Engaging in children’s learning can be difficult for a parent, maybe because they struggled with maths at school themselves. It’s worth persevering. Getting parents and caregivers involved can be productive for everyone and an educationally attentive home setting has a positive impact on achievement.
Does homework have a negative impact?
In their report ‘The Impact of Parental Involvement’, Parental Support and Family Education on Pupil Achievements and Adjustment: A Literature Review’ (2003) Desforges and Abouchaar note, what parents do with their children at home is much more significant than any other factor open to educational influence. Parental participation is the cornerstone of success and when parents interact with schools and with their children to promote maths then positive things will happen. This is true of any caregiver, or other important adult in a child’s life.
Commonly, maths homework set by the school is one way this is done but this has become emotive and contentious. Maths homework can accelerate progress while giant strides can be made but it can also be fraught with difficulty and can interfere with achievement leading to some backward steps for the child.
The maths report ‘Improving Mathematics in Key Stage 2&3’ recommends that teachers should engage parents to encourage their children to value and develop confidence in maths. However, it also asks us to exercise some caution too especially “when engaging parents directly in pupils’ mathematics learning, for example by helping with homework, as interventions designed to do this have often not been linked to increased attainment”.
A key issue with setting maths homework is that some parents and caregivers naturally want to help but this help can lead to interference and decrease autonomy. There will also be issues regarding how they ‘do maths’ compared to how a school presents the material leading to a conflict in methods. This can be confusing for children and lead to heated differences. Helping parents navigate the maths curriculum is surely one of the most difficult tasks teachers face.
Getting homework right
In their meta-analytic assessment of the strategies that promote achievement in 2009, Hill and Tyson found that “Involvement pertaining to homework assistance and supervising or checking homework was the only type of involvement that was not consistently related with achievement.” But, they offer a note of caution as the finding concludes ‘on the whole’ there will be times when parents’ direct involvement in homework is necessary in order to rescue a failing student.
John Hattie, Professor of Education and Director of the Melbourne Education Research Institute at the University of Melbourne, Australia, found in his research that homework in primary school has an effect of around zero. There is obviously a temptation to get rid of homework altogether but Hattie argues that it is about getting it right rather than doing away with it that is key. So, the best thing we can do is give homework reinforcing something children have already learned. He says that 5-10 minutes of homework has the same effect as 1-2 hours and the worst homework we can give is ‘projects’.
Improving parental involvement
Clearly the type of homework we give and the type of involvement parents have in the process matters. Hill and Tyson also found that volunteering at school, and attending school events has moderate impact on improving parental involvement but, the most striking involvement related to achievement provided children with useful strategies they can employ for “semi-autonomous decision-making”.
Parental involvement is positively related to maths achievement when it is low-key, informal and incidental. Parents can still focus on achievement but the stakes don’t have to be high and their involvement can be more relaxed, collaborative and contextualised within natural events.
‘Social’, casual and spontaneous maths can allow for academic socialisation too by promoting opportunities for children to engage in logical and analytical thinking, problem-solving, planning, and decision making.
It’s important for parents to make maths fun, intellectually stimulating and an experience without stress. This provides children with security and a good maths self-concept.
Every day hands-on and playful activities that contain maths are ideal for talking mathematically and for promoting daily mathematical reasoning.
Involving parents and caregivers is a multidimensional challenge with a number of different barriers. No one can pretend it’s easy as maths is just one part of the curriculum jigsaw.
Sensitivity to the wide-ranging circumstances of all families is paramount but proactive collaboration and the engagement of all parents and caregivers should be worked for.
It is vital that we keep parents informed and encourage a two-way dialogue. We need to be aware that parents will have had very different maths experiences and this will influence their confidence and possibly their child’s confidence.
Communicating information is important and some strategies include:
- holding workshops
- having parents in the classroom
- meet and greet discussions with teachers
- creating displays and exhibitions
- holding open days
- plan chunks of information to be provided over the school year in a variety of formats
- writing to parents
- giving advice about books, games and activities
- giving advice around the Dos and Don’ts of maths (e.g. value mistake-making, avoid saying “I’m useless at maths” etc)
- running family maths programmes
- using what parents do at home
For hard-to-reach parents, social media can work wonders as it breaks down barriers and keeps them in the loop. Photos and videos of the maths done in class can easily be shared and help parents feel part of things.
Involving parents is not an optional extra as the stakes are too high. Those children whose parents take an active interest in their maths are more likely to succeed and less likely to develop negative attitudes towards maths. Much of their enjoyment and development will depend on the experience children have at home.