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Study finds parents who listen help children learn

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A child puzzles over homework. (Photo by Bart Hoffstein)

What two numbers add up to 51, where one of the numbers is five more than the other? Seven-year-old Daniel Harriss, of Nashville, Tenn., was stumped in the middle of math homework. So, like many kids who depend on parents for homework help, he called out to his mom, Heather, for assistance.

His mother, a youth minister at the Belmont United Methodist Church in Nashville, said her first impulse was to launch into helpful-mom mode and explain the solution. But, instead, she asked Daniel how he thought he should approach the question. And, soon enough, he talked his way to the answer: 23 and 28.

So much the better, say researchers at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, where a new study has discovered that children learn best when explaining a problem’s solution to their parents.

“It’s such a natural thing for moms to dive in and help,” said Bethany Rittle-Johnson, a Vanderbilt professor of psychology who supervised the study, but parents should resist the urge.

“It’s really effective to try to get kids to explain things themselves, instead of just telling them the answer. Explaining their reasoning, to a parent or other people they know, will help them understand the problem and apply what they have learned to other situations.”

In their study, Rittle-Johnson, along with colleagues Megan Saylor and Kathryn Swygert, showed 50 4- and 5-year-olds a pattern of colored bugs: two red caterpillars, followed by a blue spider, two more red caterpillars and, again, a blue spider. What bug comes next? they were asked.

If kids answered incorrectly, they were told the answer. (It would be a red caterpillar, in case you’re flummoxed.) The children were next divided into three groups, one where the kids just repeated the correct answer, one where they orally explained the puzzle quietly to themselves, and the last where they talked about it to their mothers, who listened without giving input.

All three groups were then given another pattern test, a more difficult one. And Rittle-Johnson found that the group that had explained the answers to the first puzzle to parents did better on the advanced test.

“When we’re asked to articulate ideas to other people, we learn better,” Rittle-Johnson said. “Having mom there gets you to think more and talk more about the task at hand.”

Despite these results from the research lab, it may be hard for many parents to adopt the study’s findings at home. “On a problem when it seems so obvious, and you’re getting a little impatient, it can be hard to say nothing,” Daniel’s mother said.

For Alexandra Sundman, a mother of two in New York City, the balance between helping and helping too much is hard to achieve when it comes to her 4-year-old-daughter, Madeline. Some questions simply require more attention, as when Madeline asked the other day, “Is God everywhere?”

Sundman said she tried to respond as best as she could. “I’m not sure any mind--a 4-year-old or a 94-year-old--can really answer that question,” she told the child. But on more fact-based questions like “If water turns into ice when it’s cold, what happens to ice when it’s warm,” Sundman said she lets Madeline take the lead.

Still, parents notice that kids seem to respond well to the technique used in the study. When his wooden block constructions kept tumbling down, Sean Fay, a 4-year-old living in Fairport, N.Y., turned for help to his mom, Jennifer, saying “Why is my building falling down, and why is it wobbly?” Jennifer, the mother of three, responded by asking Sean what sort of thing would make a house more stable, something like a wide foundation, maybe.

“I was trying to send him some hints without sitting down and building a new building for him,” she said. She noticed, too, that the lessons sunk in when she overheard Sean explaining building strategies to his 2 1/2-year-old sister, Rachel. “If you don’t want it to fall down, you have to give it a sturdy base,” he said.

Parents who resist the urge to take over may find that there are rewards for hanging back. “From experiencing the success of it, it lets me be more patient because I know he’s going to be able to figure it out,” said Harriss, the mother in Nashville. “It’s fun to be able to celebrate with them when they see they did it.”

Rittle-Johnson said she believes this type of learning can also produce benefits in the classroom, where children who passively received instruction could now be more actively engaged in the learning process.

And some teachers have already attested to the benefits of Rittle-Johnson’s approach. By asking students to teach one another in the classroom, Dana Luria, a teacher at the Bronx Guild in New York City, helps learners become more involved with the lesson. “It gives students confidence in their work and forces them to work through the steps in greater depth,” Luria said.

Whatever the benefits for children, the new approach can also take pressure off parents to be walking encyclopedias. “Your kids ask you questions all the time that you don’t know the answers to, and this suggests that it’s OK if you don’t, it’s fine.” Rittle-Johnson said. “If you just say, ‘What do you think the answer is?’ you can help kids learn.”

E-mail: yb2183@columbia.edu