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The Dancing Parent: Navigating Homework Hell, Part 3

Posted: 11/04/10 10:57 AM ET

Welcome back to our discussion of homework, and the experiences both parent and children can face in navigating the nightly assignments most schools require of students. In this, Part 3 of our series, let's take a look at how students may be viewing this frequent source of family tension. While it is important to acknowledge that some students do find great satisfaction in doing their schoolwork, for our purposes, let's take a look at why some children may not be.

Let's begin by taking a moment to recall your own school days. Were they a happy time? An anxiety-producing gauntlet? A painful memory? A blend of all of the above?

One thing we can likely all agree on is that it was, and is, a socially sensitive time for many, if not something of a potential minefield. At least that's how it can feel. And that is why, as you may also recall, many students are more focused on their social experiences, positive or challenging, than on their schoolwork.

That is the lens through which many students view their homework, as well as their lives in general. Just like their moms and dads, they too can be deeply affected by often unspoken or unrecognized mental and/or emotional issues or circumstances having more to do with how they feel about themselves and their various relationships than with their work. What's more, their choices about how they do their work may also be based on how they see their world.

For example, in some circumstances, being identified or labeled as a "smart kid" may lead to social alienation, and therefore, from your child's point of view, is to be carefully avoided. In such cases, his or her strategy regarding grades and homework may be to aim for an inexact middle ground, hoping their marks will be high enough to placate their parents and teachers, but not so high as to distinguish them from their peers.

For others, finding that middle ground may be a way of not setting themselves up for future failure. Better to curb the adult world's expectations of them by doing average or just passing work, than to to do their best, get good grades, and then be expected to maintain them in the future, when the material might be harder, or they may feel differently.

Others still avoid putting forth their best effort, fearing that if they try their best and fail, they might be revealed to be either incompetent or incapable. For them, nothing ventured means nothing lost. And that is why adults have to be careful when throwing around words like "lazy" or "irresponsible," because from your kid's point of view, he or she may be working very diligently indeed, but with a far different agenda, calculated to navigate the world -- their world -- as they see it.

Similarly, but in a separate vein, some kids do poorly as a way to individuate, to define themselves by defying their parents' interest in their academic achievement. Who said growing up was pretty?

Still, for others, there may be ongoing family circumstances, issues and challenges that occupy so much of a child's mental and emotional world that schoolwork may seem like background noise. The loss of a parent, sibling or friend through a divorce, a family move or a death, may be all-consuming to them. Like human beings at any age, keeping up with their work and assignments may be a near-impossibility without the attendant help of a parent or mentor.

Last, but not least, a child's struggle to do his or her work may have to do with a host of learning issues, including attention deficit symptoms. If they are left unrecognized, and thus left to fester, a student's experience of school can be extremely frustrating and deeply disheartening.

So given all of this, what can parents do if their child's homework is simply not getting done?

First and foremost, a mom and dad's best initial step is to try to truly understand what their kid may be experiencing, and why he or she is not doing, or is unable to do, their assignments. A good diagnosis can, and will, make all the difference.

Whether it is a child's unease at working alone, as we talked about in Part 2, or their undeveloped organizational skills (which may develop at different times for different kids), identifying what is happening for them is key. They may well need more of your attention and time, and for you to participate in the process more than than you imagined. But knowing what the real issues are is the difference between being effective and watching the problems and household conflicts grow.

Should the reason be that they are simply unable to resist the temptation to tweet, text, email, surf the net, watch TV or talk on the phone, then clearly parental intervention is called for. You may have to remove the temptations in a measured, predictable manner for a time -- not as a punitive point, but from a position of an adult providing supportive guidance to your child.

Even when your child complains, they will sense the difference between an angry, reactionary move on your part, and an earnest effort to assist them in completing their work. You may have to wait a few years to hear their appreciation of how you went about it, but then, good things take time.

So, succinctly stated, the keys we have found to be most useful to parents trying to navigate homework hell are to first do your best to understand what your child is experiencing, and then taking calm, thoughtful steps to address the difficulty at home, as we discussed earlier (please see "The Dancing Parent: Navigating Homework Hell," Parts 1 and 2).

If you've tried all of those home steps, and your child's problems persist, do speak with their teachers to see what they may have observed about your child's work habits or abilities. There may an IEP (Individual Education Plan) available that might better suit your child's needs.

And if that doesn't lead to a remedy, you finally may want to have your child's learning mode evaluated. Again, start with your local school. If what they offer doesn't feel right, there may be other alternatives. In Los Angeles, for example, there are university and training programs offering child testing on a sliding scale (such as the ones at UCLA, St. Johns and Reiss Davis). At the very least, a better understanding of how your child learns can clearly indicate a better way to help them learn.

Is he or she an auditory learner? A visual learner? Knowing the difference can make the difference.

A Special Note to Our Readers

Thank you for your comments and responses to Parts 1 and 2. Some of you questioned the validity of homework, wondering if we had completely overlooked the question of whether home assignments are an effective teaching tool.

We have found that most students actually understand the reason for homework, and, in general, find it reasonably helpful in understanding their course materials, when they do it.

That said, we can also be sure there are teachers and schools who assign less than inspiring or helpful homework, shall we say, as some of you recalled from your own experiences.

Based on our experience, homework is, when thoughtfully assigned, a useful tool, not only in reinforcing lessons given in class lectures, but also in developing the ability of a child to work independently -- a skill that can make a big difference in their future, to say nothing of colleges and universities who assume that students can work on their own.

Should you, however, still find that your child is not learning from homework, we encourage you to seek out their teachers, school deans or administrators to see if there may be alternatives for your child -- a future program, a magnet program or charter school -- better suited to your family's needs.

As always, we invite your questions and comments here, or at our website TheDancingParent.com. Until next time, keep dancing! (This material is copyrighted.)