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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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Starting School off Smart: Take the Hassles Out of Homework

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger

The new school year is around the corner. We all need to help parents make this a less hassled year than the one just past. My colleagues and I, in our new e-book, Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, have a series of parenting "sound bites" that give parents quick tips on common issues related to parenting. These include curfews, bedtimes, dealing with lying and cheating, and, of course, homework. Below is our "sound parenting bite" for making homework less stressful.

All of our ideas, and a lot of other tips for Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, can be found at the links/URLs below to Amazon and Barnes and Noble. Please feel free to share this with parents as the new school year gets started.

There was a time when I thought that homework was something to be done immediately upon coming home, and that other things... phone calls, television, the internet, playing with friends, breathing... all had to wait until homework was completed. This turns out to not be good advice. My change of opinion has to do with the effect of frustration and stress on most children, and the importance of a sense of hope and optimism. Martin E.P. Seligman, author of Learned Optimism, has done extensive research on the importance of hope and a positive outlook on getting people to mobilize their best effort, particularly when struggling.

Rising Pessimism and Desperation

Think about a time you have "given up" on something. Why did that happen? Part of the reason is probably that you did not feel you would be successful. Perhaps you just didn't know how to proceed, or you knew up to a certain point but also saw a roadblock you could not figure a way around. Sometimes you realize that you can do it, but it would take a lot of extra work, and it's just not worth all the effort.

Regardless, hope and optimism are important in helping us to persist in difficult or challenging tasks. We usually need to see "light at the end of the tunnel" and know that our engine can get us there! Something else happens when we start to feel the stress of impending failure. We get upset. We get desperate. We start to worry and our thinking actually gets narrower. It gets harder and harder to see connections and answers that are right there in front of us.

18 Minutes to Stress Meltdown

Eighteen minutes. Eighteen minutes is about as much time as children can spend on homework that they have no idea how to do. After about 18 minutes -- shorter for younger kids and kids who may be a little more restless in general, and a bit longer for older kids and those who are persistent by nature -- the stress levels reach a maximum and productive effort is at a minimum. At that point, kids are looking to distract themselves from their sense of failure. If a pet or sibling happens to be walking by during the 19th minute, you can be pretty sure trouble is not far behind.

Why? As soon as there is turmoil, conflict, and the like, the child trying to do homework can forget about his or her failure and focus on the tumult that is going on. It is wonderfully and effectively distracting from the sense of hopelessness and failure that is built up by homework frustrations.

From what we know about how many children (and adults) react to mounting stress with a minimum chance of escape through task completion, something has to "give." Usually, in the case of homework, what "gives" is peace in the house.

Give Kids Strength Breaks

If we are to handle this in a sensible way, we need to give our kids "strength breaks." Many kids actually take these anyway. They doodle, they daydream, or they lose focus on their work. Sometimes after they do this, they get themselves back on track. Often, however, their "distraction" becomes a source of conflict with parents: "Stop wasting time and get back to your work!" "I am working! Leave me alone!" Pretty soon, there is arguing, an upset parent with high blood pressure, and an unhappy child who can hardly concentrate on his or her homework.

Try Another Approach to Homework

So, how do you apply these insights? After your child has worked on a homework task to the point of frustration, give a strength break. Let your child take up to five minutes... no longer than that... and do something that he or she is good at and finds to be a source of pride or talent. For some kids, playing a song on a musical instrument is helpful; other like to sing or listen to a song. Sometimes, kids need to get up, shoot a basket, ride a bicycle up and down the block, or do something else active. Kids who have problems with writing assignments might like to do a math puzzle; kids struggling over math might want to read from a book of rhymes or silly poems. You will find kids who just need to stare out the window, others who will draw or create something with Legos or the like, and others who need to do a quick email to a friend.

When your kids then get back to work, the stress clock is once again set at zero. They have another 18 minutes (or so) to bring fresh energy to whatever it is they were doing. But here is the key: by taking a strength break, kids remind themselves that they are competent, that they have skills, and that maybe they can tackle this tough task also. Not only that, by mobilizing kids' sense of hope and optimism, parents help them bring new creativity to the task. Children are likely to see the situation differently, or maybe see something they had stared at for 18 minutes and never noticed earlier, and never would have noticed had they just kept trying to work in an atmosphere of mounting frustration and hopelessness.

A past issue of Harvard Health Watch summarized five research studies that suggested many physical and emotional benefits of a positive outlook. In one study of 616 men, being optimistic showed an impact on blood pressure.

Researchers are still trying to figure out all the ways in which a positive point of view helps us to do our best. But one thing is clear and has been since McLandburgh Wilson observed it in 1915: The optimist sees the doughnut. But the pessimist sees the hole.

If kids abuse the strength break, which they certainly will try to do at first, you can eliminate it and you will be no worse off than you are now. But if you stick to the structure, most kids will get the message and go along after they see they can't push the limits. And they will like the results. Help your kids see the doughnut!

This excerpt comes from Emotionally Intelligent Parenting, available at Amazon.

Maurice Elias

Professor, Rutgers University Psychology Department and Edutopia Blogger
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