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Half-hearted Homework Isn't Making the Grade

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HOMEWORK
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My fiancé and I are having trouble getting his seventh grade son to care about the quality of his homework. He rushes through most of it while we are at work. When I get home and look it over, I see the same problems every day -- answering questions halfway, not capitalizing his sentences and so on. What can we do to get him to do a better job?

Many youngsters hit the wall academically in middle school, finding themselves distracted by peer relationships, outside interests and wildly fluctuating hormones. While you can't force your fiance's son to care about his grades, you can approach him in ways that may help him improve.

Here's my advice:

• Adjust your expectations. After hours spent in school, it's rare to find a child -- particularly a seventh grader -- who is motivated to take the time to do his best on homework assignments. While you may wish he cared more about the quality of his work, it's more likely -- and perfectly normal -- that he is happy to do the bare minimum so he can finish as quickly as possible.

• Focus on one -- and only one -- area to work on each week. This week you may ask him to pay special attention to capitalizing the first word of every sentence. Next week, you may ask him to answer essay questions with at least five complete sentences. Rather than asking him to "do better" on everything, pick specific aspects of his homework you want him to focus on improving so that he doesn't feel overwhelmed by having to do everything perfectly.

• Avoid criticizing. Most kids become defensive when we flood them with evidence of their shortcomings. While I'm not suggesting you ignore obvious errors, make sure you also look for things he's doing well.
"You really nailed this math problem. That was a hard one, too! How did you figure that out?"
"I love this paragraph about the main character and his horse. You described them so well that I felt I was right there, watching the two of them as they got ready for their final race."

• Make sure he has a chance to have a snack and do something physical to burn off his pent up energy before he has to start his homework. Without time to relax and recharge after a long day of sitting in school, most kids simply don't have the capacity to concentrate on doing their best work.

• Lighten up. Invite your fiancé's son to play the role of teacher, "grading" the paper he has just completed as if it was done by another student -- or by you! Make a game out of challenging him to identify at least five things that need to be fixed. You'll help him wake up his brain by injecting a bit of fun into his homework check-ins!

• Tread carefully as a future stepmother. While I commend you for taking an interest in his academic success, make sure that if your fiance's son needs stricter guidelines like limited video game time, he, not you, implements them. Don't sacrifice establishing a mutually friendly relationship with your future stepson in favor of making him aim for straight A's.

Some youngsters are able to race through homework in grammar school and still get good grades, only to discover that, when faced with the heavier workload of seventh and eighth grade, they can no longer get by with half-hearted effort. If these tips don't yield improvement, set up a meeting with your fiance's son's teachers to determine whether he needs some extra help.

Best of luck!

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Parent Coach, Susan Stiffelman, is a licensed marriage and family therapist and credentialed teacher. She holds a Bachelor of Arts in developmental psychology and a Master of Arts in clinical psychology. Her book, Parenting Without Power Struggles, is available on Amazon. Sign up to get Susan's free parenting newsletter.