Education

How much homework help is too much?

South Florida kids are back in school, and when they return home they won't be empty-handed. On most days, they'll be bringing homework with them.

And while teachers and educators encourage parents to help with homework, they also know there's such a thing as too much help.

"If you're doing the homework, the child is not learning," said Sunrise Middle School Principal Sandra Shipman. "You're setting the child up with a false sense of security. It's not helping."

The signs of over-helping are plentiful, educators in Broward and Palm Beach counties said. It can creep in when a parent checks a child's work. (Don't fix a mistake. Instead, circle it and direct the child to work out the correct answer.)

It can involve typing a report the child has handwritten (fixing spelling and punctuation errors along the way). Better to get students used to typing on their own.

Or it can involve researching and providing that information to the student.

"My son really feels that sense of accomplishment when he's done the work for himself, when he's done the research and put it all together," Shipman said.

The potential for over-helping starts early and is related to students' development, said Paul Gress, parent involvement specialist for the Broward school district. Younger children need more directed help, with the parent there to offer hands-on guidance. As the child gets older, the parent needs to back away.

"For older kids [middle and high school], the goal is independence," Gress said. "Parents really need to step in only when their child is confused and isn't able to find the information on their own."

When parents "over-help," students are underprepared. And parents may not learn that until grades or test scores come back, said Wendy Fish, director of the Sylvan Learning Center in Boca Raton.

"That grade is a sign that the kids are not learning at home," she said. "Another one is when the teacher asks the child about the homework and the child is unable to answer. Most teachers recognize what's happening there."

For other students, panic sets in when the homework becomes too advanced for their parents to handle, Fish said.

Parents "come in and say they've worked on the child's homework assignments, math assignments, science projects, and if they could take the FCAT or the SAT for their kids, they'd probably do that too," Fish said. "They'll say, well, my son or daughter has been spoiled. I'm afraid of what's going to happen when he or she goes off to college."

Michael Korman, 56, who lives in Lake County near Orlando, admits being more helpful than he should be for his older son, who is entering high school this year. The temptation was greatest when it came to book reports or science projects.

"Sometimes I'd do it because I thought it would get done faster," said Korman, who knew his own English skills were too sophisticated to look like the work of a teenage boy. "I don't want to write it for him; I don't want it to sound too polished."

In those cases, he said, Korman handled much of the typing, getting the overall ideas and words from his son but effectively having the final say in what was turned in.

Kim Hauslinger, who takes her son, Ryan, 16, to the Sylvan Center in Boca Raton, said parents who do their children's work aren't doing them any favors, and other parents know an over-involved parent's work when they see it.

"When your son turns in his project and you know he's tried really hard but he's not going to get that best grade, and you look and see the project that did get the best grade … you just know an 8-year-old didn't do that," she said

Haulsinger, 43, said she couldn't "over-help" if she wanted to. Her own academic education stopped after high school, and her son is dabbling in advanced algebra and trigonometry courses.

Good study habits for the child are essential to success, said Fish and other educators. Students need their own space and time to accomplish their work with few distractions. They need to be organized. And they need to understand the difference between figuring out the answers on their own and having the answers handed to them.

If parents are enthusiastic about helping their children learn, there's a better solution than elbowing in on homework duties, Gress said. "There is no limit to the amount of time a parent can spend reading to or with a child, no matter what the age."

Rafael Olmeda can be reached at rolmeda@SunSentinel.com or 954-572-2083.

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