For this back-to-school season, I would like to offer some advice about one of the most frequent problems presented to me in over 30 years of clinical practice: battles over homework. I have half-jokingly told many parents that if the schools of New York State no longer required homework, our children's education would suffer (slightly). But, as a child psychologist, I would be out of business.
Many parents accept this conflict with their children as an unavoidable consequence of responsible parenting. These battles, however, rarely result in improved learning or performance in school. More often than not, battles over homework lead to vicious cycles of nagging by parents and avoidance or refusal by children, with no improvement in a child's school performance -- and certainly no progress toward what should be our ultimate goals: helping children enjoy learning and develop age-appropriate discipline and independence with respect to their schoolwork.
Before I present a plan for reducing homework battles, it is important to begin with this essential understanding:
The solution to the problem of homework always begins with an accurate diagnosis and a recognition of the demands placed on your child. Parents should never assume that a child who resists doing homework is "lazy."
Every child whose parents or teachers report ongoing resistance to completing schoolwork or homework, and every child who, over an extended period of time, complains that he "hates school" or "hates reading" should be evaluated for the presence of an attention or learning disorder.
These children are not lazy. Your child may be anxious, frustrated, discouraged, distracted or angry -- but this is not laziness. I frequently explain to parents that, as a psychologist, the word lazy is not in my dictionary. Lazy, at best, is a description, not an explanation.
For children with learning difficulties, doing their homework is like running with a sprained ankle. It is possible, although painful, and they will look for ways to avoid or postpone this painful and discouraging task.
A Homework Plan
Homework, like any constructive activity, involves moments of frustration, discouragement and anxiety. If you begin with some appreciation of your child's frustration and discouragement, you will be better able to put in place a structure that helps him learn to work through his frustration -- to develop increments of frustration tolerance and self-discipline.
I offer families who struggle with this problem a Homework Plan:
• Set aside a specified -- and limited -- time for homework. Establish, early in the evening, a homework hour.
• For most children, immediately after school is not the best time for homework. This is a time for sports, for music and drama, and free play.
• During the homework hour, all electronics are turned off -- for the entire family.
• Work is done in a communal place, at the kitchen or dining room table. Contrary to older conventional wisdom, most elementary school children are able to work more much effectively in a common area, with an adult and even other children present, than in the "quiet" of their rooms.
• Parents may do their own "homework" during this time, but they are present and continually available to help, to offer encouragement, and to answer children's questions. Your goal is to create, to the extent possible, a library atmosphere in your home, again, for a specified and limited period of time. Ideally, therefore, parents should not make or receive telephone calls during this hour. And when homework is done, there is time for play.
• Begin with a reasonable -- a doable -- amount of time set aside for homework. If your child is unable to work for 20 minutes, begin with 10 minutes. Then try 15 minutes the next week. Acknowledge every increment of effort, however small.
• Be positive and offer frequent encouragement. Make note of every improvement, not every mistake.
• Anticipate setbacks. After a difficult day, reset for the following day.
• Give them time. A child's difficulty completing homework begins as a problem of frustration and discouragement, but it is then complicated by defiant attitudes and feelings of unfairness. A homework plan will begin to reduce these defiant attitudes, but this will not happen overnight.
Most families have found these suggestions helpful, especially for elementary school children. Establishing a homework hour allows parents to move away from a language of threats ("If you don't... you won't be able to...") to a language of opportunities ("When" or "As soon as" you have finished... we'll have a chance to...").
Of course, for many hurried families, there are complications and potential glitches in implementing any homework plan. It is often difficult, with children's many activities, to find a consistent time for homework. Some flexibility -- some amendments to the plan -- may be required. But we should not let the complications of scheduling or other competing demands deter us from establishing a reasonable homework routine.
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