Heads up, parents. Just when you thought you’d finally gotten the household calendar straight, juggling kids’ lessons, sports, homework…your fourth or fifth grader will come home with the news: time for an “independent project”!

You know, the kind that takes weeks of research. The kind with directions that say, “be creative.” The kind that sent the neighbor kid’s dad peeling out to the store last year for last minute supplies at 9:45 at night.

With all that bother, what’s the point? Teachers assign projects as a powerful way to bring learning out of the classroom, and new ideas in. Projects typically start in the late elementary years and continue through high school. As kids grow, they need to learn to manage time, stuff, and ideas—and sure enough, a project hits all three.

So, does that mean chaos is unavoidable? Not at all, says Tiffani Chin, PhD., author of School Sense, a manual for parents, and Executive Director of EdBoost, a nonprofit educational organization. Here’s what she recommends:

  1. Start Early, and Make a Plan. If you do nothing else, do this: Ask your child to show you all materials for the assignment. Then sit down with a calendar and help break down the assignment into specific parts. Mark deadlines for each chunk on a calendar together, showing what will be done, as well as when your child might go to the library for materials, or to the store for supplies. Young kids can almost never do this alone, and it’s one of the most valuable long-term skills you can teach.

  2. Set reasonable expectations. Painful as it may be to watch, it's still crucial that you let your child be the person doing the report. “It doesn’t have to look like a high school report. If it’s an 8 year-old’s report, it should only look as good as an eight year-old wants to make it look good.”

Do help; but don’t do it for your kid. Chin says:

  • Research reading may be difficult. Help by reading aloud, and talking it over.
  • Parents can help transcribe bullet points, help with big picture sequence, or edit spelling, but the child’s hand should be on keyboard or pen.
  • Do make sure your child doesn't cheat. “It’s better not to finish,” says Chin, “than to resort to plagiarism.”
  • Insist that the hard stuff get done first: one of Chin’s rules for poster projects is, No scissors or glue until the writing is done!
  • Never, never stay up late to finish a project while your child sleeps!

Count on it: despite your best efforts, there will be a time when your child hands in something shoddy, especially if he or she has waited until the last minute. Painful as this may be for parents, Chin says, “Your child needs to face the consequences.” Eventually, she says, the gains in responsibility are steady and well worth the effort. With patience and practice, Chin promises, projects can be a “learning experience for the whole family.”