By Sandra Gordon
Homework and headaches go together like macaroni and cheese, especially now that there seems to be so much to do early on. Cathy McFarland knows the frustration too well.
“When Maddie, my 8 year old, didn’t understand her math homework, she’d cry and get so upset she’d hyperventilate,” McFarland says. Nightly math meltdowns became the norm. “I finally decided math wasn’t worth ruining our relationship over. I can be the enforcer with piano practice, nightly reading, baths and bedtime, but I don’t need to be the math czar anymore.”
McFarland hired a tutor at $80 per hour.
Tutoring is certainly one (costly) answer. “A tutor can be helpful if your child needs personalized remedial help because she’s below grade level and the lessons are out of your league,” says Lisa Jacobson, chief executive of Inspirica, a global tutoring and test-prep firm. You might also consider hiring a tutor if you don’t have the time or energy to help with homework, it’s a hot button for you and your child or if your child wants to prepare for college-entrance tests.
Otherwise, it’s worth putting on your thinking cap and trying to tackle your child’s homework issues yourself. “Kids should be able to sit down, do their homework and get it done without fighting, whining, crying, begging or negotiating,” says Michael Maloney, author of Teach Your Children Well and director of QLC Learning Centers. Sound impossible? It might not be, especially if you try these smart strategies.
Get the big picture. To minimize resentment, understand why your child has homework. “It’s not just busy work,” says Michelle Albright, PhD, a psychologist who specializes in families and schools, to promote children’s physical, social and emotional health and wellbeing. Research shows homework is especially beneficial as a review before a unit test. It also helps kids practice concepts they learn in school, develop self-sufficiency and instill the idea that learning is a process that doesn’t end with the dismissal bell.
Develop a routine. Kids crave consistency, so make doing homework automatic by creating a routine that fits their personality. Serious students may prefer to do homework right after school. Other kids might need to burn off steam by running around or vegging in front of the TV or computer for 45 minutes (set a kitchen timer) before getting down to business. Whatever formula you choose, stick to it. You might need two homework routines—one for when your child comes right home from school and another for when he has after-school activities.
Choose a homework hub. Some kids work best in their bedrooms. Others like to do their homework in the kitchen while you’re making dinner. Anywhere is fine as long as there are no distractions. “Some kids do well with classical music in the background, but if you want to watch the evening news and your child likes to do homework at the kitchen counter, keep the TV off,” Albright says. If you have more than one child, see if they’ll do their homework simultaneously. They might motivate and even help each other.
Emphasize effort. Praise your kids when they complete their homework by saying things like, “You worked so hard! Good job!” rather than “You’re so smart!” Effort-based praise “teaches your child that if she tries hard, she will learn things,” says Helen Eckmann, Ed.D., co-author of Simple Principles to Excel at School. “Effort is what pays off, not brain power, self-confidence, or any other innate quality,” Eckmann says.
Strive for neat and complete. Studies show that when parents stay positive while assisting with their child’s homework, kids are more self-motivated and self-directed. That’s the goal: to have your child do her homework because she feel it’s important, not because you’re looking over her shoulder. How to get there? “Think of yourself as your child’s homework manager, not your child’s substitute teacher,” Albright says. “Your job is to see that homework gets done neatly and provide some support, not to edit your child’s homework or help him do it.” And keep in mind that if you get too involved, kids and teens can become resentful and shut down by not doing their assignments or turning them in, sabotaging their own success.
Let your child teach you. To help kids of all ages study for tests and quizzes, review by asking them to teach you about the subject they’re studying. You might say, for example, “Teach me about the Cold War.” “If your child can explain it to you, he really knows it,” Albright says. You’ll smarten up too. Our kids are learning interesting stuff!
Recognize your child’s motivation sweet spot. Some people work best 24 to 48 hours before a deadline. Others hunker down two to three days before something is due. How do you work best? How does your child? “It’s often very different,” Albright says. Viva la difference. “Observe your kids to get a sense of their motivation sweet spot in terms of timing,” she says. If your child is a last-minute kind of person but you’re not, so be it. Forcing your child to work on an assignment before he’s ready can derail motivation. “Assignments can take longer too,” Albright says.
Get busy yourself. If your kids have to do 20 minutes of reading daily, grab a book yourself and sit down next to them. It’s a nice way to model reading.
Keep your child’s teacher posted. Many teachers, especially in the elementary grades, have a policy about how long the homework they assign should take, such as 15 minutes per night. If your child’s homework drags out much longer than it should, let the teacher know. She may be able to tell you where your child can take short cuts. “Not every aspect of homework deserves 100 percent effort,” Albright says.
Stay a step ahead. Resources, such as the Core Knowledge series: “What Your Preschooler Needs to Know,” which covers up to the sixth grade, can help you track the skills your child needs through elementary school. Knowing what’s down the road can help you build activities into a young child’s day that use the concepts he’ll be learning about. Counting change at the self-checkout, for example, can help teach addition; so can having your child add up the numbers on mailboxes when you’re out for a walk and penciling out the tip on your dinner tab. Playing word games can help teach spelling. If you’re worried about penmanship, have your child practice writing your grocery list. And so on. The idea? By the time the subject is covered in school, your child will already be familiar with it.