework help, which they dubbed intrusive practices, can actually lead to feelings of helplessness. When students feel helpless in the face of academics, or that they will be unable to produce work at the level expected of them, they will often become very frustrated or have an emotional outburst during work time, seeking to avoid the task.

Intrusive homework help practices include things like checking children’s homework or correcting mistakes when reading. These types of behaviors can contribute to a product (or achievement) oriented learning environment rather than a process-oriented learning environment. Ideally, we want children to value the process of learning, not the output. Sometimes this means taking a step back during homework time and allowing mistakes to be made. Fostering a process-oriented environment also entails providing specific, effort-based praise rather than intrusive corrections during reading or writing that limit the student’s autonomy while working. It’s important for parents and teachers to endorse growth and effort rather than “prescribed standards of success.”

Taking a step back and letting your child make mistakes can be extremely difficult, but research continues to show that encouraging risk-taking while building academic skills is incredibly important for helping children develop a love of learning and a growth mindset. It may take some getting used to, but next time it’s homework time at your house, see what happens when you let mistakes happen while offering up a healthy serving of effort-based encouragement and praise.

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