The kids are home from school, they’ve snacked, chatted about the day, and run around a bit to burn off some energy. They’re ready to hunker down and start their homework.
Homework can be one of the most frustrating and stressful aspects of being a child – and a parent. For some, this academic chore is accomplished smoothly and without conflict. For others – many others – it’s a daily battle that can end with a child in tears and a parent exasperated. As parents, we must refrain from doing an assignment for our child, but we are responsible for three basics things that help ensure success:
1. The Right Space
Some teachers will tell you to set up a quiet homework space with absolutely no distractions for your child. But that kind of silence may not be compatible with the way your child works or studies.
• Know the environment your child works best in. “What I believe about homework is that it’s really about getting into your zone,” says Sally Hoyle, Ph.D., a child and family psychologist and author of the book Same Homework, New Plan (Child & Family Press, 2005). “Parents are in a position to know what works best for their child to get them in their zone, but they also need to take some feedback from their child.”
It’s not just about the physical space your child is working in, Hoyle says. There are visual, auditory and even tactile elements at play here. Some children may do homework better in their pajamas or sweatpants; others need a beverage and snack nearby; and still others have to listen to music while doing the work. Some kids want a parent nearby for occasional guidance; others don’t.
Ask your child what kind of environment works best for him or her, but be prepared to negotiate if you don’t agree with some of the criteria.
• Keep the homework space clean, well lit and uncluttered.
• Don’t budge on requests to do homework in front of the TV, a video game or the computer. Say no, and stand firm, Hoyle urges. All of these are distractions that hamper learning, understanding of the assignment and getting it done.
“Nobody can watch TV and get anything done,” she insists.
The same is true for home computers, which can distract kids with emails, instant messaging and the lure of the Internet. If your child needs to use the computer to complete a homework assignment, monitor what he’s doing, Hoyle says.
• Set a time to complete assignments each day and stick to it. If homework must be completed before watching TV, playing video games, using the computer for fun or heading out with friends, set those ground rules at the beginning of the year.
2. The Right Supplies
• Place a basket of supplies in your child’s homework space. Include pens, pencils, colored pencils, markers, erasers, index cards, notebook paper and graphing paper. Other useful supplies to have on hand include scissors, a ruler, paper clips, a stapler, a glue stick and poster board.
• Provide highlighter markers and sticky notes to help your child mark important areas in her notebooks, on handouts or in books.
• Ask the child’s teacher whether the child should be working with a calculator and, if so, what type you should purchase.
• A dictionary, thesaurus and globe are learning tools that kids will refer to again and again. And don’t forget the value of a library card, which allows your child to check out books from your community library for use with research projects and papers.
Having all of these items readily accessible will make homework time more efficient and minimize the distraction of having to scrounge for supplies.
3. The Right Support
The perennial question from parents when it comes to homework is when and how much we should help our kids. And the perennial answer is that we should never end up doing their homework for them.
“It’s a mistake, mainly because what you’re teaching them is that if you’re stuck and in a tight place, you don’t have to problem-solve. You can just let someone else do it for you,” Hoyle says.
That doesn’t mean you should always shrug your shoulders and say “you figure it out” when your child comes to you with a tough math problem. Your role, says Hoyle, should be to act as a guide.
Most important is that you keep your cool, she adds. Kids can become very frustrated if they don’t understand their homework material. The next time your child asks you how to answer a tough question or complete a difficult project:
• Ask what he thinks needs to be done to find the answer. Then encourage him to try that method and see if it works.
• Guide your child to the computer and, together, search for homework help Web sites. Help your child choose one most likely to assist with the question, Hoyle says.
• Consider purchasing academic curriculum books (third-grade math or fifth-grade history, for instance) from the homeschooling section of your local bookstore. These books can help you guide your child toward the answers to difficult questions, Hoyle says.
• If you’re both baffled by an assignment or homework question, write a note to the teacher, Hoyle suggests. “Something like, ‘We worked on this for an hour. I don’t know how to do this, and my son somehow missed the boat on the concept. What can we do to help him understand what you’re teaching and get this assignment done?’”
• Teach your kids to always have a plan – a set of strategies to deal with those times when a question or assignment stumps them. “That plan might be to get help from the teacher, look something up on the Internet, ask an older brother because he might know how to do this problem,” Hoyle says. “It’s really about teaching kids how to manage stress.”
Without a plan, she says, “kids get upset and it escalates. Parents get upset and it escalates. Nobody can come up with a plan when they’re freaked out.”
And if your child really is “freaked out,” step back and play the role of a coach.
“If a coach told your kids to take a lap around the field, they’d just do it. The problem with homework is that kids whine, they carry on. Then the parents scream and it’s a disaster,”
Hoyle says. Act more like a coach. “Tell your child, ‘Go get yourself together for five minutes and come back to me when you’re ready to discuss how you’re going to get this done.’”