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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The Homework Trap

Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.

Clinical Psychologist & Author of The Homework Trap

As a clinical psychologist, I don't have strong opinions about whether or not homework should be given. I have doubts about its value, but I believe in deferring educational decisions to those who teach our kids. My concern is not homework, per se, but homework policy and its effects on some kids. I believe that anywhere from 10 percent to 25 percent of all children have such serious problems completing their assignments that, on balance, the overall effect of demanding that they comply does more harm than good. In speaking to countless parents and teachers, the feedback I get is nearly universal. Everyone has a homework horror story to tell.

Over the years I have worked with a lot of families to help them successfully navigate the tumultuous waters of homework-noncompliance. Here are some tips for parents. Teachers, feel free to share these with your students' parents as well.

Your first and most important step is to fully assume your role as head of your home. You must embrace the concept that you are in charge and have the right to establish, in your home, the norms in which you believe. You do that in every other area of your child's life -- religious training, sports participation, piano lessons, family vacations, relationships with relatives, dinner rituals, the list goes on. In each case, what you do reflects your values and beliefs. You may not run your home the way other people do. Who knows? Maybe your approach is better. Maybe it is not. It does not matter. This is what it means to be the head of your home. The simple act of taking this common-sense notion and applying it to the expectations you set in your home regarding homework immediately gives you greater authority with your child than you had before. Right now, you feel like an agent, working for the school. You've been engaged in parent-teacher meetings, intended to help your child improve, yet, they end up diminishing the authority you have. You've been placed in a position of responsibility without authority, and that's a dead end when it comes to being an effective parent. First and foremost, own the role of head of the home. Your child needs to understand that he is dealing with you and the rules you set, in your home, not dictates coming from school.

Second, you need to establish time-based rules for your child's homework time. He needs to know when homework time starts and when it stops, just like he knows when his school day starts and stops. Ask yourself how much time you think a child his age should spend on educational tasks. Seven hours? Seven and a half hours? Eight hours? More? Consider your job and the job his other parent has. How much time do you each spend at work? If that amount is reasonable for an adult, what do you think is reasonable and fair for a person your child's age? Once you have a number, subtract the amount of time he spends in school (I assume it is about six and a half hours), and that gives you a possible standard for what you expect him to do.

Alternatively, use the Harris Cooper standard of ten minutes per night per grade. Ten minutes for first grade, twenty for second grade, you get the idea. Or ask the teachers during Back to School Night how much time they expect your child to work. Write those numbers down and decide if the total makes sense to you. If it does, use that as a basis for determining how much work your child must do.

Third, control the environment. Turn the TV off. Prohibit cell phone use. Restrict the computer only to its use as a tool for getting homework done (researching materials on the Internet, or as a word processor).

Fourth, identify the exact times of day (try to keep it consistent) when homework will be done. You can discuss your decisions with your son, and even give him some room to negotiate with you. But in the end, tie the notions of the quiet environment, fixed time frames and agreed upon homework hours together, so he understands he's not entering the abyss of unending work, but a limited time/space frame in which to comply. I'm sure he has resisted your efforts in the past, but remember, you are giving him a big incentive to cooperate, i.e. that homework-doing time will come to an end.

Fifth, alter your interactions with your child. Say the H-word at most twice a day, when homework starts and when homework stops. Say the word with neutral affect, and in a matter of fact. Don't fight, and if you do fight, don't use the word homework during the argument.

Sixth, emphasize the positives. Keep in mind that shaping is needed to undo negative behaviors, and that involves reward for small efforts and partial success. If you have something critical or negative to say, adopt the 4-1 rule, four positive statements for every critical one made.

Seventh, model academic behavior. Read a book, perhaps in the room where he does his work. Make yourself available without hovering over or monitoring what he does.

Eighth, be an observer, not an enforcer. Make mental notes (whether you are in the room with him, or periodically passing by) of what he is doing, and what problems he seems to have. Try to understand the particular reason why your child is having problems with the work.

Ninth, consider the issue educational, not moral or behavioral. Think about what problems of learning may be contributing to his homework difficulties. In particular, pay attention to signs of problems with working memory (lapsed attention) and processing speed (poor handwriting or slow reading skills).

Tenth, preserve your family. Remember, the family is there to protect its members and help them refuel for the next day. I doubt that you expect that your partner or spouse will get on your case when you come home to continue working at the job you have. You expect respite, a time to unwind, some feeling of relief. Your child deserves that, too. Tenaciously hold onto the qualitative factors you want and enjoy in your home.

These are steps you can take in your home, whether or not the school is on board, whether or not they are willing to make change.

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