“Struggles Over Homework”
My nine-year-old daughter, Cassandra, is in the fourth grade. Every night we get into homework battles. Three afternoons a week, she has activities (softball, choir) and by the time we get home, homework is the last thing she feels like doing. The other two days, we argue about whether she should do her homework right after school or if she should have some time to relax and play first. When Cassie finally sits down to do her homework, she seems to want me there helping all the time. I do want to help her, but I know at some point she is going to need to be able to do it on her own. And frankly, I have other things I need to be doing. The last thing is that it seems like kids these days have way more homework then we did, and some of it is really beyond her abilities. As you see, I’m really confused about homework and what my role is. Got any ideas?
— busy mom in Topeka
You have raised several good questions here. The overriding question is, “What is my role in helping my child be successful and independent in the world?” The more specific questions are: “What is a realistic schedule for a nine-year old?” “How do kids learn to manage their time?” “What is a useful, reasonable amount of homework?” “When is it appropriate to ask my child to adapt and when is it appropriate to ask the school/teacher to adapt?” “What are my goals for my daughter regarding her homework?” “What are her own goals?”
The elementary-school years are important ones for children and their families. Children are moving out from their families to become full members of the world, yet parents still have significant input and influence as to what kids learn about themselves and their world. Here are some things to consider when dealing with your daughter’s homework:
. Evaluate your child’s schedule. Our children are getting caught up in our increasingly fast-paced adult world. For many children today, there are sports, activities, lessons, as well as homework competing for their time. Parents feel pressured to make sure their children are getting the benefit of all of the opportunities available and feel guilty if their child is stuck at home with “nothing to do.” Children, however, need down time: time to do nothing, to think and reflect on their experience, to figure out what activity they can initiate for themselves. With school, homework and other activities, some children have less then half-an-hour a day of unscheduled time. Without enough time for themselves, children become dependent on being entertained, acclimated to a “hurry-up” schedule, and may lack the ability to be creative. Therefore, it is important to look for a balance of structured activities and open time when helping Cassie put together her schedule.
. Get clear about who is responsible for homework. As our children move out into the world, it can be hard for us to let them start taking responsibility for their actions and experiencing the consequences when they don’t. Many parents feel personally responsible for making sure their children get homework done perfectly and on time. While this may be a worthwhile goal, if children don’t achieve it themselves, it isn’t useful to them in the long run.
While parents can support, facilitate and encourage, children should take increasing responsibility for scheduling, remembering and following through on their homework. This means there will be times when they forget or ignore doing it and will experience whatever consequence the school has. Once this has happened, you can work with your daughter to figure out ways she could be more successful the next time (the more ideas she contributes to this conversation, the more likely she will be to follow through).
When you and she really understand that homework is her responsibility, you will be able to leave nagging behind and work on being a support to her success, rather than taking the lead role in getting her homework done.
. Make a plan with your child for successfully completing homework. Find a time when homework is not impending to talk with Cassie about it. Ask her what is hard about homework, what she enjoys about it (unlikely, but give it a try), when and where she thinks she would do it best, and what kind of help she would like. The settings in which children successfully complete homework run the gamut: some can memorize their spelling words while sprawled out in front of the TV or listening to music blaring in earphones, while others need quiet and a complete lack of distractions in order to focus.
You can share your observations about the circumstances under which you think she might best be able to focus, but it is crucial that she be encouraged to do the kind of self-reflection that will help her understand herself better. Her ability to succeed with her homework will be directly proportional to the amount of input she has into shaping her own “homework plan.” Once you and Cassie come up with a plan, make an agreement to try it out for a week and then check in to see how it is going.
. Think about what you want her to learn. While most of us are eager for our children to learn math, history, science and language skills, there are many other things children are learning while they are doing homework. They are learning about persistence, follow-through, planning, work, and concentration. They are developing their problem-solving skills and their ability to stay on task.
While they do their homework, our kids are learning about themselves as learners, and we want them to feel like competent learners. This doesn’t mean that everything should come easy for them. In fact, when everything comes easy, children don’t have a chance to learn how to be resourceful in the face of challenges. So one of our tasks in supporting our children in doing their homework is to help them come up with strategies for studying. Depending on what skills Cassie is learning in school, she may need help planning her time, organizing her papers, reading directions, outlining the work she has to do, taking notes, doing research or checking over and revising her work.
. Think about your role. This is often tough for parents. Most of us alternately want to do it all for our kids or want them to do it completely on their own. Finding the middle ground – where we help our children figure things out without doing their homework for them – takes practice. Here are some tips on how to begin:
- Observe your child’s learning style and give help accordingly. A child who is an auditory learner may need things read out loud to her or may need to read them out loud to herself. A kinesthetic learner may need to write things out, drum things out, or even dance them out (four hops and six leaps equals ten steps). A visual learner may need to see something before she can take it in.
- Help your child break the task down into smaller parts. Breaking down the parts of a math problem or separating out the different stages in writing a report can help keep children from feeling overwhelmed.
- Ask open-ended questions that help children discover. “Why do you think jellyfish have so many babies?” Or, “If you were traveling across the country in a covered-wagon what would you need to bring along?”
- Ask your child how you can help. If they say, “You do my homework,” you can reply, “You need to do it. Are there other ways I could support you in doing it?”
- Provide tools. You could take your child to the library, get the special paper she needs for a project, or locate necessary supplies from around your home.
- Give subject area help where you can. Assess the areas in which you can be a resource for your child. If there are subjects that you don’t feel strong in, you can either try to learn along with your child or you can help find another resource (an adult friend, a tutor, another student).
. Stay close. Some children don’t mind doing homework in their own room or in a closed-off cubby in a common area. But many kids like to be right in the middle of the action, close to where you are. Although you may have your own work to do, finding a way to work alongside your child can be very supportive. (She sits at the kitchen table and does her math while you do the dishes, pay bills, write a letter, finish up some work from the office.) Many kids will be more successful with this side-by-side approach to getting work done.
. Provide a sense of optimism to your child. Let your child know that struggle is an important part of learning anything new. Without struggle, there can’t be accomplishment. Acknowledge the difficulties your child is facing, and express confidence that she can overcome them.
We all put forth our best effort when we’re encouraged and supported. Knowing that you believe in your child’s abilities will give her a necessary boost to tackle work that is hard for her.
Also, if you have negative feelings about a particular subject, it’s important that you don’t pass them on to your child: “Oh, I’m horrible at math. Everyone in our family is bad at math. Math is just too hard.” The same sentiment can be expressed more optimistically with, “Math is really challenging. There is lots for us to learn here.”
. Avoid fights about homework. Homework can be one of the biggest battlefields in the family. When it comes time to do homework, children often feel stressed, tired, confused or overwhelmed. Parents often feel all of the above, and may also be worried or fearful about their child’s “success.” Parents may also have their own memories of failures in school, which can add significant stress to an already tense situation.
Another issue that comes up when we think about helping our kids with their homework is that many of us are not “naturally” drawn to teaching. Teaching kids is not something we are particularly good at. This can lead to mounting frustration, which often leads to a negative explosion.
If you’re able separate out and manage your own difficult feelings, you will be able to be a resource for your child. But if you find yourself disappointed, chastising, nagging, name-calling or threatening, it is important to take yourself out of the homework picture. Learning how to be a resourceful problem-solver is one of the most important tasks for children and having someone undermine their confidence won’t help.
If you are continually getting into homework battles with your child, you might want to find another support role for yourself. Rather than sitting with your child or helping her when she gets stuck, you could help her clear a space to do her homework and provide a nutritious snack.
. Find and use other resources. Because there are so many different styles of learning, there are children who need more help than is available in most classrooms. Some children are identified by the school and provided with tutors or resource classes, and there are still others who could use more help. If you find that your child is continually struggling and frustrated in school (or with homework), it is important to talk to her teacher and to the school to find out if there are resources available for her. You can also research privately to find tutors.
. Find out what the teacher’s expectations are for homework. If your child is struggling with her homework or spending so much time on it that she doesn’t have time to do other activities, you can talk to her teacher to find out how much time she expects children to spend doing homework. Then you can make an agreement with her teacher that your daughter will spend that amount of time. If she is continually unable to finish, you and the teacher can think together about whether the amount assigned is reasonable or whether your child needs other resources to help her complete it in time. If you have concerns about the quantity or types of homework which are being sent home, you can ask your child’s teacher what her goals are for the homework. Sometimes, if you know the teacher’s goals, the two of you can come up with a suitable alternative assignment that better meets the needs of your child.
. Talk to your daughter about fear. Ask Misha what she is afraid of. Ask her what she would do if the thing she is afraid of happens. Sometimes, just talking through our worst fears begins to tame them. Then you can ask her the pivotal question, “Is this a fear you want to learn to deal with now or one you would like to face a little later?” Then, again, it is time for you to be quiet. This sets the stage for allowing Misha to make a conscious and direct decision about whether she wants to face this particular fear right now. People don’t gain the same sense of self-competence if they are pushed to deal with a fear as when they decide for themselves the time is right to face it.
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Kids, even defiant ones, usually don’t consciously choose to fail. Yet, your child refuses to do her homework, which causes her to fail. Neither you nor your child know why she is sabotaging herself.
Most moms and dads struggle with getting their youngster to complete homework after school. Rarely is a kid ever eager to get back to work when she returns home from a long day in the classroom. To minimize “homework battles” (i.e., parent-child conflict over homework), you need to understand why your child is resistant to doing homework in the first place.
Here are just a few possibilities:
- Your child doesn’t understand the work and needs some extra help. It’s possible that your youngster doesn’t want to do his homework because he really needs help. Also, it can be challenging for moms and dads to accept that their youngster might need help with homework, because there is often a stigma attached to kids who need tutoring.
- Your child is addicted to TV and video games. Moms and dads often find it very difficult to limit these activities. But, understand that playing video games and watching TV doesn’t relax a youngster’s brain. In fact, it actually over-stimulates the brain and makes it harder for him to learn and retain information. Too much of watching TV and playing video games contributes to your youngster struggling with school and homework in more ways than one.
- Your child is exhausted from a long day at school. In the last 10 to 20 years, the needs of kids have not changed, however the pace of life has. Most moms and dads are busy and have very little down time, which inevitably means that the youngster ends up with less down time too. He is going to be less likely to be motivated to work when there is chaos all around him.
- Your child is not sleeping enough. Sleep is one of the most under-appreciated needs in our society today. When a child doesn’t get enough sleep, it can cause him to be sick more often, lose focus, and have more emotional issues. Kids often need a great deal more sleep than they usually get.
- Your child is over-booked with other activities. Moms and dads want their youngster to develop skills other than academics. Because of this, they often sign-up their youngster for extracurricular activities (e.g., sports or arts).
- Your child is overwhelmed by your expectations. Moms and dads want their youngster to be well-rounded and to get ahead in life. Along with this comes getting good grades. All these expectations can put a lot of pressure on your youngster and may cause him to become burned-out and want to find an escape.
So, what is a parent to do? Below are some tips that will help your child be less neglectful of his homework assignments – BUT – these ideas will take some hard work on your part too:
1. Be a cheerleader. Some children need a little extra boost of confidence. Let’s say your youngster has a big test to study for, but can’t seem to get started. You can help out by running through the first few problems until she gets the hang of it. Or you might brainstorm with your youngster to help her choose a topic for the big paper she has to write. You're not doing the work for her, rather you're helping her to get going so the task doesn't seem so daunting.
2. Be clear and firm, but don’t argue with your kids about homework. Make eye contact and tell them calmly that they are responsible for the work.
3. Choose a powerful incentive that your youngster will recognize as meaningful. This might be extra time on the computer, a special meal, or attending an activity that she is looking forward to. Incentives can be phased out when kids attend to the homework responsibly.
4. Communicate regularly with your youngster's educators so that you can deal with any behavior patterns before they become a major problem.
5. Consider adding in break times (e.g., your child might work on her math homework for 15 minutes, and then take a 5 minute break).
6. Contact the teacher as soon as you suspect that your youngster has a homework problem. Schools have a responsibility to keep moms and dads informed, and you have a right to be upset if you don't find out until report-card time that your youngster is having difficulties. On the other hand, sometimes moms and dads figure out that a problem exists before the teacher does. By alerting the teacher, you can work together to solve a problem in its early stages.
7. Don't do the assignments yourself. It's not your homework – it's your youngster's. Doing assignments for your youngster won't help him understand and use information. And it won't help him become confident in his own abilities. It can be hard for moms and dads to let kids work through problems alone and learn from their mistakes. It's also hard to know where to draw the line between supporting and doing.
8. Engage your youngster in constructive, mind-building activities – any activity that supports learning (e.g., reading, puzzles, educational games, library visits, walks in the neighborhood, trips to the zoo or museums, chores that teach a sense of responsibility, etc.). Join in these activities yourself.
9. Help your youngster get organized. It's a good idea to set a regular time and place for kids to do homework. Also, stick to a routine as much as possible. Put up a calendar in a place where you'll see it often and record assignments on it. Writing out assignments will get him used to the idea of keeping track of what's due and when. You may want to use an assignment book instead of a calendar.
10. If you understand something about the style of learning that suits your youngster, it will be easier for you to help her. If you've never thought about this style, observe your youngster. See if she works better alone or with someone else. If your youngster gets more done when working with someone else, she may want to complete some assignments with a brother or sister or a classmate. (Some homework, however, is meant to be done alone. Check with the teacher if you aren't sure.) Does your youngster learn things best when she can see them? If so, drawing a picture or a chart may help with some assignments. Does your youngster learn things best when she can hear them? She may need to listen to a story or have directions read to her. Too much written material or too many pictures or charts may confuse her. Does your youngster understand some things best when she can handle or move them? An apple cut four or six or eight ways can help kids learn fractions.
11. Involve your child. As your youngster matures, you should involve her in setting expectations, rewards, and consequences. This empowers her, which may improve her self-esteem and reinforce the concept that she is in charge of her own behavior.
12. Keep the house generally quiet during homework time.
13. Kids are more likely to complete assignments successfully when moms and dads monitor homework. How closely you need to monitor depends upon the age of your youngster, how independent she is, and how well she does in school. Whatever the age of your youngster, if assignments are not getting done satisfactorily, more supervision is needed.
14. Look over completed assignments when possible. It's usually a good idea to check to see that your youngster has finished her assignments. If you're not there when an assignment is finished, look it over when you get home. After the teacher returns completed homework, read the comments to see if your youngster has done the assignments satisfactorily.
15. Make sure your child has enough “space” for doing her work. For some children, this will mean a large work space like a kitchen table to spread out their papers and books.
16. Make your youngster responsible for her choices. All privileges are suspended until the work is done, even if it takes all evening.
17. Model good study habits. Kids are more likely to study if they see you reading, writing, and doing things that require thought and effort on your part. Talk with your youngster about what you're reading and writing, even if it's something as simple as making the grocery list. Also, tell them about what you do at work.
18. Offer snacks to keep your youngster “fueled-up” for the work.
19. Pre-teach. It’s easier to prevent negative behaviors in defiant children than to deal with them after they occur. A very effective tool is to pre-teach behavior prior to an event (in this case, doing homework) or potentially vulnerable situation. This involves talking with the child in detail about what will be happening, why, and what her role and expected behaviors will be. Pre-teaching reduces anxiety, clarifies expectations, and builds confidence.
20. Reward the youngster appropriately for good behavior and tasks completed. Set up a clear system of rewards so that your youngster knows what to expect when she completes a task or improves behavior.
21. Seek outside assistance. If you find yourself becoming overwhelmed by “homework battles,” speak to a professional. It's only natural that you have needs and questions in this process, so seek help when needed.
22. Separate the youngster's behavior from the youngster, using thought rather than feelings. Another way to say this is "disengage" from the defiant behavior. (This doesn’t mean ignore it.) Consistency and follow through on consequences still apply, especially when it comes to “homework refusal.”
23. Set a good example. Children don't always show it, but their parents are very important. They are watching YOUR behavior. Thus, if you are a “follow through” person (i.e., someone who always starts what he finishes), then you will be modeling “task completion” skills for your child, and she will likely follow your lead.
24. Share concerns with the teacher. You may want to contact the teacher if:
- instructions are unclear
- neither you nor your youngster can understand the purpose of assignments
- the assignments are often too hard or too easy
- the homework is assigned in uneven amounts
- you can't provide needed supplies or materials
- you can't seem to help your youngster get organized to finish the assignments
- your youngster has missed school and needs to make up assignments
- your youngster refuses to do her assignments, even though you've tried hard to get her to do them
25. Show an interest. Make time to take your youngster to the library to check out materials needed for homework (and for fun too), and read with your youngster as often as you can. Talk about school and learning activities in family conversations. Ask your youngster what was discussed in class that day. If he doesn't have much to say, try another approach. For example, ask your youngster to read aloud a story he wrote, or discuss the results of a science experiment. Another good way to show your interest is to attend school activities, such as parent-teacher meetings, shows, and sports events. If you can, volunteer to help in the classroom or at special events. Getting to know some classmates and other moms and dads not only shows you're interested, but helps build a network of support for you and your youngster.
26. Talk about the assignments. Ask your youngster questions. Talking can help him think through an assignment and break it down into small, workable parts. Here are some sample questions:
- Do you understand what you're supposed to do?
- What do you need to do to finish the assignment?
- Do you need help in understanding how to do your work?
- Have you ever done any problems like the ones you're supposed to do right now?
- Do you have everything you need to do the assignment?
- Does your answer make sense to you?
If your youngster is still confused, ask:
- Are you still having problems? Maybe it would help to take a break or have a snack.
- Do you need to review your notes (or reread a chapter in your textbook) before you do the assignment?
- How far have you gotten on the assignment? Let's try to figure out where you're having a problem.
27. Talk with educators early in the school year. Get acquainted before problems arise, and let educators know that you want to be kept informed. Most schools invite moms and dads to come to parent-teacher conferences or open houses. If your youngster's school doesn't provide such opportunities, call the teacher to set up a meeting.
28. Tie responsibilities to privileges. When your youngster chooses to do her work reliably, she may then expect to participate in activities that interest her.
29. Use a broken record technique to respond to any rebuttal your youngster may offer (e.g., "I hear you, but I want you to start your homework now").
30. Use a timer. Some moms and dads find that using a timer for “homework time” is a good way to build and reinforce structure. Setting a reasonable time limit for completing homework helps train your youngster to expect limitations, even on unpleasant activities like homework. Giving your youngster a time limit for completing his work is useful, especially if you reward finishing on time.
Homework is a major struggle in many homes, but it doesn’t have to be. Recognizing why your youngster might be fighting it is key to establishing healthy homework habits. By doing this, you may find you have fewer battles to fight on that front.
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