I have recently been asked to give a talk to parents on how to survive and indeed avoid, the “Homework Blues”. Homework is often a time of stress and frustration in the home. As parents struggle to get their children to focus and complete the homework arguments can erupt, leaving both the parent and child feeling angry and frustrated. This puts a very negative strain on the parent-child relationship and removes the intended benefits of doing homework; which is one of the reasons some schools avoid giving homework to junior primary school children.
The main purpose of homework in junior primary is to reinforce the learning that took place in school that day. Practice done soon after learning new material helps establish it in the long term memory. As children get older and have more skills, the role of homework changes to developing skills for working unassisted, developing thinking, planning and research skills.
When homework is done with the parent, it allows other benefits to come into play. As a parent, you can see exactly where your child is struggling and where he is thriving. You can help develop good work skills and when you show your enthusiasm and pride in his achievements, you will be building a stronger love of learning. So we need to remove the stress from homework and allow the positives to come into play.
Here are some tips to change the homework blues into a success story:
As a parent, you do not have to teach your child the work; your primary job during homework is to reward, reinforce and develop a love of learning. If you do know how to help and can teach your child the correct way to do the task he has been given, that is wonderful. But remember that you teach best by letting the child do the thinking (you ask cleverly planned questions which he has to answer) and you do the praising. Praise good effort and good approach; do not only praise success.
Develop a routine. It is best to do homework after a light lunch and before he goes out to play. When homework can only be done in the evening, do it before supper and not directly before bed-time; let him enjoy a relaxing bath after homework, before having supper. In this way, homework comes to be associated with a pleasant time directly after it and the stresses of thinking and working have dissipated before he goes to sleep.
Your relationship with your child is more important than getting the homework done. This means:
- Keep your role as a “guide” a “facilitator” and give praise for good work, rather than criticism of poor work. Some children prefer you to sit with them while they work; some prefer to do it alone or the homework session becomes a fight-zone if you stay (even if they want you to stay). Both types of children can get praise and attention for work well done; both can be shown ways to improve the quality of their work. If your child does not want you to be near, or there is increased friction when you sit with him, go away and return after every few minutes to support him (approximately 5 minutes for young children, 10 minutes as they move into grade 3).
- The quality of your child’s work is not your responsibility. He must take responsibility for his work and then he can truly enjoy the sense of pride when he does well. Remind him that you are always proud when he does his best (this is not the same as saying that you want him to do well). If he is clearly in no mood to try to produce good work, you might need to remove yourself, saying that he should call you when he can show you better quality work. Then return and praise him. This is a way of using Behaviour Modification: you reward the behaviour you want and you withhold reward from unacceptable behaviour.
- On days when you can see it just cannot be done without trauma or excessive struggle, stop. Write a note to the teacher that you will try to catch up on another day.
Set up a “homework station”.
- Make sure that his desk and chair are at a good work height for him. His feet should be able to rest on the floor and the desk should be at elbow height when he is sitting. If you have to use a large table or he has to sit on a high chair, use a small stool for him to rest his feet on (or a pile of telephone directories) and give him a firm cushion to sit on to correct his height.
- Keep a pencil case with his pencils, pencil grips, sharpeners, a ruler, an eraser etc. Keep this at or very near the homework station, so that he never has to begin homework by searching for the necessary equipment.
Have an analogue clock available for checking time. This helps your child develop a sense of time and begin to learn to monitor their work speed. Many children struggle with time awareness; this is often a main cause for homework stretching out too long. Homework in the early grades should only take about 20 minutes per day; many children take a little longer; but no more than 30 minutes should be allocated in grades 1 and 2. Show your child how the clock is divided into 5 minute periods. Show him that the amount of time you would like to both be finished the work is four of those time periods. Show him how much of the work should therefore be done by the first 5 minute period. You might have to do this in the same detail for the first few weeks; thereafter, you will be able to look at 10 minute periods. Older children should begin with 15 minute periods.
Have a glass of water available. People forget that thinking uses a lot of energy and children need to drink water when studying and working. You might find it better to have a bottle, much like sports people have at the gym.
When you see that his energy levels are dropping and he is struggling against himself to focus attention, allow him to get up and have a brief movement break. Brief, intense movement very commonly helps children re-energise themselves; but if you let him leave the work area you can expect to have difficulty getting him back; so it is easier to get him to do a series of “jumping jacks” near the homework station.
I must admit that I was thrilled when my children finally reached the stage where I was no longer needed to help and support them with homework. It takes a lot of effort, even when it is going well; but the rewards are truly worth it. The effort you put in shows your child that you value him and you value his success enough to spend time and effort to help him. It is also a good time to really find out where his strengths and weaknesses lie so that you can support his weaknesses and help him make best use of his strengths. The time and effort you spend doing homework with your child in the early years is one of the best investments you can make. Don’t let it strain your relationship; use it to build his love of learning.