Does your family dread math homework time? Here are some common causes of homework stress, and some DOs and DON'Ts to help parents change the tone.

Stressor #1: Your child only wants help after she is already having trouble.  

Parents aren't being called in on the easy questions that a child feels good about. By the time you hear the words "I need some help," frustration is simmering. She has tried, nothing has worked, and she's worried that failure is lurking around the corner. 

DO empathize. 

When you see your child's frustration mounting, say things like "Sometimes being confused can be so frustrating." Then listen. Remember that your child is figuring out how to handle learning struggle, not just math concepts. Remember, distraction can also be a sign of stress. See my post on distraction vs stress.

DO remember that your child may have been struggling with this topic before.

We all take frustration out on our safest people. Is your child likely to yell at her teacher? No. But, I do believe that children bottle up frustration at school, and let it out once safely at home. 

DON'T tell your child she already knows it.

The following comments might seem supportive, but are all ways of telling your child that she shouldn't be having trouble. Well... she is having trouble! Avoid saying things like:

"I know you you know this!"   "You just did this yesterday."   "You normally get this just fine."

Instead, try saying

"I think you're getting close on this. I remember you nailed something like this yesterday, so maybe if we take a look back..."

DON'T take over.

Doing the problem for your child accidentally sends the message that you don't think she can do it. It also takes away her opportunity to learn. The less worried you seem about getting a solution right away, the more relaxed she will become. 


Stressor #2: Homework is out of context for parents, and strategies may be new.

We don't know the background of the assignment, the classroom work that lead to this topic, or any of the learning that is coming up next. Moreover, kids are often learning familiar topics new ways. Since you and your child both know that you don't know exactly how she learned something, it is hard for you to step in as teacher. 

DO view yourself as a sounding board, not a teacher.

Many learners benefit from thinking out loud. Rather than trying to solve your child's problem, ask questions and listen. Ask her to teach you about what she has learned lately.

DO ask prompting questions. 

When you do feel confident that you know what your child is supposed to do, offer the minimum amount of help to get her going again. 

Here are some prompting questions I use while working one-on-one with students.
"Can we draw a picture of this?"   "What are we supposed to find?"   "What else do we know about this problem?"   "Can we figure out this part right here?"  "What if we use easier numbers first? Does that help us see what to do?"

DON'T reject the new strategies.

While new isn't automatically better, it isn't automatically worse, either. You might think you are helping your child by criticizing the new way she is learning at school, but often the reverse is true. Try to withhold judgement, especially during conversations with your child. Admit you aren't familiar with the new way. Wonder out loud why they are learning this other way, if you'd like. Just remember that there may be a great educational reason behind the work! If you truly have concerns, set up a meeting with the teacher to learn more.


Stressor #3: You are both tired and just want to be done.

Your child wants to finish her homework. You want your child to finish her homework. That makes all of my other advice harder to follow, doesn't it? 

DO be the one to remember the long-game. 

As the grown-up, you are the one to remember that this is just one assignment, on one night. Getting this homework done is less important than your child's learning and mindset. So, try to slow down and view the experience as a chance to teach your child character lessons.

DO follow through.

Your child's teacher is trying to keep track of many children and their learning progress. It's a tough job! If you can tell that your child is struggling with a topic, follow up later and make sure she ultimately does understand, even if it means getting extra help. Math builds on itself, and weaknesses make it hard to progress with confidence.

DON'T take over.

I know. I already said that one. But, the reason we want to take over during math homework is the same reason we want to put on our toddler's shoes. We want to be done, and watching someone else learn can feel painfully slow. Sometimes, we want to show them how to do it and then ask "did that make sense?" Or, we do the hard part of a problem and leave them the easy part. Both are great for getting it done, but bad for learning.

Instead of taking over, ask prompting questions, make up a similar problem and walk through that, or offer a little help and then sit back and relax, or go make dinner. Pretend that you have all the time in the world.

Your family isn't alone. Many families find math homework time stressful. What are some other ways your family sets a positive tone?