Big Steps Homework

Teach Consistency

Barring schedule-busters like after-school activities, your child should try to do her homework at the same time every day. "Without a routine, it's too easy to put off," says Jeanne Shay Schumm, PhD, author of How to Help Your Child with Homework. In figuring out the optimal time, consider the family schedule and your child's temperament. Most kids need a chance to decompress after school, and many work more efficiently following physical activity. In fact, research shows that exercise can actually increase a child's concentration.

Once you've nailed the time, create a dedicated study space. Having a consistent spot helps kids switch into study mode. But forget about the conventional wisdom of a desk in your child's room. In early elementary school, it's better to set things up in a central location so you're around to help if needed. Make room on the kitchen or dining room table for him to stretch out with books and papers. And keep supplies at the ready; otherwise, you're inviting procrastination -- the number of minutes spent searching for a pencil can easily turn into hours!

Best Practices for Homework

Dial Down Distractions

One way to provide a quiet environment is by making study time a family affair. If possible, have older siblings do their work at the same time, while you sit nearby with "homework" of your own such as bill-paying, reading, catching up on e-mail, or folding laundry. If you seem engaged by whatever you're doing, your kid will likely catch the vibe. Making a rule that the TV/video games stay off until everyone in the family is finished will keep your child focused and on task.

Aim for Independence

Grade-school kids will usually require at least some assistance. But before you decide how much help to offer, check with your child's teacher. Most prefer that kids work mainly on their own so that homework can be used as a gauge of progress. That means restraining yourself from correcting your child's spelling or figuring out the math problem for him.

On the other hand, reading his work over and challenging him to find the three misspelled words you discovered is a good way to get him into the habit of checking over his stuff.

It's also never too early to teach the value of research: Demonstrate how to find answers in reference books like dictionaries, online, and in atlases. Or look for real-world solutions. The more you foster the idea of homework as a time for independent exploration, the more kids are going to enjoy learning.

Discourage Perfectionism

Striving to get things right is admirable, but make sure your child knows that it is impossible to be perfect. If she's driving herself crazy with self-criticism, go over each assignment and agree on how long she should spend -- say 10 minutes -- and help her stick to that schedule. If necessary, arrange a conference with the teacher, who can explain to your child that homework is practice, not perfection. "Kids will often listen to a message from a teacher that they won't hear if it's from a parent," says Dr. Schumm.

Investigate Any Resistance

If, despite your best efforts, your child stubbornly refuses to do his homework, you need to get to the bottom of things. "It might seem like an attitude problem, but his reluctance may be a sign that he's having difficulty with the material," says Jed Baker, PhD, author of No More Meltdowns. Talk to his teacher about how he's doing in class; if he's struggling there too, he may need extra help in general. If he's simply homework-averse, try breaking up the assignment into smaller tasks and challenging him to get through at least one. "Once he reaches his initial goal, momentum might just carry him through to the end," says Dr. Baker.

Don't forget that all kids will be pleased to hear some heartfelt props for getting their work done. Your recognition of their effort -- even if it doesn't result in an "A" -- is the greatest incentive of all and a powerful way to communicate the importance of trying their best.

Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Parents magazine.

A little confession from me. I was homeschooled (that's not the confession part), and in 8th grade my algebra textbook had the answers to half the problems in the back. And when I was stumped, I would cheat.

Sorry, mom!

Of course, cheating at math is a terrible way to learn, because the whole point isn't to know the answer to 2x + 2 = 7x - 5, it's to understand the methodology that can solve any like problem.

But what if you could cheat at your homework and learn? That seems to be the premise behind app called Socratic. Or at least that's my takeaway. The app lets you take a picture of a problem (you can also type it in, but that's a little laborious), and it'll not only give you an answer, but the steps necessary to to arrive at that answer — and even detailed explanations of the steps and concepts if you need them.

The app is actually designed to answer any kind of school question — science, history, etc. — but the math thing is the slickest part. For other kinds of questions, Socratic kind of does a bit of Googling, and in my experience can typically find similar word problems on the wide internet, or from its own database of answers. On about half the middle school science problems I tried, the app was able to identify the topic at question and show me additional resources about the concepts involved, but for others it was no more powerful than a simple web search.

But for algebra this thing is sick. I pointed it at 2x + 2 = 7x - 5, which I wrote down at random, and it gave me a 10 step process that results in x = 7/5. It has trouble with word problems, but if you can write down a word problem in math notation it shouldn't be an issue. I also tried it on a weird fraction from an AP algebra exam, which it kind of failed at, but then I swiped over and it was showing me this graph, which included the correct answer:

I love this app, not just because it would've helped 8th grade Paul out of a jam, but because it's such a computery use of computers. You use the tiny computer in your pocket to be basically smarter than you already are. It's technology that augments a human brain, not just a distraction.

The creator of Socratic just open sourced its step-by-step solver, called mathsteps. There are a lot of computer-based algebra solvers out there, but for Socratic they had to do some extra engineering to get at the steps a human would need to solve the same problem.

Also, I'd be remiss not to mention Photomath, which has been doing this since 2014, and actually has step-by-step explanations in the recently released Photomath+ paid version (there's a free trial). I like the Socratic interface and explanations a bit better, but I'm glad to see this is a vibrant market.


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