Parenting Tip for Online School: Helping with Assignments

Online school has altered the nature and degree of parental involvement in their children’s schoolwork. As children have had to take on more independence, many parents have struggled to know how much to involve themselves in their children’s daily educational tasks and activities. This series of blog posts presents recommendations to help guide your involvement in your child’s online education. The previous blog post (titled Parenting Tips for Online School: General Monitoring) addressed general monitoring of engagement in online instruction. This blog post delves further into parental involvement in individual tasks and assignments. 

Each day, children are expected to complete a plethora of tasks and assignments. This is the case in both online and in-person school; however, the online school environment necessitates more independence on the child’s part in tracking, completing, and submitting their assigned work. For many children, this can be overwhelming and, as a result, some children have fallen behind. It is often tempting for parents to become over-involved in managing their child’s workload to help and support them during this difficult time. However, it is essential to remember that the purpose of assigned work is for children to enhance their understanding and retention of newly-learned information. Furthermore, in doing their work independently, children learn skills such as organization, time management, and prioritization through experience. When their parents manage their workload for them, these learning opportunities are also lost. Parent overinvolvement can also send the message that children cannot do these things on their own, which is a sentiment that many children (especially anxious children) internalize. Therefore, it is most helpful for parents to limit their own involvement in their children’s schoolwork and, instead of doing their work for them, provide them with tools and structures to facilitate their independence and learning. 


Checking progress on tasks and assignments: 

If your child is doing well, you shouldn’t need to check their grades more than semi-regularly. 

If your child has struggled with online school, knowing how often to check their progress is a bit more complicated. Daily check-ins can help parents ensure that their children are not falling significantly behind, which can help prevent work from piling up. However, daily check-ins are not reasonable for most parents. In that case, you may consider selecting a day and time that you will consistently check your child’s grades (for example, Thursdays at 5 pm). When you check, you can provide your child with specific feedback regarding what you find. Be sure to praise your child if they’re caught up. If they’re not, you can have a talk with them about how to get caught up. Most children do not want their parents involved in their school work, so avoiding that “talk” with you could act as motivation enough.


Helping children get caught up when they have fallen behind:

Avoiding a “talking to” may not be motivation enough for some children to stay caught up. Some children may need additional support in the form of tools to get caught up. Although it can be tempting to do your child’s homework for them (especially when this seems like the path of least resistance), it is crucial to refrain from doing so. Instead, parents can help children prioritize their assignments from most important to least important, and help them set up a schedule (with breaks) to follow to make progress on their work. Parents can also help children determine who to ask for help and how to ask for help if needed.


Natural consequences:

Don’t be afraid to rely on natural consequences to motivate your child to complete their assigned tasks. Natural consequences are defined as the logical outcomes of our actions. The experience of such consequences teaches children what happens when they make certain decisions, such as completing their homework instead of playing video games (or vice versa). In in-person school, natural consequences may be more salient because the children receive more immediate and obvious feedback. For example, their teacher may express disappointment when they do not hand in their assignment along with the rest of the class. Although natural consequences may manifest differently online, your child should still experience the results of their actions and decisions. For example, children should see the impact of missing assignments on their grades, hear from teachers when they haven’t been turning things in, and struggle on quizzes/tests when they haven’t been properly rehearsing the material. If the situation is serious, your child may need to repeat a class or attend summer school. Understandably, it can be challenging for parents to witness their children receiving these consequences, especially when the alternative (e.g., doing your child’s homework for them) seems much less uncomfortable. However, an essential function of school is to prepare children to be independent, functioning adults. In the real world, natural consequences are very effective in leading us to do what needs to be done on a daily basis. Therefore, children need to experience natural consequences throughout their lives to prepare them for adulthood. Ultimately, these real-life lessons will foster their autonomy in determining their own outcomes. 


When natural consequences are not enough:

Most children are affected by natural consequences, such as poor grades and talks from teachers. A few low grades or one teacher meeting may be all it takes for these children to take ownership of their schoolwork for these children. However, some children do not seem motivated by poor grades or negative feedback from teachers. These children may require a bit more than natural consequences to keep them on track. In this case, we recommend using a structured system of positive reinforcement and punishment to motivate your child to complete their work. For example, you may decide that your child may only access their phone after school if their work is done for that day. If they earn access to their phone most days of the week, you may consider giving them an additional reward such as a special outing or meal on the weekend. For systems like these to be successful, they need to be consistent (i.e., you administer the same reward/punishment for each instance of the same behavior), and your child needs to be motivated by the consequences you’ve put in place (e.g., if a child doesn’t care whether they have access to their phone or not, removing their phone as a punishment will not be impactful). You may consider having a family meeting to develop a structured system with your child’s input. Then, when you abide by the system’s rules, you can reference the system you agreed upon and emphasize that you are only following through with what has already been discussed. This can take the guesswork out of making difficult decisions in the moment, and it can help children take responsibility for the consequences of their own choices. 


Office hours: 

Some children who are motivated by natural or imposed consequences may still struggle to complete their work. This could be because although they want to do their work and are willing to do their work, they may not have the skills/abilities to do their work. For these children, it is still important to provide structure to encourage as much independence as possible. Many parents have found success holding daily “office hours,” in which parents have been available to their children for a set amount of time each day to help with homework. For example, you may be available to your child to help with homework from 4-5 pm each day, but not before or after this time. This system is beneficial because it encourages children to prioritize and manage their time wisely to access the help that they need from you. It also helps parents draw the line between providing their children with the help they need and over-accommodating them. Another option is encouraging your child to attend tutorials regularly or to help them set up meetings with tutors or teachers. Learning how to advocate for the help that they need is a valuable skill that will serve your children well now and in the future. 


Reach out to your childrens’ teachers:

Finally, do not be afraid to consult with your children’s teachers regarding how your children are doing and what they may be able to do to help keep them on track. Teachers are indeed incredibly busy; however, many of them are more than willing to help when your child is struggling. Something as simple as a weekly check-in from a teacher may help motivate your child to stay on track. Starting that conversation with your child’s teacher is the best way to ensure that you’re able to work together to support your child’s learning.


By: Meghan McMackin, PhD, supervised by Misti Nicholson, PsyD

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