Bag of tricks: The homework edition - FamilyEducation

Bag of tricks: The homework edition

August 20,2008
While many kids around the country are trying to squeeze the last remaining drops out of summer, over here at Professor Mom's house we've been back to school for almost three weeks now. And now that the dust has settled somewhat for us and for the other parents of kids at L.'s school, a new topic of conversation is springing up in the walk-up line: homework. The other day, a mom in front of me in line was lamenting to another parent about how her middle-school-aged daughter threw a two-hour tantrum over a spelling assignment. And on Monday, the mom of a new kindergartener asked me (me!) for advice on homework strategies. I always have lots of advice to give, I really do, because it's no secret that homework has been the bane of our existence from Day One. I don't always have the solutions, though. There are many, many kids in L.'s class who don't like homework, but it's important to separate liking homework from having the ability to get it done without turning the house upside down--literally and figuratively. No one likes homework, really. T. likes it now because the homework she does is "pretend" homework. She'll sit at the table with her Tinker Bell notebook open and painstakingly write her lines and lines of perfectly shaped letter "o's" and "t's"--the only letters she can really write. But very quickly kids learn that homework measures them; that it cuts into the precious after-school time. After a long day at school it's just painful for most kids to have to sit down and reconnect with school work once they are home. As a part of the parenting support group we belong to, we've been to a handful of workshops on organization and homework. I've also gathered tons of helpful advice over these past three years on homework strategies, because we've made it our mission to try; to figure out a way to get through it as painlessly as possible. I'll unpack here my own homework "bag of tricks"--we've used all of these at one time or the other. Homework tricks, like responsibility charts, have a shelf life of their own and should come with a label: Rotate often, tweak when necessary. Create a designated homework spot for your children to retreat to every afternoon to complete their work. This can be the kitchen table, the dining room, or their desk in their bedroom. We've tried them all. We used the kitchen table all last year, and L.'s bedroom and our office off and on. After three years of playing musical desks/rooms, we called it quits, and this year implemented a new strategy. More on that later. Be consistent in the choice of location and TRY never, ever, to be tempted to let your kids do homework in front of the television. Even if they might be able to get it done, it sets a terrible precedent for later. Believe me, I teach many college kids who still do their homework in front of the TV, with very poor results. If your children must do homework in a noisy, high-traffic area and they are easily distracted, let them put up a cardboard "privacy shield." You can buy these at school supply shops (they look like this) but it's obviously a lot cheaper to make one of your own using a trifold display board or a sheet of construction paper folded in three places. A friend of mine who homeschools her three kids has all of them do their homework at the dining room table. Each child has a shield around him or her, to prevent distractions. You can even hang their homework sheets on the inside of the shield, so they can look up or see what they need to do. Or better yet, hang a picture of the treat they will get when they've finished their homework--whether it's a picture of an ice cream, video game time, or a trip to the park. If your house is noisy, try playing some classical music in the room where your child is working. Scientific studies have shown that people work better with classical music--something about organizing brain patterns and reducing stress. (I don't have the link to back this up, but I KNOW there must be data out there. When I did a quick google search this morning, it looked like classical music can do everything from lowering crime rates to boosting the immune system, so you know it must do wonders for homework!) Small children get overwhelmed by homework. Grown-up people get overwhelmed by having to make their young children do homework. Nothing is worse for a kid (and a parent) then having an open-ended, no-end-in-sight perception of the work that must be done. Set a timer and let your child work for a designated period of time. If all the work doesn't get done, don't sweat it. As long as your child is trying, that's what counts. For a kindergartener I would set the timer for ten minutes, and then increase it as school goes on. For first and second graders, 20-30 minutes of homework seems doable. You can use your oven timer, or an hourglass one, or this nifty virtual one. Pick your battles and be strategic about what gets done. Don't try to fix everything your child does on his or her homework sheet. If they are struggling with handwriting as well as with answering sentence questions, let them work on one of those, but not both at once--it's overwhelming. If your child seems to enjoy math but hates writing, save the math for later in the week, if possible, when your child is tired and fried, and encourage her to do the writing earlier, when she is still fresh from the weekend. And finally...sometimes homework just can't be done at home. After struggling with it for three years--and by "struggle" I mean we really struggled--we decided to throw in the towel on doing homework at home. It just wasn't worth it, and the stress and battles were not only impacting our whole family, but also causing so much stress that L. wouldn't even eat dinner as a result. We decided to try tackling L.'s homework before he left school for the day. When we broached this with the school at his last IEP, everyone seemed to think this was a brilliant idea. So now I have a special tote bag waiting by the front door. When it's time to leave to pick up L., I load it up with some snacks, drinks, T.'s "homework" notebook, and stickers and activities for her. When school is dismissed, the kids and I slip back in through the side entrance and head to our "homework room"--a small and empty resource room. I am so in love with this plan. I am so in love with it, I recommend it to everyone and I can't believe it took us this long to try it. There's something about being at school, in the school environment, that takes the fighting about homework right out of the equation. It gives me a chance to look through L.'s folders, and to talk with him about his day, with hardly any distractions to pull him in a million directions. And the best part is that when we leave school, we all walk a little lighter, I think, knowing that the work is done and that the precious home time waiting for us is all ours, to do with as we please. What are your homework survival tips? Have you found any tried-and-true methods that work for you? Please share them here, just in case the shelf life on ours runs out.