Dianne Coffey, homework consultant and owner/operator of Kidspiration Creative Learning, is a firm believer in the value of homework.
"Homework is an essential aspect of education. It reinforces key concepts and increases understanding."
Recognizing its importance is the first step in helping children successfully complete their assigned homework. The second step is creating a good environment for getting things done. As Coffey explains, "In my experience we've only seen the benefits of consistent homework routines both on the child academically and on the family unit as a whole."
Margaret, a stay-at-home mom of three (10- and nine-year-old girls, five-year-old boy) who feels that her children have benefited from the consistency of a routine, boils down her method with her older kids to a single sentence.
"They come home from school, I check their homework, then sit them down at the kitchen table." If she finds that they are distracting or crowding each other, she sends one upstairs to work but keeps an eye on both, not hovering, but staying close enough to lend a hand.
Her son does his homework at a different time, to ensure that everyone gets the attention they need, and to minimize distractions: "I can't do three at once. Three gets too confusing."
The part she participates in most is helping them to plan their work, looking at the week's schedule and deciding what should be done first. "We look at what they should do now, what is most important," she says. "If something is not due for two days, they should do something that is due tomorrow."
By having a specific routine, planning their work and protecting their homework time, her kids can keep ahead of their school work. As she says, "No distractions, because if they are going leave it to the last minute to do it, it will be hard."
Coffey learned an approach like Margaret's from her own mother.
"I grew up doing homework at the kitchen table with five brothers and sisters. We had a 'tutor and homework consultant' ... we called her Mom. We knew homework was important ... she told us," Coffey says.
She followed her mother's approach with her own daughters (now adults) before applying it in her business.
"Naturally, I brought much of what I learned around the kitchen table into the homework process for my daughters," she says. "I wanted an environment that was comfortable, where they could explore and build their individual learning strategies. It was more than learning to read and write - it was developing a good work ethic and self-confidence."
Margaret helps her kids strengthen their skills by striking a balance between assisting them and encouraging them to learn on their own. If they are struggling with a particular concept, she will help them brainstorm or make suggestions, but she leaves the final step for them to sort out.
"I'll try to refresh their memory ... tell them that the teacher wouldn't give you something you hadn't done in school," she says. "I'll try to show them another way around it but they've got to work it out for themselves."
With changes in teaching methods, parents can sometimes find themselves trying to help with work that has been taught in a completely different way than they themselves learned it. And that can be very frustrating, but Margaret reminds parents not to get discouraged,
"You are learning as the kids are learning," she says, advising parents to be creative, and, if necessary, ask for help. "Some things you just have to pull out of the hat or you have to dig in and call another parent and ask them how to do it."
This will set a good example for kids, as they see parents learning, trying new methods, seeking help and remaining positive.
According to Coffey, it is important for kids to learn to be positive, and for them to remember where they excel while they are learning how to master the subjects or topics they find difficult.
"Having positive expectations is half the battle. We all have our strengths as well as areas we need to work on; I encourage children to focus on their strengths but also to challenge their perceived weaknesses."
Coffey suggests that parents help kids understand making mistakes and then learning to work them out is part of the process of learning. And learning from mistakes helps children to reach their potential and gain confidence.
"Smart people study, smart people practise and smart people make mistakes, and that's what I tell the students in my program all the time," she says. "Mistakes are challenges and check points we can use to guide our academic (and life) paths in a successful direction."
While homework is an important part of academic success, once parents have created a good environment and offered their support, completing the work is the child's responsibility.
Margaret reminds parents that they have already finished school, so they shouldn't get too caught up in their child's work.
"Help as much as possible, but not to the point that you are stressed out. You have already been through this."
Homework advice from Dianne Coffey, homework consultant and owner/operator of Kidspiration Creative Learning:
Building good study habits takes time. Be patient.
Pick a time for homework that works for your child and your family.
If your child is frustrated with homework or a particular subject, address it with them: is there too much homework, do you need to ask for additional help, talk to the teacher.
Try to keep things relaxed - for instance, some children like to chat while they work.
Encourage your child to read and read and read. Start young - reading does not have to be a "chore" for children. It's an ideal way to engage your child in conversation, explore their imagination, their views, fears and goals. If your children are "too old" to be read to, then read books they've read and use it to stay "in touch" with them.
If you and your child are overwhelmed by the amount of homework, meet with the teacher to discuss your concerns. Remember, it's about finding a stress-free environment for your child to learn in.