Building child-parent interactions into homework lowers stress, boosts learning

iStock_000007173732XSmallHomework is a source of stress and tension in many families. One study found that 29% of parents reported that homework was a “major source of stress” at home.

In a recent study in the Journal of Advanced Academics, researcher Frances Landis Van Voorhis says that teachers can reduce some of the tension and stress surrounding homework and also improve students’ attitudes toward homework by making an interaction between a child and parent or family member part of the student’s assignment.

She reports that homework interactions between an adult and child not only give family members guidance in how to help their children, but also increase student achievement based on state assessment results.

Under a program called Teachers Involve Parents in Schoolwork (TIPS) developed by the researcher, students were assigned homework that featured an adult-child interaction at least once a week. The interactions could involve an experiment, discussion, survey or interview.

For example, in a middle school science activity, the homework was for the student to examine a chart of physical, social, emotional and intellectual changes and record the changes he or she has observed in life. The student and family partner then discussed questions like “Which changes are you happy about, and which changes are you least happy about?”

For each activity, students and families were instructed on the point at which an interaction was to occur and the roles the student and family partner were to play. All TIPS activities include 4 components: 1. letter to family partner 2. a student-led interaction 3. home-to-school communication 4. parent/guardian signature.

Two-way communication was encouraged between home and school. Families were encouraged to share comments and observations with teachers about whether the child understood the homework, whether he or she enjoyed the activity and whether the parent gained information about the student’s classwork.

Participating in the study were 36 teachers (19 intervention, 17 controls) and 575 students in 4 elementary schools (K-5) and 5 middle schools (6-8). The teachers taught elementary mathematics, middle school language arts and middle school science. Some 57% of students in the study received free or reduced-price meals and 51% were male. The majority of students (52%) were African American, 42% were White and 6% were Hispanic. One-third of the sample of students were in TIPS for 2 years, one-third were in TIPS for one year and one-third were controls.

Depending on subject and grade level, TIPS students returned between 72% and 91% of TIPS activities and families signed between 55% and 83% of TIPS assignments. Students receiving free and reduced-price meals tended to turn in significantly fewer TIPS than those not receiving meals.

There were no differences in the amount of time students spent on homework but students using TIPS for 2 years earned significantly higher standardized test scores than controls, according to the study. About 68% of students in both TIPS and control groups reported 15-20 minutes of homework on the subjects, while 16-20% reported 30-40 minutes per night.

The TIPS intervention included a 1-week professional development program for teachers during the summer. TIPS teachers wrote a letter to the families of students during the summer program explaining the weekly TIPS assignment and the expectation for a family member to participate in the assignment with the student. Teachers of TIPS students gave one TIPS assignment weekly for a total of 30 TIPS activities each year.

Sustained use of TIPS was associated with gains in student standardized achievement, but not report card grades, the researcher reports. TIPS assignments related directly to the district’s curriculum standards, which were addressed in the high-stakes tests, the researcher writes.

Another reason for the improved performance of 2-year TIPS students on the state assessment is that during the summer professional development program, teachers thought about homework as a vehicle to strengthen their teaching practice and increase students’ discussion with their family around content standards.

Suggestions for teachers

The researcher had the following suggestions for teachers who want to incorporate interactions between child and family members in homework assignments:

Identify the interactive components of the assignment first. Teachers should think carefully about how the skill or objective of the assignment may be highlighted in an interaction before writing the actual assignment.

Don’t expect the family partner to teach school skills. The family partner serves as an assistant, not a teacher. All parents, regardless of formal education, should be able to participate.

Clearly identify student and family roles. The directions of the assignment should be clear to students. It should be easy for them to tell at what point they need to ask for family involvement.

Link skills and objectives to the real world. Both students and parents report enjoying the process of making such links.

Don’t lose sight of the objective of the assignment. Because interactive assignments should take about 15-30 minutes, it’s important for students to zero in on the assignment’s objective.

Pretest and edit the assignment. Teachers should do a run-through to make sure it’s doable. Think of the average student and parent and consider if the questions are absolutely clear and the student and family roles clear.

Vary the types of interactions. Not all activities should ask students to interview a family member. Different interactions include games or demonstrations or collecting reactions or ideas.

“Costs and Benefits of Family Involvement in Homework,” by Frances Landis Van Voorhis, Journal of Advanced Academics, Winter 2011, Volume 22, Number 2, pps. 220-249.

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