Having the right attitude for homework

I suspect that many parents want their children to have a positive attitude when they do their homework.  But how we instill this in our children, and how should we approach the task of helping our children?

Research has demonstrated that parental involvement in children’s homework is key to their motivation and ultimately their achievement.  What seems to be important is the nature of the parents’  involvement  with their children.  Mums and dads who are supportive and encouraging, focus on helping the children learn and encourage the child to develop their own thinking tend to have children who are more motivated as well as achieve more.  In contrast, children whose parents tell them the answers, focus on performance rather than learning and are critical tend to fare worse.

Less however is known about the factors which contribute to parents acting constructively at homework time.   Elizabeth Moorman and Eva Pomerantz set out to fill in some of the gaps and explore whether the mindset of the parents affects how they work with their children on homework.  Moorman and Pomerantz built on the work of Carol Dweck and colleagues that I’ve written about before.  They wanted to understand whether parents who were encouraged to have a ‘fixed’ mindset would work with their children in different ways to parents who had been encouraged to have a ‘growth’ mindset.

A fixed mindset is  a belief that talent is innate and therefore difficult to change.  In relation to children, it would suggest that they are on a development trajectory that can’t easily be changed by intervention from parents or others.  In contrast, a growth mindset is built on the idea that ability can be developed, and that practice, hard work and help from others can alter a child’s level of achievement.

Moorman and Pomerantz worked with 79 children aged between 6 and 9 and their mothers.  The children initially worked with one of the researchers on a series of hard puzzles while their mothers were briefed by one of the other members of the team.  Half the mothers were told that performance on these puzzles didn’t tend to vary over time.  Children performed consistently and the skill couldn’t be learnt.  The researchers were looking to encourage a fixed mindset in these mothers about this task at least.  The other mothers were told that performance on these puzzles improved with practice.  In other words, the researchers were inducing a growth mindset.

The mothers were then reunited with their children and were videotaped helping their children work on these puzzles for 15 minutes.  Moorman and Pomerantz were interested in the behaviour of both the children and the parents.  The parent’s behaviour was analyzed to determine the level of constructive involvement (helping the child master the task, encouraging initiative or choice on the child’s part, and showing warmth, encouragement, and positive feedback.)  Unconstructive involvement (Telling the child what to do, giving the answer without any explanation, taking over, becoming frustrated, annoyed or critical) was also measured.  The children were analysed for the level of frustration they exhibited as well as their level of engagement and persistence with the task.

How did the parent’s mindset influence the quality of their involvement in their children’s learning?  Parents who had been primed to have a fixed mindset showed more unconstructive involvement than their growth mindset counterparts.  They also responded less positively when their child struggled with the task and showed signs of helplessness.  Interestingly, the growth mindset parents showed fewer unconstructive behaviours but didn’t show any  more constructive behaviours than the fixed mindset parents. Moorman and Pomerantz speculate could suggest that parents would benefit from training as well as a shift in mindset to know how to help their children more effectively.

So what does this suggest?  Two obvious conclusions spring out.  Firstly, having a growth mindset is likely to reduce parental frustration and reduce unhelpful behaviour at homework time.  Secondly, knowing what is helpful is potentially something that is learnt rather than a skill that comes naturally to all parents.  So what are these behaviours?  Moorman and Pomerantz suggest the following are all useful at homework time:

  • Teaching the child the principles involved in the task regardless of how they perform on it
  • Teaching children the steps to solving problems 
  • Asking guiding questions
  • Supporting the child to make their own choices and complete the task themselves
  • Offering approval, encouragement and praise.

Moorman E A, Pomerantz E M (2010)  Ability mindsets influence the quality of mothers’ involvement in children’s learning: an experimental investigation.  Developmental Psychology, 2010, Vol 46, No. 5, 1354-1362

5 comments to Having the right attitude for homework

  • Interesting! I wonder about the extent to which fixed mindset attitudes amongst parents (and probably teachers) have driven the underperformance of girls in the past, and of boys in the present. And also the inter-play with sibling order. I’d be interested to see research on this.

    Incidentally, I learnt today that 76-79% of Americans support the principle of grade retention – its one of the most popular of all US education policies. Is this evidence that Americans tend to have a growth mindset (i.e. believe its a fair system because anyone can do it if they work hard enough).

  • admin

    Hello Teadrinking Mom

    Thank you for your comment. I think the whole idea of teacher’s mindsets is fascinating. I haven’t seen anything written about it but I would be really interested in exploring it further.

    i don’t know the American system well enough but to comment on it but the whole US philosophy of anyone can make it does seem to support a growth mindset doesn’t it?


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