Care and Feeding

Wait, Am I Really Supposed to Help My Teen With Their Schoolwork?

A parent hovers behind a high schooler doing his homework.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Getty Images Plus.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My husband and I have a 14-year-old daughter who started high school this month. We’ve always had a hands-off approach to her education. We expect her to do the work, but we allow her to set her own priorities, and we don’t even look over her homework unless she asks us for help. (We always help her if we’re asked, but we also encourage her to ask questions of her teachers, or work with her classmates, because we’ve found that they’re often better resources than mom and dad.) We wanted her to take ownership of her schoolwork and felt that stepping back and letting her take care of it was what worked for her.

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I will admit that during middle school there were late nights when my daughter realized that she budgeted her time poorly, and times she had to improvise projects because we weren’t able to get the materials she wanted because of short notice. But these kinds of incidents taught her to budget her time better or to make sure she let us know when she was going to need special materials. In the end, though, she graduated middle school with straight As, with good study habits, and without any fights about homework.

She just started in a rigorous magnet high school and it seems like every other parent at the school is more involved in their child’s schooling than we are. These parents read everything that’s turned in, and double-check all the math problems, and spend a lot more time and effort on their kids’ school work than my husband and I ever have. And the school’s administration seems to encourage this, saying they want parents to be partners in their children’s education by making sure that homework is being done and assignments turned in.

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(For what it’s worth, my daughter is not interested in more supervision. She is happy with the status quo and says she’s already proven we can trust her, so we don’t need to start monitoring her homework now.)

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On the one hand I agree with my daughter, but on the other hand it seems like our family is such an outlier compared to every other family in my daughter’s program. And we are new to this high school thing so I have no idea if we’re setting her up to continue to succeed or if we’re setting her up to fail. So what works these days: How much parental involvement is necessary for student success?

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—Outlier

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Dear Outlier,

I’m not going to talk to you. You’re perfect and your kid is perfect. Hyper-supervision never led to success. You’ve let her struggle and grapple and figure things out on her own and now she sounds like she’s emotionally equipped for college not high school. Instead, I want to talk to those other parents you mentioned:

Dear Other Parents,

Take a step back! Let your kids struggle and grapple and figure things out on their own. Reading everything they write? Checking all their math homework? Who does that help? Remember, this is their education. They are the learner. If you don’t let them take ownership of their own work, then they won’t learn from their failures. Failures are the best teachers. And maybe worse? They won’t take pride in their successes.

This is coming from a parent of 5 who loves his kids as much as any parent. I help them with their homework… to a point! I’m also a teacher who has seen too many near-adults who care less about their education than their parents do, because their parents never let them experience the consequences of their own choices, for better or worse. As a teacher, I insist as much as I can that every parent-teacher conference be a parent-teacher-student conference. I speak also from the perspective of a former “gifted” (“magnet”, “enrichment”, whatever) kid who has lots of good grades and cool projects he can look back on, none of which his parents ever helped him with. I also remember a couple of bad choices and missteps that serve as the real guideposts of my youth, the moments I really learned something. I’m so glad I have both.

Please, parents, get out of the way and let your children grow. There will be painful moments, but that’s life. They won’t overshadow the wonders that your kid will perform and the pride that they’ll bring you.

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Sorry, about that Outlier, I saw a soapbox and stood on it. In all seriousness, it sounds like you’re doing a great job and have a wonderful kid. Keep on keepin’ on.

—Mr. Vona (high school teacher, Florida)

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I have four children in grades K-4. Is it better to have them do homework right after school or give them time to decompress? I think about myself and how I need a break right when I get home from work. But it also seems hard to motivate after allowing them time to decompress. What is your recommendation?

—Now or Later?

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Dear Now or Later,

My recommendation is simple: Ask your children what they prefer.

I have two kids. One of them absolutely needs to decompress after school before launching into any homework. The other wants to complete his homework immediately so he doesn’t have anything looming over him for the rest of the day.

One of the primary purposes of homework in elementary school is to teach children to develop the work ethic, routines, and accountability needed for when homework becomes a more important part of the learning process. Part of this process is for kids to figure out how, where, and when they work best and what kind of studying is most effective for them.

Let your children choose for themselves. Give them a chance to experiment, practice, and change their minds. Now is the time for them to learn these important lessons before the homework becomes a far more important part of their learning day.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

We recently started the process of adopting our daughter, who’s 11. Her IEP states she should have access to full day mild mental disability (MMD) classes or mainstream with supports (she also has an IEP for emotional and behavioral disorder (EBD)). Both of the middle schools in our district in Indiana only offer half-day MMD classes, and she’ll be mainstreamed the remainder of the day with no guaranteed supports. Instead the school has tried pushing us to only send her to school half days.

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On a practical note, my spouse and I both work full time so we can’t only have her in school half days. But more than that, her education has been incredibly disrupted from prior placements, and she needs to be in school. The half day would only give her access to math and English, no science, social studies, or elective classes. It also prevents her from being able to attend extracurricular activities because they have to remain in the school building until the event.

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She’s in full days right now but they’ve slotted her into classes where she’s going to struggle, including ending the day in a large general ed English class (despite her being in special ed English in the mornings already, and despite most of her struggles around reading and writing).

I’m not sure what to do here or how to best advocate for her needs. I’m also wondering if this is even legal.

—At Sea

Dear At Sea,

How frustrating! I’m sorry you’re going through this. I cannot speak to the legality of your situation–you’ll have to consult a lawyer or a special education advocate to determine whether the district is meeting their obligation to educate your daughter. However, I wonder if the reason they are denying her additional support in the afternoon is because they cannot.

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You have probably heard that there is a nationwide teacher shortage, and special education has been especially hard hit. It is equally difficult to hire support staff like paraprofessionals or teaching assistants who provide services to students with special needs. It’s very possible your daughter’s school is not fully staffed.

So how do you proceed? The first thing I would do is meet with her case manager to discover what her options are. Ask them to be honest with you about why the school isn’t providing more supports. If it’s impossible for the school to offer additional services, look into changing her afternoon schedule. For example, you seem confident the English class is not a good fit. Perhaps there is another, more suitable core class or elective she could take during that time.

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I know that some parents in your situation have their children attend programs through private service providers for part of the day, many of which provide transportation from the school. Of course, that would come at additional cost to you. I realize that isn’t ideal, but it might be worth exploring if you have the funds.

I know this is a lot to navigate, particularly when you feel like the school isn’t on your side. It may be time to consult a lawyer or advocate who can help you.

Best of luck.

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

Our almost 10-year-old daughter reads well ahead of her grade level and reads frequently. These are good things!

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Here’s the issue, and it might seem low stakes, but since she wrapped up reading the Harry Potter books last year, unless assigned at school, she has exclusively read graphic novels that she brings home from the school library. Not bad ones either—think Persepolis.

I grew up reading graphic novels and comic books, as part of a mix of reading other things. I truly do not have a bias against this particular narrative form, in fact I think there are certain stories that could never work in any other form, like Maus.

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That said, if there’s one complaint I have about the graphic form, it’s that it has a complete lack of descriptive language.

At this particular point in my daughter’s academic development, post-pandemic, with the constant distraction from devices, and after a summer spent barely reading at all, I’m concerned about backsliding in her reading ability. Especially if she’s not reading stories that require her to learn new words and use her imagination to create a picture in her head.

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We’ve asked her to get chapter books from the library every now and then. I’ve even bought her some fun and easy things to read—Narnia, Ray Bradbury short stories, etc. But she’s fighting her mother and me tooth and nail about reading anything more challenging. Well beyond a reasonable amount of pushback. I just don’t know what to make of it.

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I’ve probed about what her issue is around books without pictures, just to get a read on what might be going on. She’s says they’re “boring.” Which, okay. But she simply has to read more challenging material, and it seems like she’s determined not to do so.

Any advice? Am I making too much of this?

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—Reading is Fundamental, Even Comics

Dear Reading is Fundamental, Even Comics,

Yes, you’re probably making too much of this. Your daughter has discovered graphic novels, and at this point in her life, has apparently fallen in love with them. The same has probably happened to many of her friends and classmates (as it did for my own children not that long ago). The most important thing is that she reads well, loves to read, and continues to read.

In fact, consider yourself blessed. There are hordes of parents in the world who would give anything to have their child love reading like your daughter does, regardless of the particulars of the book in their children’s hands.

This is likely a phase in her journey as a reader, not dissimilar to one that many children experience. You probably experienced similar phases as a young reader. She is most assuredly reading different types of books in school, and as she moves forward in her academic career, she will undoubtedly be reading an enormous amount of nonfiction and challenging literature assigned by her teachers.

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She has a lifetime of reading ahead of her. Eventually, graphic novels will become a thing of the past or a smaller percentage of the books she’s reading. Let her enjoy these books now so that she continues to enjoy reading and love books, and trust her teachers to stick those more challenging books in her hands for now.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

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