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Homework hassle: When kids struggle and parents can't help

With back-to-school comes back-to-homework, and while that’s often a bummer for kids, it’s not so easy for parents, either. Especially for those of us who want to help but find the cobwebs have taken over the parts of our brains where spelling and math lessons used to reside.

And if it’s not our rusty skills and knowledge, it’s that subjects are now taught in a foreign and unrecognizable manner. As a result, many of us find ourselves struggling to help our kids with their assignments.

For Claudia Schultz of Renton, Wash., math is a particular challenge.

“My daughter came home and said, ‘We learned Lattice today!’ and I was trying to figure out how she got into wood shop, only to find out it's a multiplication thing and I still have no clue what it is.”

Adds Dublin, Ohio, mom, Theresa Marquart: “I forgot all my fifth grade math because I had to remember [my daughter’s] activity schedule. Something had to go.”  

For many families, the confusion in the way lessons are taught can lead to stress for the whole family. “I love math and what we struggled with, was how my son was taught to do it. His process is so different that it turned homework into a huge struggle,” said Seattle mom Michelle Poole.

When Jennifer Garcia’s middle school kids sought homework help, the Brisbane, Calif., mom would ask for the instructions. Often there weren’t any.  

“If the kids didn’t take good notes in class, then no one at home knew how to do the work, .” Garcia said.

Marquart and her husband struggled to help their daughter with her new-style homework assignment and they couldn’t help but say to each other, “What is this?! This is second grade spelling?! We are in trouble.”

While homework confusion and frustration can quickly turn to epic family battles, education experts say it doesn’t have to. For most parents, the first stop should be to your child’s teacher. Teachers may be more willing than you’d think to spend some after-school time coaching not just your kids, but you, too.

“These days, if a parent shows any inclination that they want to help their kid, a teacher will bend over backwards to help that parent,” said Marilyn Melville Irvine, an educational consultant in Washington state.

“No one would ever mind showing a parent a quick refresher on how to do something," says Katie DaSilva, a sixth grade math teacher in Brockton, Mass. DaDilva jokes that she'd even welcome parents to come after school to learn with their kids because "it would help distract us from the death ray stares of the kids who are in detention!"

Says DaSilva: "Middle schoolers love when their parents come in!  Seriously please come!”

Even if you can’t make it in after school, you  can see what other resources the teacher might have to help you.

“I wish parents would come to us more often, but I honestly think they’re embarrassed,” said Kristal Dunavan, a fourth grade teacher in Turlock, Calif. Dunavan offers parents tutorial CDs and access to websites for the curriculum she uses in class. In fact, many teachers point to textbooks that have websites and online components, with special sections designed to help parents.

Some of the other tips of the homework trade from both teachers and parents include:

: Plug in the homework problem and you’re likely to get a site that will not only give you the answer, it will probably even tell you how to get that answer.

:This site, geared to terachers, allows them to share their lesson plans with each other, as a means of sharing best practices and exchanging ideas. But, parents can use it too. You can check and see if your kid’s teacher has submitted anything. You can also search by lesson plan-type

:Used copies of most teacher’s edition textbooks are now available to parents online for decent prices. And, DaSilva insists it’s not cheating (so long as you don’t just feed your kids the answers, that is). The teacher’s edition will not only give you the answers, it’ll help show you how to explain it to your child, using the same terms his teacher uses

: This site’s like YouTube, but without all of the funny cat videos. Here teachers upload videos and PowerPoint lessons that can help you refresh your own knowledge.

: A lot of teachers share and pin lesson plans and teaching ideas here. Laurie Howe Thompson, a former teacher and independent education consultant in Chicago warned though that not all pins are created equal in the world of education. So, you might just want to check and see if your kid’s teacher (or other teachers at that school) are on there and follow them. That way, you’ll have a pretty good idea that what you’re finding is at least liked (and in keeping) with the methods in your local area.

: Particularly useful when it comes to high school math and science, with a bit of humanities as well, this site offers thousands of free video tutorials and corresponding practice problems. The videos are short and the lessons are pretty targeted, generally making them fairly easy to digest.

Dana Macario is a Seattle area mom to two young kids. She vows to enjoy her last remaining year before homework help sets in.