This approach is something every parent can do.
I’ll never forget the day my mom stopped helping me with my homework. It’s a lesson that has stayed with me my whole life.
My mother was one of the most natural teachers I’ve ever met. Never the kind of person to just give you the answer, homework time in our house usually went kind of like this.
“Mom? How do you spell ______.”
The response was always, “How do you think you spell it?”
And then we would roll our eyes and try and sound out the word, knowing that if we got too hopelessly confused mom would prompt us.
For years she helped me with my homework. At least, that’s what I thought was happening. I’d sit down at the dining room table with my schoolbooks, usually while she was making dinner in the nearby kitchen, and call out questions to her when I couldn’t figure out how to do the work.
From the nearby kitchen she would respond. “Well, what did your teacher say?” “Did you look in your text book?” “Try looking at it again.” More often than not, this would be enough to help me figure out the answer and continue on.
When I would get so frustrated with something I didn’t understand, to the point of tears, mom would say something like, “I’m almost finished here. You keep looking at it and see if you can figure out how to do it. I’ll make some tea.” (My Irish mom always had a cup of tea in her hand.) “If you still need help when I’m finished I’ll come sit down with you and see if I can help.”
This was encouragement enough to have another go at whatever was defeating me, and often I did figure out the answer before mom had her tea ready and came to sit down with me. (If you’re paying attention you may have already noticed, as I did much later in life, that this was a deliberate delay on her part. It kept me from quitting, and encouraged me to keep trying on my own.) She would arrive at the table, mug of tea in hand, and say, “Good job. I knew you could do it.”
My mother still didn’t have a high school diploma.
If I was still struggling when she finally arrived to help she began by saying, “Explain this to me. What don’t you understand?”
She would have me explain the lesson to her. Or she’d ask a question that had me going back to my textbook to find the answer. Mom never fed me information. She always made me find it myself. She was the pointing finger, reminding me that it was there to be found, if only I would calm down and look for it.
Almost always, with mom’s guiding questions pointing me in the right direction, I would figure out how to answer the questions and finish my homework. As a child I didn’t understand any of this. I just knew that homework was easier when my mom helped me with it.
I was a straight-A student, most of the time. I was the kid who begged to start kindergarten a year early. I was top academic in my class in 3rd, and 4th grade. My parents were my biggest cheerleaders, congratulating me on every report card, every piano recital. They were the present kind of parents that children need to succeed.
Fast forward to high school. I was taking advanced classes (IB). I was no longer top of my class. But, I was still keeping my average well above 80%, even though I was doing challenging course work. And I was still asking my mom to help me with my homework, at least weekly. (She was the best editor. I always asked her to read my essays before I handed them in. Her input always made them better.)
I struggled most with math. Humanities were easy for me, but trigonometry, pre-calculus, they weren’t my favorite. I was getting As, but I had to work for them a lot more than in other subjects. So, I would sit down with my homework and ask my mom to help me when I got frustrated and couldn’t solve my equations correctly. She’d bring her tea, sit down beside me, ask me to explain what I was working on, and go over it with me, line by line, until I found the mistake.
The day my mom resigned as my homework assistant I was already in 12th grade. I’d asked her to come help me with something super complicated in my math 12 homework. I don’t remember what.
She sat down with her tea, glanced over the notebooks and textbooks that I had strewn all over the table, and said, “Carrien, its time I told you something.”
“It’s been about 3 years since I’ve been able to understand your math homework.”
At that point in time, my mother still didn’t have a high school diploma. She’d been so frustrated with her final year of math that she had dropped the class, and that incomplete on her transcript kept her from graduating.
I knew that. But I hadn’t really thought about it.
Mom proceeded to show me that all this time, when I thought she was helping me do my homework, what she had been doing instead was pointing me at the resources I already had in front of me, and prodding me to think. She had been turning me into an independent learner, and I had been oblivious to it.
“You are in your last year of high school,” she said. “Next year you’ll probably go to university. It’s about time you realized that you’ve been doing it yourself all this time. You don’t actually need my help. You just have to remember to slow down and look at the information and keep trying until you figure it out.”
After I went to university my mom went back to community college, completed her diploma, and went on to become a teacher’s assistant, working in classrooms with special needs children. To no one’s surprise, she was really good at it.
But before that, before she had any formal training as an educator, my mom had turned me into a life long learner, capable of learning almost anything with the right resources.
I tell this story fairly often. One of the things I do in my current line of work for The Charis Project
is to write curriculum for community education classes. The goal of these classes is to equip uneducated, often illiterate, parents to help their children succeed in life. We teach lots of things, from hygiene and disease prevention to how to support a toddler’s cognitive development. I work to take the things I know, and make them as simple as possible, to equip these families with what we would consider the barest essentials in order to help them thrive.
They worry about what they will say when their child asks them a question they don’t know the answer to. So how do you tell a parent who can barely sound out words in their native language how to support and encourage their child’s education and help them succeed?
I tell them this story. I tell them how I grew up relatively poor, for my culture. I didn’t have a lot of the advantages my peers had that cost money, like tutors and extracurricular activities. I tell them how I passed my mother in knowledge, but because she had always pointed me at the information I had and asked questions that prompted me to learn, not only did I not know that she didn’t have the answer, I also became far better at learning than I could have if she had just told me what I wanted to know.
I like watching the expressions on their faces as they realized how clever this is, and that this is something they CAN do for their own children.
You can do this for your children too. This coming school year is weird for everyone. It doesn’t matter if your children will be back in a classroom, or doing online learning, a combination, or if you have just decided to opt out and home school this year, this will work for you. You have what it takes to equip your children to be learners, and to do well in school, even if you don’t understand what they are learning. I know. I’ve used my mom’s techniques for the past 18 years of homeschooling my 6 children.
The 7 Essential Components
So let’s breakdown what my mom did, and why it worked. Because this is something any parent can do.
Mom, and dad, were nearby. Never underestimate the power of a parent who is present. We know that one of the biggest factors of a child’s success, in school, and in life, is an adult who is invested in them, is there for them, shows interest in them, and who encourages them.
2. What do you already know?
She asked us to consider what we already knew. “What do you think?” Or, “If you already know that 5 x 5 = 25, can you figure out from that what 5 x 6 = ?”
3. Look at the available resources
She directed us to the resources available. “What does your book say? What did your teacher say?” Today I would say, “How can you find out? Where could you look? Who could you ask?”
In both 2 and 3, what she didn’t do was jump in to help us right away.
4. Express confidence in your child’s ability to work independently.
She expressed confidence in our ability to do it ourselves. “Have you tried this? Well, see if it works.” She didn’t rescue us from the struggle, leaving space and time for us to find the right answer on our own.
5. Allow the learning process.
Without the work of finding answers on our own our brains don’t get the opportunity to grow stronger. Without the struggle, there is no gain. Finding our own answers without help built into us the confidence in our own ability. Mom respected the learning process. She let us grapple with the questions long enough to find the answers on our own.
I’m sure part of this was because mom really didn’t want to cope with helping me do 3rd grade math homework without a cup of tea nearby. I definitely find it easier to sit next to my early readers as they sound out letters if I have a cup of coffee in my hand. I also tell them things like, “I have to go help your brother for a second, try and finish as much as you can before I get back!” I set the tone of my voice to make it a super exciting game to see how many things they can do on their own.
Part of respecting the process of learning is allowing failure to happen. It’s part of the struggle. You have to let a person try, and then fail, and try again. Let your 8 year old try to get the math answer right in his own way. Maybe he’ll succeed. If not, he will have tested his theory and be ready to try a new one. He will also have a much more sound understanding of how it works than if you just show him how to do it and didn’t let him try it his own way.
6. Define the problem
Mom had us define the problem, and explain what we didn’t understand, which helped us clarify what we needed to find out.
Then she pointed us back at the resources again, this time with much better questions to ask of them.
7. Celebrate success, but also celebrate effort.
Mom cheered us on when we succeeded, which is really important. And she gave her time and energy to support us as we learned. Both my parents did.
Even more important than celebrating success is praising effort. “I see you working hard on that. It’s tough, but you haven’t quit yet. Great work. You’re getting stronger.” Those aren’t words I specifically heard as a child. But those are words I use now.”
By always resourcing me, pointing me in the direction of the information available, and encouraging me to keep going even if it was hard, my mom taught me how to learn, and gave me the confidence to do it. Natural aptitude was a factor, but mom’s presence, calm questions, and constant reminders that I could solve the problem myself were a huge factor in my development as a person. They laid a foundation for the way I approach learning that has served me my whole life.
Resourcing your children is easier now than it ever has been before.
We live in the information age. When I was a kid, if I wanted to learn something, I had to go to the library and sign out books on the subject. If my children have a question they can type it into a search engine and find hundreds of articles on the subject and even more videos. They don’t even need to be able to read yet to figure out what they want to know, most of the time. If they are able to type the word into the search bar at the top of the Youtube site, which they can find by looking up the icon in frequent searches, they will find videos that explain everything to them, from how electric circuits work, to the best way to grow rice.
Mom’s lesson to me was, “You already have everything you need to do this. You just have to believe that you can.”
You already have everything you need to help your children learn this year, and to equip them to be learners for the rest of their life. Perhaps the one thing lacking is the confidence that you can do it. So I’m here to tell you that if my mom could do it, without a high school diploma, if the functionally illiterate migrant parents that I teach can do it, you can definitely handle the challenges that this school year is bringing you. You’ve got this.
all content © Carrien Blue