Homework

I like the teacher who gives you something to take home and think about besides homework.-Lily Tomlin

Labor Day is over, so just about anyone going back to school is now there. And where there is school, there is usually homework.  Although research is not clear on the benefits of homework, about 70% of teachers assign homework.  So it’s probably coming your child’s way.  I, for one, do believe in the value of some homework, even if simply to introduce the idea that some things done in the classroom might have value outside of the classroom.  Let’s face it; it’s useful to know how to work with fractions in daily living, not to mention basic reading and writing.  Kids might as well be helped to learn to use those skills outside of the supervised classroom.  Plus, why are we teaching civics, history, social studies and literature if we do not care whether kids learn to be thinking members of society.  And finally, there will be homework in college, so if you are planning on your kids going to college (and graduating), they should be able to handle some homework.

So I will come out on the position of homework as being in favor of some.  But not too much.  And like anything else in learning, there is no one-size-fits-all in terms of homework requirements.  Most kids can handle some homework, but some kids can handle very little.

  • The child with attention deficit disorder may simply have exhausted his attention by the end of the day.  He may have very little left to give in the evening.
  • The child with sensory processing disorder may also be exhausted and irritable after spending the day in the busy classroom.  She too may find homework overwhelming.
  • The child with a reading disability may whiz through a page of math problems, but stall out on reading and summarizing the history chapter.  Vice versa for the kid with a math disability.
  • The child who does not process language well is perfectly willing to do the homework, but never knows exactly what she is supposed to do.  Anxiety prevails because she is afraid the teacher will get mad.

These kids will need some homework modifications (which we will get into later).  For now, let’s start with the basics.

  • How much homework?  The rule of thumb is no more than 10 minutes a night per grade level.  So a first grader would have ten minutes of homework, a second grader would have no more than 20 minutes, etc.  By 12 grade, a student should have no more than two hours a night of homework (though we know that by 12th grade, this can vary from no homework that night to working into the wee hours to complete a major project that was not planned out as well as needed).  If a child routinely has to spend 3-4 hours a night trying to finish homework, something is wrong.
  • What should homework consist of?  It should be practice or review or at least working with familiar information. This would include practicing a math concept learned that day or generating some ideas about civil rights based on a discussion in civics that day.  Homework is not a time for new learning.  This can be a problem for kids who did not digest the concept being taught that day.  If a child never seems to know how to do the assigned homework or it is often “too hard,” something is wrong.
  • How much help should a parent give?  The short answer is-some help some of the time. The benefits of help from parents are mixed (surprisingly) differing in different families and different situations. Overall, I recommend some availability. For younger children, a parent should be nearby, available to compliment work, provide a little help for a challenging spot and simply being a little company while work gets done.  For older children, a parent can be available to listen to thoughts for a paper or provide a little support for particularly difficult math problems.   If a parent must sit with a child throughout homework, providing support, re-direction and comfort much of the time, then something is wrong.
  • How should children feel about homework?  Children need not feel excited or thrilled about homework, but they should feel that these are tasks that they can handle.  They should also feel that there is some benefit to doing the homework and can get a sense of accomplishment from doing it.  If homework is consistently a time of tears and frustration (on both child and parents’ part), then something is wrong.

Let’s stop here for a little personal story about the Queen and homework.  The Queen (my daughter for newbies) was in first grade when this story takes place.  It was getting along in the school year, probably around April or so.  A pattern had emerged in our house.  It had become my job to nag her about doing her homework and her job to complain about it.  Then one day it hit me-I have a Ph.D. in this.

So I called the Queen over and asked, “Do you want to do your homework?”

“Yes.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because the teacher gives us a prize at the end of the week.”

“Fine,” I said, “Call me if you need me.”  And then I stepped out of the picture.

Things went remarkably smoothly. The Queen did not approach homework on the same timeline that I would have recommended, but she got it done by the end of the week (the classroom requirement).    And really, if she was going to screw up on the road to independence, first grade is a fine time to do it.

Since then, homework has largely been her responsibility. I am there for moral support, school supplies, editing support (if asked) and shared confusion over certain algebra problems.  There have been moments of wailing and gnashing of teeth (mostly her, sometimes me), but that is to be expected as the Queen sets high standards for herself (and is never one to suffer in silence).

So, what to do though if your child cannot handle homework and there are no ‘easy’ fixes?  First, try to figure out the source of the problem. Is the work too hard?  Is his attention span shot?  Is there a specific learning challenge (e.g., reading disorder, writing problem) that makes some tasks feel insurmountable?  Is your “sensory” child tired and irritable (and saves that irritability for mom because she would never whine, complain, cry, wail or throw herself on the ground for the teacher!)  Does your child often not fully understand what to do?

The solution depends on the problem.

  • For attention problems – Shorten the homework.  Talk to the teacher about reducing some of the tasks.  Some children will have a much better learning experience doing 3 math problems well rather than 20 math problems poorly.  Writing tasks should be broken up over several days. Parents can help by taking dictation for key ideas so the child does not have to hold onto ideas in his head while trying to compose. For independent reading, read to your child and possibly have him read one sentence in the text.  The very first homework goal to strive for is the feeling in the child of I CAN do my homework!  For the very young children, very simple practice tasks may have to be substituted for actual assignments.  They might be required to write their name neatly, do one math problem with an answer of less than 10, and be read to from a favorite book.  Space those tasks out with movement breaks in between. Yes, this is all you can expect of some children. High fives when it is done (no sighs).  Stay calm-they have a decade to mature into regular homework expectations. Just try for incremental improvements each year.
  • For children with reading problems-Practice reading with text that is within their abilities. Go for short reading pieces from age-appropriate children’s magazines.  Read to them if the text feels too demanding.  If reading remains a challenge due to a reading disability, do not hesitate to use books-on-tape.  There are great resources such as Learningally.org and Bookshare.org.  Remember, there is nothing magical about reading to learn.  We do it because we invented a printing press 600 years ago.  We have plenty of new technology to let kids access information. This is perfectly legitimate.
  • For children with writing problems-Penmanship and writing skills are at a crossroads.  We want great writing skills to emerge, but we have backed down on practicing the fine motor skills needed for good penmanship.  The writing demands shoot up straight from kindergarten. First graders are sent home with a writing prompt and the requirement to “write a story.”  Personally and professionally, it drives me crazy.  (Personally, because the Queen was still inverting letters in first grade and was not ready to write a story.  Of course, she planned to write a chapter book about her picture prompt.  I knew we would have tears within 15 minutes).  These demands do not seem to be going away so I have conjured up a few recommendations.   First, start developing keyboarding skills early. Have them in place by middle school.  Teachers are requiring more typed papers anyway and it removes all sort of handwriting problems and makes for easier editing.  Second, take some dictation.  If your child has to write a paper, have him dictate his key ideas to you.  Write down these phrases on individual cards or sticky notes.  Arrange these into groups according to the ideas generated. Each group is a paragraph.  Each card is to be developed into an individual sentence.  Hopefully, by college, your child will be able to jot out his own thoughts on cards.  Do not expect that skill before high school and often even then. Third, plan on this taking more than one night for children who have significant problems with writing.  Writing is an extremely demanding task requiring all sorts of multi-tasking.
  • For “sensory” kids or otherwise exhausted kids-Take a break.  Homework may not be feasible immediately after school.  Take a break for a healthy snack, some active play or some quiet time (though screen time is not recommended).  These children may also need shorter assignments, so talk to the teacher.  As with kids with attention problems, it is important to find homework demands that the child can accomplish in order to build a sense of homework competency.  Scale back, the scale back up slowly over the next several years.  Children continue to mature and change all the way into college.  Things will likely get better.
  • For the child who never seems to know what to do-Kids with attention problems may forget to write down homework assignments (and may leave the building a little enthusiastically).  Kids with auditory processing problems may not have realized the teacher was talking when the bell was ringing.  There are lots of reasons a kid may be missing the information. Talk with the teacher about how often homework will be assigned and a way of finding out the assignments.  Sometimes homework is standardized for younger children, so once the requirements are known, you are done.  For older children, there are now some homework portals for checking online (though some teachers have trouble keeping these updated).  It is also okay to help your child develop a relationship with a peer who can be the homework buddy-reliable person, hopefully nearby, who can keep your child posted on expectations.  Some schools offer after school tutoring or homework help where teachers are available to help.  Your child may have to attend this routinely while he is developing other ways of tracking homework.
  • For math disability-If a child truly has a math disability, they will need a modified math program and likely a math tutor to manage demands outside of home.  Again, talk to teachers about modifications.  It is useless to have a child spend his nights wildly guessing through math problems that are out of his range.  Math is also a skill that is constantly building on previous skills.  It is more critical to establish firm foundations than to try to move a child along outside of his pace.  With ‘foundations,’ I am talking about math concepts (the child understands the concepts of addition, subtraction, multiplication and division).  Memorizing math facts is different.  Kids who understand concepts, but can’t memorize the math facts, may simply need a calculator and they can keep moving forward.

There are some funny little things that can make homework time a little more manageable.

  • Popcorn or a crunchy snack-Jaw work is calming and organizing which is why some of us are nail chewers, shirt chewers or gum chewers.  A crunchy snack at homework is fun and may help a bit.
  • A little exercise or active play before starting homework-This will actually be absolutely necessary for some kids, but helpful for almost all.  Some parents tell me that homework is much easier on ‘busy’ days when there is soccer practice.  The movement helps. When the Queen was younger, the go-to quickie exercise was wheelbarrow walking. The inversion is alerting and the deep shoulder work is organizing.  Plus, it is funny which always helps.  Now, I just send her out for a quick run.  She will also stop and do push-ups if she feels frustration coming on.
  • No screen time prior to homework-Any screen time (television, videogames, YouTube, Facebook, Instagram) lowers alertness and can impact the transition into homework and the ability to persist.  If a child has been in front of a screen prior to homework, then the physical brief exercise becomes even more critical.
  • A workspace that is reasonably neat and stocked-Some children, if sent off to find the graph paper, may never find their way back.  Have pens, pencil, calculator, paper, graph paper, stapler, etc available at the homework spot.
  • Homework in the morning before school-For the rare early riser, homework in the morning when he or she is feeling fresh may be better than homework in the very exhausting evening time.

For any teacher, her homework plan is likely geared to be one-size-fits-most.  If that does not work for your child, get in there and advocate for changes that make the demands manageable.  And then continue inching your child towards the ‘regular homework.’  For children with certain challenges, this may take ten years, but that’s ok.

The worst thing a kid can say about homework is that it is too hard. The worst thing a kid can say about a game is it’s too easy.” – Henry Jenkins, Professor of Communication, Journalism, and Cinematic Arts at the University of Southern California.