What to do when you don’t understand your kid’s homework

It’s bound to happen eventually. Your kid comes home from school with an assignment requiring knowledge you have never been taught.

Sure, you took chemistry in high school, but this is not the chemistry you remember. If you remember it at all.

Don’t panic.

Just because you are not the intellectual authority doesn’t mean you can’t still help your child with their homework. With these six steps, you can help your child approach mastery of any subject and learn something yourself.

1. Remain Calm

Children, even young children, can pick up on emotions and will respond in kind. A panicked reaction from you will likely induce a panicked reaction from them.

This is especially unhelpful because of how our brains are wired. Our emotions color our thinking. Anxiety will interfere with your and your child’s ability to think clearly, making the homework that much harder.

If you need to, calm your brain with a few deep breaths. This sends extra oxygen to your brain, refreshing your mind and helping you return to focus.

2. Be Honest

It may feel embarrassing to admit to your child that you don’t know something. You’re supposed to be there to provide guidance, but in this instance, you can’t.

That’s okay.

Confessing your lack of expertise opens the door to different styles of learning and teaching. Admit your lack of knowledge in a calm, level manner to communicate that hope is not lost.  

Some ways to do this might be, “I didn’t learn this in school, but we can learn it together,” or, “It’s been so long since I’ve seen this, I don’t remember where to begin.”

3. Learn from Your Child

Just because your child is asking for homework help doesn’t mean they know nothing.

Ask your child to tell you what they know, so that you both can start from the same foundation. If your child has class notes, have them walk you through those.

Teaching is one of the best ways to solidify your knowledge, so having your child teach you strengthens their understanding of the material. To enhance this approach, make sure you ask questions along the way when you don’t understand something.

4. Identify Gaps

After assessing what knowledge you and your child have between you, now you need to assess what you don’t know. This may require the two of you to go through the homework and make an attempt at it. It may help to keep a list of problems you run into.

5. Research

If your child’s textbook isn’t helpful (or if they don’t have a textbook), there is information on the internet about nearly any topic your child will learn in school. Here are a few resources to get you started:

– Math Planet – Math Planet is directed at older students, with lessons ranging from Pre-Algebra through Geometry. The site has both text and video instruction.
– English Grammar Online – English Grammar Online has short lessons on individual rules of grammar, writing, and vocabulary. The site is directed at English language learners, so it is an especially useful resource if English isn’t your first language.
– Zinn Education Project – The Zinn Education Project is an outgrowth of Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States. Organized as a database, with lessons you can select by time period, topic, and type of resource.
– CrashCourse – CrashCourse is a video series with lessons on a diversity of subjects. Scroll over to their playlists to see subjects they cover or use the search feature in their navigation bar to find the subject you’re looking for.
– Annenberg Learner – Annenberg Learner has videos, interactives, and other resources for students and teachers alike. You can browse the site by grade or by topic, as well as search the site for your subject.
– Wikipedia – Wikipedia is an online encyclopedia editable by anyone in the world. This has the advantage of giving up-to-date information. The disadvantage is that, in some cases, the information can be inaccurate. Take note of warnings about bias provided by the page and check the edit history to see if there are still details under review. Be sure to follow the citations on the site, and like with all encyclopedias, don’t end your research there.
– Simple English Wikipedia – Simple Wikipedia is useful when the information on Wikipedia is too complicated or when English isn’t your first language. Simple Wikipedia uses easy-to-understand language to summarize a variety of topics.

The best way to approach internet research is to search by using words or phrases in your search that you don’t understand and the name of the subject your child is studying.

Although search engines are increasingly recognizing sentences, a keyword search will get you more precise results. A good keyword search could be the name of the subject followed by the lesson your child is studying followed by a word or phrase you don’t understand.

An added benefit of researching with your child is that you can steer them away from cheat sheet websites that can often mislead your child with inadequate explanation and, in some instances, incorrect information.

6. Apply What You’ve Learned

As you are able to answer questions based on your research, have your child come up with a way of explaining it. This is best done out loud first, so your child can organize their thoughts before writing them down.

When you don’t understand your child’s homework, you have to change your role from teacher to facilitator. You are on a journey with your child to help them organize their thoughts and find answers to their questions.
It’s important to remember that just because you can’t teach your child everything doesn’t mean you are a failure as a caregiver. This situation just opens up new approaches to learning.

In some instances, particular subjects may simply be beyond your level of comprehension without the same formal instruction your child is receiving in school. When this is the case, it may be a good idea to seek outside help.

JEI’s supplemental education programs in math and English can help your child to understand difficult topics you may not be able to help them with. JEI not only provides Common Core-aligned instruction, but it also teaches students how to manage their own study time with our Self-Learning Method.

To get started with JEI’s programs, find a center near you today!