Leslye Pearson got a little too excited when her son, Callum, brought home his first school project assignment from kindergarten last year. The project was to take a shoebox, divide it into four sections and make a scene for each season. But as her son started working on the box, Pearson’s creative juices went into overdrive.
“I hijacked the project,” she says ruefully. “I didn’t even make dinner that night. And my son was on the computer playing games I’d downloaded for him so he wouldn’t distract me!”
She spent seven hours working on the box, creating detailed vignettes that included a Santa on skis made from cotton balls and individually wrapped presents under a tree. (Pearson notes that her son did at least make the tree). When she and Callum brought the elaborate project to school, they were greeted by the teacher’s astonished expression and a deadpan “Wow!”
“I was bummed out when I actually didn’t win for best project,” Pearson confesses. “Maybe they realized mom had a bit too much of a hand in it.”
When a child comes home with a project assignment — be it creating a science experiment or building a castle from Popsicle sticks — parents may wonder what kind of support and involvement is expected or desirable. Jennifer Fraenkel, director of Academics at the Akiva School in Westmount, says too much parental assistance makes it hard for teachers to evaluate and grade a project. Because of this, teachers at Akiva are increasingly asking students to complete bigger projects in the classroom so they can see where students may be struggling. For projects that do need to be completed at home, Fraenkel suggests parents take on a supporting role. “You want children to own their own project, so the parent should think of themselves as a resource or sounding board,” she says. In practical terms, that might mean taking a younger child to the library to search for age-appropriate books, providing a good workspace and making sure the child has reasonable blocks of time to work on the project when she is not too tired.
Sharon Klar, an academic consultant for Bartimaeus, an educational training and resource company, regularly offers workshops about parental involvement at school. She often hears stories about adults getting overly involved in a project. “For example, a parent may suggest that a child put glitter on their Bristol board poster and the child says no,” she explains. “But when the child wakes up the next morning, they find a glitter princess in the corner.” But taking a very active role in projects can backfire, she warns. “It’s upsetting for the child who really did do it on their own when other kids bring in their parent-assisted masterpieces.”
Klar adds that larger homework projects need crystal-clear guidelines from teachers. Ideally, all of the assignments should be discussed at the Meet the Teachers evening at the beginning of the year, with an outline of expectations for how parents should get involved.
“Teachers need to be very explicit about materials, what they are expecting and what an age-appropriate assignment would look like.”
When a child arrives home with a project assignment, Klar suggests reading through it carefully. Get back in touch with the teacher immediately with any questions, worries or concerns.
Then, Klar advises parents to help their children develop a timeline for completing the project. This involves breaking the project down into manageable chunks (for example, go to the library to look for books, read books, think up questions, etc.). As well, come up with a list of any needed supplies and make sure you have them on hand. If the teacher has provided information about how the assignment will be graded, discuss that with the child. For example, if more weight is given to a written text and not much to illustrations, a child needs to understand that he or she should spend more time polishing the writing rather than the drawings. Klar acknowledges that projects can bring out parental insecurities. “Parents want their children to succeed, but sometimes we want them to succeed so badly that we are afraid for them to fail,” she says. “But some of the best lessons we learn are from our mistakes.
As for Pearson, she says she has learned her lesson after hijacking her son’s project. “I wouldn’t do anything like that again,” she says. “I let him off the hook in terms of his responsibility for the project and I didn’t allow him to become engaged with the work. And it showed me that maybe mom needs to take up a hobby!”
The ABCs of doing a school project
Here are some tips for completing a school project with less stress for the family and a true learning experience for the student:
- Review the assignment with your child.
- If anything is not clear, send the child back to the teacher with questions.
- Make a timeline with due dates for different parts of the project.
- Discuss what supplies are needed and when and where they can be purchased. You can make a budget for what you determine to be reasonable expenses.
- Provide a clean workspace and time to work.
- If your child is having trouble narrowing down a topic, sit down and talk about what he or she does know about the subject. For example, a child might know that foxes are smallish animals who live outside and have reddish fur. Then ask what else your child might want to know about the topic. So, in the case of foxes, a child might want to know what the animal eats, where exactly it lives and why its hair is red. These questions can then serve as an outline for the project.
- Resist the urge to copy and paste from websites because it is important that your child learns how to paraphrase. If the student can’t understand the information on the website, find a more age-appropriate one.