Staying positive when helping a child with homework stimulates motivation

March 14, 2005

CHAMPAIGN, Ill. -- Your child has a homework assignment, doesn't understand it and is acting helpless. So what's a parent to do? Help, but stay loving and make the process fun, say researchers at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Reducing the negative from this commonly occurring, stress-filled evening ritual can pay off, says Eva M. Pomerantz, a professor of psychology. In the March issue of Developmental Psychology, Pomerantz and colleagues reported that a mother's positive approach during homework-help sessions has benefits for children.

Although helping children with homework was often frustrating for mothers, their staying positive appeared to promote persistence in the children. There was a carryover as well: Over time, the children in the study were more motivated in school. They valued the learning process and saw it as enjoyable, Pomerantz said. The children also experienced emotional benefits when their mothers kept the interactions around homework positive.

"Homework is often frustrating for both children and parents," Pomerantz said. "It is important for parents to let children know that they are there to support them. Being able to put frustration aside and focus on what is enjoyable about the work is key to promoting children's motivation in school. When the work itself is not enjoyable -- for example, there is a lot of boring repetition -- parents might focus on the positives of working together."

Pomerantz and psychology doctoral students Qian Wang and Florrie Fei-Yin Ng studied 109 mothers, who ranged in age from 24 to 53, and their 8- to 12-year-old children. The participants were mostly European American (83 percent); 28 percent of the mothers had advanced college degrees; 29 percent had completed college; and 42 percent had high school diplomas.

Participants were interviewed briefly each day, and the children's motivational and emotional functioning was assessed at six-month intervals. The study covered 677 instances of homework.

Mothers reported on several measures: whether they helped with homework or just checked it for mistakes; their level of annoyance such as frustration or anger; the level of fun, love and affection that occurred in their interactions with their children; and their perceptions of their children's helplessness (frustration and desire to give up) and persistence (working hard when things got difficult).

Children completed questionnaires about their motivation. They also indicated how important it was to learn a lot; how much they liked difficult work in math, science, social studies and language arts; and how much they did their homework for intrinsic reasons (they enjoyed it), rather than extrinsic reasons (to please their parents). They also reported on their emotional functioning, such as happiness, satisfaction with life and self-esteem.

The researchers found that mothers' negative affect (frustration or anger) in their interactions with their children increased on days the kids had homework and was even further intensified on days when they provided heightened assistance to the children. However, the researchers reported, that when mothers maintained positive interactions with children, they offset the negative affect that occurs on days children had homework.

Pomerantz and colleagues suggest it will be important for future research to examine how mothers manage their negative and positive affect in their interactions with children around homework. "What we need to know," Pomerantz said, "is how it is that parents balance their frustration with more positive feelings."

The study sample did not include fathers, and most of the mothers were European-American. Additional research is needed, Pomerantz said, to understand the influence of father-child interactions around homework, and if the same results occur in other cultural groups, especially in those where children may not be achieving at their potential.
The Office of Research on Women's Health and the National Institute of Mental Health, both part of the National Institutes of Health, funded the research.

Editor's note: Researcher Eva Pomerantz can be reached at: email:; or phone: (217) 244-2538.

University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

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