Your son would like the training wheels on his bike to be removed. He’s been riding with them on for a while now and it seems to be time for him to take the next step. <Gulp> Luckily, you have a wrench and a few tricks to help him learn how to ride by himself.

First, you simply raise one of the training wheels so that it doesn’t keep his bike upright when he stops. This gives him a little bit of the feeling of “freedom.” Second, you remove both wheels and let him coast downhill so that he can practice his balance. Third, you take him to a flat, open space and hold on to the back of his neck (the real trick that I learned from an OT friend) while he works up some speed and some courage. Finally, you let him go.

Learning to ride a bike is one of the easiest examples of building scaffolding for your kids. At first, you help them a lot and then slowly, you help them less and less (as you break down the scaffolding). Since it would be impossible to run behind that bike forever while making sure that your child doesn’t fall, it’s an easy way to practice eventually letting go. After we’ve given all the aid we can, it’s time for us to do just that.

In other areas of life, it doesn’t seem to be as simple. Identifying the ways to step back and let go become more hazy. When should we scale back on the help that we’re giving? Sometimes our kids seem unable to take that next step on their own. How can we build an effective scaffold that doesn’t become permanent?

the (cool) guide to homework help

Let’s begin with homework. While the debate for and against homework heats up, most of us are still stuck with the daily reality of notebooks, assignments, projects and test prep. Sigh. So how do we help our kids cope with these responsibilities while not becoming wholly responsible for them ourselves?

For the first few days/weeks of operation “Homework Help,” try to get a real sense of what your child needs help with. For some kids it’s going to be writing a response to what they’ve read. For some it will be memorizing math facts. For others the problem will lie in focusing for long enough to get their work done. Once you have a sense of what they actually need help with, try to help them only with this! If your kid is capable of remembering to write their name on their work- don’t remind them to do it!! If your child can read the directions by themselves- don’t read them for them!! If they know how to spell a word (or could at least give it a try)- don’t jump in with the ‘correct’ spelling!!

If you have identified spelling as a subject that they could use some help in, tell them to give you a holler when it’s time for spelling. You needn’t look over their shoulder as they do work that they’re capable of. Let them handle the things they can handle and help out with the things they need help on. But don’t immediately let them convince you that they need help with all of it. Throwing up their hands in frustration is not inconclusive proof that they are incapable of managing their homework on their own.

Now that we know that spelling is an area of need, it’s time to practice with them. While quizzing them or checking words, remember to consider not just teaching them spelling, but also how you’re also going to teach them to do this independently. Practice the words for a little while, then have them hide the words and quiz themselves. If you have to, invent a 5 minute “job” for yourself so that you can give them some time to practice on their own before your return. Talk about how well they focused while you were gone.

As they become more confident in their ability to do their work on their own, scale down the time YOU spend doing homework. If you like the idea of a set amount of time that you devote to homework, then set yourself a time limit. Let your child know that they have 20 minutes of your time. This means that if they run up against something they need help with they can set it aside until the Mom or Dad time begins. But it also means that they’re going to have to be a bit choosy about the questions they save for you. Because they know that you’re going to stick to your time! Dinner won’t make itself after all! (Not to mention adding another kid or two to the homework equation could equal an hour or more a night that parents spend doing homework)

This will also be a good way for parents to continue practicing ‘letting go’. If there are still unanswered problems or unpracticed words at the end of your 20 minutes, your child is going to have to be responsible for them. They’re going to have to either try their best or take the work to school incomplete (!), while we try not to panic.

Real scaffolding should not be taken down before the job is done. Nor should it stay up well beyond it’s usefulness. Feel free to take it down and put it up as you need to, but keep in mind that it was never meant to be permanent. Else we’ll be sitting next to our kids at college asking them if they remembered to bring a pen to class and telling them to put their name on their paper.