Don’t Let the Homework Blues get you down
I have two children in middle school this year, one that just started and one that is about to cross into high school. They are complete opposites in the homework spectrum. One of them breezes through his homework if he does it at all. At the end of the quarter it is always a rush job to get all of his assignments turned in. My other one will spend hours working on her homework problems, and many times doesn’t seem to understand the assignment. Both of them however end up getting good grades – mostly through the weight of the examinations performed in the classroom. Thank goodness.
Combined my children now have 17 years of homework experience – which means I have 17 years of guiding children through completing challenging homework assignments, book reports, science projects, and math equations. Yes, you could say that I have only been at it for a total of 9 years, but because they are both so different it’s double duty! Nevertheless, it doesn’t matter how different they are, there are 5 habits that they both use to succeed with their homework.
Homework Success Habit 1: Plan It Out
This was one of the skills that both of my children learned in elementary. The teachers sent home an agenda in which they wrote out what they did each day. Part of their homework was to have me sign it, and of course they always wanted it signed while I was making dinner. While it seemed silly at the time – the agenda consisted of activities like ‘Math’, not Math page 8 #’s 14-20, just Math – it helped to set them up for success now that they are in middle school.
In Elementary they had one teacher who was responsible for teaching the entire curriculum, but in middle school they now have 7 different classes with 7 different teachers. It would be impossible for a grown adult to keep track of all the assignments that were in progress, how is a thirteen year old supposed to accomplish it? The agenda. The middle school still provides one to them at the beginning of the year, but there isn’t any emphasis on using it. This year I purchased my kids an agenda. It’s basically the same as what the school provides but with flashier colors and helpful quick facts at the end.
The habit is hard – for all of us – but it works. Now when I look at their agenda it reads Science – current event, Math Page 8 #’s 14 – 20, Vocabulary test Friday. I can check in with them, and see how they are progressing on their assignments, remind them if necessary, and make them redo if I see (and they know) it’s not quality work. Without the agenda, I would have to rely on their memory or communication from the teacher to know what is going on in the classroom; because we all know that the answer to ‘What did you do at school today?’ is ‘Nothing’.
Homework Success Habit 2: Set Aside The Time
The approach I take is different than many other families I know. It’s not as simple as saying ‘Do your homework first thing when you get home’. I am not there to supervise them, and they want to relax and brush off the day’s stresses before they dive back in. After all, that’s what I do as an adult. I often bring work home with me, but before I finish it all up I sit down and relax, talk to the kids, make dinner, clean up, whatever I need to do to get a second wind that will allow me to finish up. Why would my children be any different? Instead of making them do it right away, I check in with them when I get home. We review what homework they have and what is left to do, then we set the next ‘milestone’ event (after dinner, in 30 minutes when their friend leaves, once the YouTube video they are watching is over) for when they will begin completing their homework. I find that if I force them to do it on my schedule, there is much more angst and then the lesson is lost.
They are also required to read for at least 20 minutes a day. I believe reading is a pleasure and not an assignment so why should they jump from algebra equations to Lord of the Rings just because it’s the requirement? Instead I send them to their rooms with their book 30 minutes before bedtime. They are actually allowed to stay up as long as they want, they just have to be reading. My daughter normally falls asleep within 30 minutes, but my son has been awake on a gripping page turner for over an hour. Allowing the requirement to happen like this serves two purposes: it allows them to wind down and enjoy the story and it removes the present of the electronic light so they can move into their regular and natural sleep cycle.
Homework Success Habit 3: Positive Reinforcement
It’s a little cliché to “pay for grades” but I do it. There is a scale too. At the end of the quarter they are rewarded with five dollars for every A, 2.50 for every B, there is a 3 dollar deduction for a C and for anything less there is a 10 dollar deduction and some serious consequences. So with this they have the ability to make 30 dollars a quarter and are rewarded for extraordinary achievement and have a consequence for unacceptable performance. There has only ever been one C received, and it was all because the homework wasn’t getting turned in – not because he didn’t know the material. He was very disappointed that quarter, what could have been an A turned out to be a C all because he was being lazy with his assignments.
I don’t put a lot of pressure on my children to make the good grades. The rewards are there for them to set a goal and meet it. It’s their choice to perform or not. The classes they are in are well within their capabilities (maybe even way below their abilities) so it’s not a matter of can’t, a bad grade would be a result of won’t.
This is the way it is in the adult world too, it’s just not as clearly defined as 5 dollars for an A. If I have a presentation to do, and I do an acceptable job at it, I am rewarded with my paycheck. If I do poorly, I could receive a poor review and pay increases or bonuses will be affected. If I do exemplary work I may work into a promotion, get an extra bonus, or just receive the respect of my peers.
Homework Success Habit 4: Provide Guidance and Support
This comes up quite often – especially in math. I have never been very good at math, and I am embarrassed to say that my daughter is entering the realm of algebraic expressions that stumped me when I was in high school. I am also not in their classes and not interested in doing their work for them. When my children come to me for help on an assignment I help them find a way to approach the problem so that they can solve it. For instance, if my daughter needs help on a math problem, I help her break it into manageable pieces so that she can find the path to solving the problem. If my son is writing a paper, I may help him think of different perspectives to write from instead of taking the obvious path. The point is I help them approach the task and create a path for the solution. After school no one tells you what the problem even is – how are you going to be able to solve it! By having a foundation that allows them to analyze and approach the assignment they are learning lifelong problem solving skills. Also, if I were to solve the math problems they would probably be wrong.
I also pay special attention to the assignments that they are struggling with. If necessary I encourage them to go to school early to get some extra instruction on that lesson. The teachers at the school are always available to help if there is a need. Encouraging them to ask for help works right in line with the positive reinforcements, and it’s a skill that many adults lack. As we get older our mommies are not there to complete the financial reports or make the deadline for the writing assignment. If you cannot learn to seek out assistance, then you are not going to be able to improve your skills as you progress through life. If absolutely necessary I will drop an email to the teacher and let them know that my child is struggling. They will then help provide extra support and guidance.
Homework Success Habit 5: Show an Interest
As a parent you should show visible interest in everything your child does right? In an idealistic world that might be true, but in reality it’s impossible. I definitely think you should be aware of what your child is doing – but do you have to be sitting next to them the whole time they are working on their assignments? Let’s hope not.
By middle school my kids have learned things that I never learned, they are reminding me of things I have long since forgotten, and I am sharing the ways that I learned some of my childhood assignments (reciting the states in alphabetical order anyone?). Using the assignments and the classroom topics as conversation pieces lets them know you are interested in what they are doing. It’s easy to start a conversation with my son about chemical reactions when we are driving somewhere, and he can go on for days – especially with my utter lack of knowledge in the area. My utter lack of knowledge has also opened up his though processes when I ask a question that he had not yet considered. Talking about school work is also much more interesting than listening to them talk about Minecraft or a television show, and it’s much better than a quiet drive while they listen to music on their phones.
I am sure that we still have quite a bit of work to do to make the homework environment at our home be the homework environment to beat all homework environments, and no doubt high school is going to make us rethink some of our approaches. There is such an influx of change happening, that it’s all you can do to adapt. Having some general guidelines to help you structure the adaptation is the key. Using those guidelines as a mechanism to reinforce everyday life skills is a must.