Homework is one of the biggest issues that parents and teachers work on together – and it’s one of the things that kids hate most about school. One of our educational myths is that all children need to do homework every night. Research tells us that for elementary school children, homework has little or no effect on academic achievement. A head start on establishing good study habits is probably the most positive outcome from elementary homework – that, and an opportunity for parents to keep track of their child’s progress in the curriculum. Homework in middle school has a moderate effect on achievement, but it’s really during high school that homework becomes an important factor for academic progress.
Parents are often concerned about the amount of time their children spend on homework – either too much or too little. Many school systems have a “rule of thumb” about the appropriate amount of homework: ten minutes per grade level is the most common. So your first grader should have 10 minutes of homework, your fifth grader should have 50 minutes of homework, and so forth. By the time students are in high school, a general expectation is 1 to 2 hours of homework every evening.
Another policy issue is the effect of homework on the final grade. Many students get poor grades because they don’t do homework and get zeroes in the grade book. In my school system, the homework policy recommends that homework be no more than 15% of the grade in elementary and middle school, and no more than 20% in high school.
We all know that homework can make evenings a living hell. When children have piles of homework every night in elementary and middle school, it’s often because they aren’t finishing their work at school. In other words, they’re doing a day’s worth of work, plus homework, every evening. I’d cry too! Your child may be really struggling with the school work, or he may need to develop organized study habits. In any case, if homework seems excessive or if your child gets upset every night, it’s time to take four steps:
-Find out if your school or school system has an official homework policy, and read it.
-Schedule a parent/teacher conference.
-Establish a homework routine
-Work out an incentive system for homework completion.
The first step is to find out if there is an official homework policy. In my school system, it’s under School Board Policies on the system website. If you can’t find it, ask the teacher. If there isn’t one, you have an excellent project to suggest to the principal, the superintendent, or a school board member. The homework policy gives you an idea of how much time your child should be spending on homework and how it affects grades.
The second step is to schedule a parent/teacher conference. Teachers want children to complete assignments and learn the material, but they also want children and families to have time at home to relax. Your goal at the conference is to find out two things:
-How much time the teacher expects homework to take every night.
-What’s going on in class that’s causing the problem if your child’s homework load is greater than it should be.
Then it’s your turn to tell the teacher how much time your child’s homework is actually taking, and share any observations you have about your child’s work or work habits. If your child is forgetting to bring home assignments and books, ask about setting up a check-out system at the end of each day. If your child is fooling around all day and not completing work, suggest a home/school behavior plan. If your child is struggling with the work, ask about academic interventions and progress-monitoring. Write down the plan, and schedule a follow-up conference. Be clear about what the teacher will do and what you will do. Involve student support staff (school psychologist, guidance counselor, school nurse) as necessary.
Teachers can also offer accommodations to help your child complete homework. This is very common for children with special needs. Here are some ideas to discuss:
-Agree to the amount of time the child will work at home. The teacher will then accept the work that was completed and give a grade based on what the child actually finished.
-Reduce the homework load. For example, having a reduced spelling list or only doing the odd math problems.
-Do the assignments a little differently. For example, write one word answers instead of complete sentences for social studies questions. Dictate longer answers to a parent, or use a computer for writing. Allow a parent to read the assignment to the child, or take turns reading.
The third and fourth steps are to establish a homework routine and an incentive system. Some children can get homework done pretty much independently, and it isn’t an issue. Others, though, drag their families through three and four hours of crying and screaming every night. Life is too short for that! The National Association of School Psychologists (NASP) has an excellent homework survival guide for parents on their website. Go to www.nasponline.org, select the Families tab, find the Back to School section, and select Homework: A Guide for Parents. Peg Dawson, a school psychologist from New Hampshire, has a lot of suggestions about setting up routines and reward systems. I’ll briefly summarize her points:
-Set up a routine for where and when homework will be done. Choose a place, and set up a homework center with supplies and a calendar for due dates. Remember that some children do best in a quiet spot away from the family, but others need to be near Mom or Dad for help and supervision. Do homework at the same time every day. Some children do best if they get it finished up as soon as they get home from school, but others need to play or relax first.
-Help your children set a homework schedule every day. Sit down with them for a minute or two and review their assignments, make sure they have all the necessary materials, set time limits for each assignment, decide in what order to do the assignments, and schedule in a break or two.
-Set up a system of rewards for homework completion. Some children do fine if they just have something good to look forward to when homework is finished, like a favorite TV show. Others need something a little fancier, like earning points towards a bigger reward.
-Write a homework contract that states expectations and rewards.
Different children need different homework routines. Children need to be part of the discussion and planning for their own homework routine, because you are teaching them to be responsible for their own learning. The big decisions are: Where will homework be done, when will homework be done, what are the rewards for completing homework appropriately, and what are the consequences for failing to complete homework appropriately?
It’s your job as a parent to provide the setting and structure your children need to complete homework. It’s also important to provide the supplies and organizational tools your children need. Supplies include paper, pencils, markers, ruler, calculator, and glue stick. A timer helps many kids keep on track. The most important organizational tool is a calendar. At the beginning of the year, write down school holidays and the dates report cards come out. As the year progresses, keep track of field trips, picture day, conferences, science fair, SAT dates, and due dates for assignments – especially long-term ones.
Some children are motivated and rewarded by grades. Others need external rewards and consequences. Adults like to talk about what “should” motivate kids, but the truth is that grades aren’t important to everyone. Start where your child is when it comes to rewards and consequences! Some children are motivated to do homework by the promise of TV or computer time after it’s finished. Others need the opportunity to earn points towards a bigger reward. Some children need immediate rewards. Others like to work toward a bigger weekly reward. Here’s a sample homework contract for a sixth grader named Dana:
Dana agrees to: Bring her assignment sheet home every night.
Bring home the books she needs for the assignments.
Fill out a homework schedule as soon as she gets home.
Follow the homework schedule.
Work at the kitchen table while Mom gets dinner.
Ask for help when she needs it.
Place completed homework in her backpack.
Mom agrees to: Help Dana fill out the homework schedule every day.
Keep the homework center stocked with supplies.
Help Dana when she asks for help.
Let Dana be responsible for her own homework.
Motivators: If Dana completes homework appropriately all week, she can
-skip all chores on Friday
-sleep in Saturday morning
-earn points towards a guitar
-one point for each completed assignment
-one point = 25 cents
Consequence: No TV or cell phone on any night Dana doesn’t finish homework in a reasonable amount of time and with a good attitude.
If you have a child who is struggling with homework, pick just one of these four steps to get started. Look up the homework policy online, or touch base with the teacher. Set up a homework center, or get a calendar and write down assignments. Just get started, and add steps as you can. In the end, you’ll have a solution to the homework problem.
Our very own education specialist Alice Wellborn is now a regular contributor at FlyLady.net and we are thrilled to share her wise words with all of you. Alice is a school psychologist and the author of the amazingly helpful book No More Parents Left Behind. Get the book at: No More Parents Left Behind
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