I have four kids. As you can imagine, I have a LOT of experience with school projects, and let me tell you, it isn’t all good. School projects and I have a checkered past. The all time low was the year my second grader had a school project due every single Thursday. One week, he was expected to create an original animal from recycled materials. Another time he had to invent his own board game. And yet another time, he was required to build a solar system that revolved around him. I can’t lie – those weekly projects did me in. I was a busy mom, and to me, those projects looked and felt like busy work. We ended up homeschooling that year, and then we moved. I can’t blame moving on the weekly project extravaganza, but it certainly took the sting out of packing up.
Throughout my older kids’ school years, I struggled with knowing where to draw the line between helping and doing. There were times when I would hear the teacher say, “Let the kids do it themselves,” only to notice that either other kids were way more talented than my kids, or I was the only parent who actually let my kid do the project himself. There were other times that I actively participated in the final product but then would feel guilty, wondering if my child had learned what he was supposed to learn from the project.
I constantly struggled with wondering about the educational value of a project and with what I was ethically allowed to do to help my kids complete it.
As a teacher, I know that good projects do have educational value. They reinforce lessons learned at school by forcing students to create something new using the knowledge they have acquired. Being able to do that means a student has achieved the highest level of understanding. Projects can help kids practice their collaboration skills and long-term planning skills. Those are all great lessons for kids to learn.
The other question is a bit trickier. What can parents ethically do at home when our kids need help with a project?
Ask Other Parents
Nothing feels worse than showing up for Parent Night to see that you were the only parent who actually let your kid do the project himself. You might have the moral high ground, but try selling that to an 8-year-old who has the worst diorama in the class – not too easy.
If you think an assigned project might be tricky for your child, then ask parents who have been through the project ahead of you how much parents typically help. An experienced friend can give you the inside scoop.
Help Them Make a Plan
One of the lessons learned from a project is long term planning, and as parents, we should definitely be involved in that. Sometimes, their projects affect our family schedules. When our kids are younger, we know their schedules better than they do. Plus, I find most kids are way too optimistic with their time estimations for how long something will take. A realistic plan will avoid a night-before-it’s-due meltdown.
Planning is a life skill that our kids will need forever. Helping them form and adhere to a plan is an excellent way for us to support a project at home. Since it is proactively teaching our kids a skill, rather than rescuing them from a failure, helping to plan is a definite safe area for parent help.
Provide the Time, Space, and Supplies
Sometimes when it’s project time, we have to sacrifice having a perfectly presentable dining room for the greater good of the project. Kids need a place to spread out and to keep their supplies handy. Supplies are our job, too. Read their assignment with them and have them make a list of what they will need.
As our kids get older, and the work becomes more demanding, we have to remember to give them the time they need to succeed. When my oldest son started having midterm exams, I was unprepared for how much his extra studying impacted our Christmas preparations. I had to respect his time, though, and I began to ease up on my expectations for his participation in pre-Christmas activities.
Communicate with the Other Parents in a Group Project
If possible, make sure you are all on the same page as far as parental involvement, cost, time spent, and the when and where the work will take place. Hopefully, the other parents and you will be of similar minds on all of these things.
Plan for Transporting the Project
It’s hard to navigate a backpack, a lunch box, and a precious project all at the same time – on a bus with 45 other jostling kids – or so my kids tell me.
Celebrate the Effort
I think the time to celebrate is when the project is turned in, and the dining room is back to normal. Celebrate the effort and be happy. Let the grade fall where it may, and go ahead and celebrate the joy of a job well done.
Eliminate the Sunday nights blues...and the Monday morning crazies. Download your free copy of The Weekend Checklist now.
Maureen Paschal is a freelance writer, a teacher-librarian, and a mom of four almost grown kids. She blogs at Raising The Capable Student where her goal is helping parents to keep family life a priority and school success in perspective. Her work has been featured in On Parenting from the Washington Post, Grown and Flown, Perfection Pending, and Today Parents.