Children learn from stress and failure: all the more reason you shouldn’t do their homework

A recent report by the NSW Board of Studies, Teaching and Educational Standards has suggested that parents are helping children cheat by completing their school homework, and has called for this issue to be addressed.

But does helping your child with homework hinder their progress? The answer to this question is not simple. So far, research on the subject has been mixed, finding that different types of parental involvement in homework have different relationships to achievement.

For example, are you motivated to help your child because you are worried they will fail, or how their performance might reflect upon you? Are you concerned they may miss out on longer-term goals (like university entry) unless you take over some tasks for them? Are they so stressed out by their homework you feel you should help them out?

If you answered yes to any of the above, I’m afraid you are not helping, you are hindering their progress. Let me explain why.

What type of person are you?

Psychologists break down goals into two very broad categories: performance motivated versus mastery motivated.

People who are performance motivated are all about outcome; those who are mastery oriented are interested in what can be learned from the journey rather than the destination.

People with mastery goals believe they can improve with hard work, effort and tend to see failure as a necessary part of learning. Failure teaches you some seriously important skills: what you are doing wrong, what you need to do differently next time, and emotional coping strategies to overcome the real heartache that can occur when we crash and burn.

Mastery-motivated people persist in the face of failure and develop creative problem-solving and emotional-coping strategies. Over time, these strategies combine to create a seriously resilient person.

People with performance goals believe that having to make lots of effort signals low natural ability, and that ability in general is a fixed trait with little opportunity for improvement. These people tend to be psychologically fragile in the face of failure and therefore avoid the experience at all costs.

They fixate on a goal and go all out to achieve it. This can lead to a range of unhelpful behaviours, such as cheating. Deep down this person knows they are a fraud, but believes everyone else who succeeds has played the same game. They will go to extraordinary lengths (even to their death) to protect the façade.

Failure is part of the learning process

Evidence typically shows that people with mastery goals ultimately outperform those with performance goals. To provide mastery-building support, it is important to explain how a task is important for developing your child’s competence and improving themselves.

You need to model how problems can be overcome with effort and persistence, as well as demonstrate a hardy view of the self in failure (we all fail at some point – it’s what you learn from it and how you change to improve yourself that counts).

The problem for parents is that we exist in a performance-oriented world. Ask yourself honestly, do you write an essay to explore a new idea or writing technique, or to get the highest grade? Do you run on a footy field looking for risk-taking opportunities to genuinely test your mettle, or do you just go out to win?

I remember as a young girl not understanding why mountaineers wanted to endure extraordinary hardships to reach the summit of Mt Everest. I asked my mum, “Why don’t they just fly to the top?” From an eight-year-old such a question isn’t too surprising, yet we see exactly this conundrum play out in adult circles. For example, why don’t we just let elite athletes drug-up for the Olympics?

Sadly, we are unlikely to reach a resolution in these debates: people who adopt performance goals come from a fundamentally different belief system to those with mastery goals. The two groups circle each other with an equal mixture of suspicion and disdain, incredulous that the other’s underlying worldview is genuine.

My final warning is reserved for parents who take over tasks to prevent their child from experiencing anxiety.

Anxiety exerts its hold over people via the process of negative reinforcement, where tactics to avoid a feared task become self-rewarding.

If you “help” relieve your child’s anxiety by doing their work for them, you have reinforced them to avoid taking on a challenge, and taught them to rely on others for an easy way out. Your child will continue to look to that avenue for success and will not develop independence and confidence. This is where the line is crossed from supporting to enabling.

Before you can be sure you are doing the right thing by helping your child, it’s worth questioning your own motivations.

Rachael Sharman, Lecturer in Psychology, University of the Sunshine Coast

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Rachael Sharman

Dr Rachael Sharman is a lecturer and researcher in psychology, specialising in child/adolescent development. Rachael's research is focused on the optimal and healthy development of the paediatric brain, and has covered the psychological and cognitive impacts of: dietary practices of parents and their children; physical activity; obesity; autism; attention deficit hyperactivity disorder; phenylketonuria; depression; concussion; acquired brain injury; childhood trauma. Rachael has a long history in working in child-related fields including child protection, juvenile justice, disability, advocacy and genetic research. A high point was meeting personally with the Queensland Health Minister in 2002 to successfully lobby the government to invest in expanded newborn screening. The result of that meeting ensured that every baby born in Queensland is now screened via the 'heel prick test' for an additional 30 rare genetic disorders. This has prevented the unnecessary death or disability caused by these disorders if left undetected and untreated. Rachael remains committed to research that ensures children have the best possible chance to meet their full potential.

3 thoughts on “Children learn from stress and failure: all the more reason you shouldn’t do their homework”

    Bill Conway says:

    Thank you, Rachael, for articulating this important reality about our schools and learning. Where would we be if we weren’t free to fall down and get back up again when we were a 10 months old child? I agree we are not helping our children when we set up learning as a performance goal and not giving them the opportunity to experience learning for the sake of learning. Is there a way we can get this message to our policy makers?

    Rachael Sharman says:

    That’s the real issue isn’t it? I think unfortunately this is all part of a larger cultural shift in Australia where stress and failure have become dirty words (as opposed to a natural part of development). This seems to have resulted in obsessive yet ultimately futile attempts to shield people from experiencing the rigours of life, rather than teaching them how to deal with their problems effectively.

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