My son came home from his first day of kindergarten with an assignment: to create a poster about himself. When the neighborhood moms gathered at the playground that afternoon, talk turned to our kids' homework. We brainstormed all the different things that could go on these posters, until one mom, who had several older children, said, "You know, it's not your homework. It's theirs."
I was so used to helping my son navigate the world when he was a preschooler that I had to shift my thinking. "What many parents of children this age don't realize is that they should be much more involved in communicating with the teacher and far less involved with doing the actual homework," says Cathy Vatterott, Ph.D., professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of Rethinking Homework. "At this age you're trying to build homework as a positive habit and something that helps give your child a sense of mastery." Get off on the right foot with homework now that your little student is back in the classroom by following these tips.
Establishing a homework routine will set your child on a solid footing, explains James Walsh, Ph.D., associate professor and chair of school psychology at The Chicago School of Professional Psychology. Let her have a say in the when and where work gets done, but make sure it is quiet and television-free. Some kids like to do their homework at the kitchen table, while others prefer the living-room floor. Dr. Vatterott suggests letting your child decorate a "homework box" filled with supplies, like pencils, erasers, and crayons, which she can take with her wherever she decides to do it. Some kids want to complete their homework as soon as they get home, but she may need a snack and prefer to play outside first. Giving her ownership over this decision helps reinforce that homework is her responsibility. However, experts caution against waiting until right before bed because it's added stress for you both at a time when everyone should be winding down.
At this age, homework is a chance for kids to practice what they've already learned in school. After reading over the assignment together, ask your child to explain what he needs to do, suggests Lori Durocher, a kindergarten teacher in West Hartford, Connecticut. Give him direction only if he doesn't understand it. As he works, stay in the same room in case he has any questions about the instructions. "You should be nearby but not next to him," Durocher says. "This empowers him." If the task is too complicated for him to do alone, make sure you let the teacher know.Don't Fix Mistakes
The point of homework is for your child's teacher to see how well she has absorbed the lesson and how her skills are developing. But it's also helpful for parents to see progress. Look over your child's work before she turns it in, suggests Dr. Vatterott. "If you see a mistake, say something like, 'There's something wrong with number 5. See if you can figure it out.' " Work through the mistake with her, but do not correct it yourself. "Letting her work through her assignment will teach her persistence and help her build grit," says Dr. Vatterott. If you want to offer praise make sure you praise her work, not her. Try "You put a lot of effort into that," rather than "You're so smart."Handle Frustration
Despite your best efforts, homework may still be frustrating and inconvenient for kids (and you!). Short attention spans contribute to the angst. Ask your child's teacher how long he should spend on homework. Most schools say anywhere from ten minutes per week to ten minutes per day of homework is standard for this age group. If he's struggling to understand or finish the assignment within the period of time, let him take a break. "If homework continues to cause your child undue stress, ask to meet with the teacher," Dr. Walsh says. Working with your kid to create a positive homework environment now will better prepare both of you when assignments become more challenging in first grade -- and beyond.
Originally published in the September 2015 issue of Parents magazine.