Expert strategies to get kids to do their homework

By: Elizabeth Zahur

Author: Canadian Living


Expert strategies to get kids to do their homework

By: Elizabeth Zahur
This story was originally titled "Lesson Plan" in the October 2010 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!

The homework battle is familiar to most families. Kids will do almost anything to avoid it. Computer games, TV and friends are all high on their priority list, and homework gets pushed to the bottom of the heap. But when Sunday rolls around and that big science project has yet to be started, the tension builds – and often results in explosive arguments. And then it's just easier to do most of the work yourself. After all, who wants their children to fail?

But are you doing your kids any favours? In fact, you're probably hampering their ability to learn and leaving them ill-prepared for the future, says Sara Dimerman, director and founder of the Parent Education Resource Centre in Thornhill, Ont. But how do you know when to step in and when to step back? The experts weigh in on how to be a helpful – but not overbearing – parent.

Create a schedule
When it comes to homework and projects, a parent's job is to oversee and provide structure, says Joan W. Stafford, a family therapist and former teacher in Ottawa. To do well, your kids need organizational and time-management skills, self-advocacy and the ability to learn independently, she adds.

But how do you do that? Start by sitting down with your kids to create a homework schedule that works for your family. Routine and structure "enhance feelings of safety and security in students who are challenged in their own management of time," says Susan Maunula, a registered psychologist at the Calgary Learning Centre. Predictability also reduces the need for explanation or potential conflict – it takes away the ability for kids to say, "But Mom, I'll do it later!"

A good schedule can vary and it's the parent's job to figure out what works best. "It's important to take your child's personality into consideration," says Christine King, mom to Deena, 10, in Toronto. "I found a mix of evening and morning homework time works best for her." And, since she's easily distracted, Deena gets a quick break every half-hour or so.

Kathryn Dorrell, mom to Sophie, 8, and Liv, 11, says her kids need a little downtime after school. But she also learned not to push homework too late into the night. "If we pushed it past dinner, they'd say, ‘Can we watch TV for just 10 minutes?' And we'd say yes, and then it became a battle of procrastination," she says. Now her kids have a snack after school, play for a bit and then do schoolwork either before dinner or immediately after. There's no TV or friends if it's not done. Older kids can have hockey practice and other evening activities that eat into homework time. Homework may have to be done earlier or later on these days. That's fine, says Nicole Lafreniere, an assistant principal and teacher at St. Hilda Junior High school in Edmonton, as long as it's consistent.

Page 1 of 5 – Learn how to create a study space that eliminates distractions on page 2.
Creating study space
Kids need a regular place to do their work each day. Lafreniere says the ideal space varies with each kid and parents need to figure out what's right for their child. Kathryn's youngest daughter does homework at the kitchen island as the family prepares dinner or after the meal as they're cleaning up. This way, Mom and Dad are accessible if Sophie needs help, but aren't hovering.

If your child wants to do homework at the dining room table, that's fine, but if it's not working, change it. "It was too distracting for Deena," says Christine, who ended up creating a study area in Deena's bedroom, complete with a dictionary, a globe and pre-sharpened pencils so she has no reason to get up. If possible, arrange for an extra set of textbooks to be kept at home. Lafreniere says this eliminates the need to lug heavy books back and forth, and eliminates kids' favourite excuse to avoid doing homework – they "forgot" their books at school.

Eliminate distractions
Teens can be very plugged in to their computers, iPods and cellphones. While some may need to eliminate these distractions, others are capable of doing homework while chatting online. In fact, technology can be an aid, says Lafreniere. "Is your child texting a friend to find out how something is done? Many teens use their iPod to eliminate outside distractions and actually complete more work while listening to music." She lets her own teen watch TV, listen to her iPod and text, as long as the quality of her work and marks don't suffer. But the Dorrell family employs a screen-time policy, setting daily time limits. So Sophie and Liv can watch TV while doing homework – but it will be considered part of their daily allotment.

Correcting homework
Parents need to remember that correcting children's homework so they get a perfect mark isn't helpful – learning how to learn is what's important, says Dimerman, mother to Chloe, 11, and Talia, 19. "I never give the answers away when my daughters ask for help." Instead she offers to look over Chloe's work and tells her if there are any mistakes, but she makes it the child's responsibility to find them. Kathryn often leaves mistakes she spots in homework for the teacher to find at school. This way the teacher is aware of whether the child is getting the concept or not, and knows if more class time should be dedicated to the subject.

What not to do? Don't be an overcontrolling parent and hover over your child to make sure she's doing it correctly. "That's what I did," says Christine, "and Deena would get really irritated. She thought I didn't trust her to do her work herself." Now she waits until she is asked for help, which gives Deena more control.

Page 2 of 5 -- Discover how to cope when your child doesn't understand their homework on page 3."I don't understand!"
At the beginning of the school year, make an effort to introduce yourself to your child's teacher. Let him know you're available if he has any concerns about your child, and ask him his preferred means of communication if you want to speak with him. It can be via phone, email or after-school check-ins.

If your child tells you he doesn't understand how to do his homework, the first step is to write a note to his teacher in his agenda. Inform the teacher of the problem and ask if the concept will be covered further in class or if there are extra worksheets you can pick up, suggests Stafford.

Encourage your children to talk to their teachers on their own about assignments, so they can take responsibility for their own learning, says Lafreniere. She often rehearses the conversation that the kids will have with their teacher to ensure they know the right questions to ask. If your child still struggles, then call the teacher to figure out how you can work together. Talk to the teacher about the possibility of a tutor, which may be necessary if your child has significant learning disabilities or gaps in his learning. For example, if your child cannot multiply and therefore can't do algebra, a tutor may be needed, she adds.

Homework time
Homework shouldn't take all night to do. Some school boards, such as the Dufferin-Peel Catholic District school board in Ontario, have guidelines posted online that you can check to make sure your kids are on the right track. The board's policy is to have about 20 minutes of homework each night for kids in grades 1 to 3, 40 minutes for grades 4 to 6, 60 minutes for grades 7 and 8, 20 minutes for each course in grades 9 and 10, and 30 minutes for each course in grades 11 and 12. On the other hand, the B.C. Ministry of Education guidelines state that no homework should be assigned from kindergarten through Grade 3, and homework should be limited to half an hour a night for grades 4 to 7. Talk to your child's teacher to see what your school board expects.

Learning difficulties
Kids who have attention deficit–hyperactivity disorder can take two or three times as long to complete assignments as their peers. Those who are slower learners or are English Language Learners face additional difficulties when grappling with homework. In these situations, Lafreniere says it's important for parents to be advocates for their children and talk regularly with the school. Work with teachers to adapt homework to something your child can do independently.

Blended families
When parents are separated and kids are shuffling between homes, it can be difficult for both parents to keep on top of everything. Organization and communication is key, says Dimerman. With your child, mark on a calendar which days she'll be at Mom's house and which days she'll be at Dad's. Create a list of books and supplies she'll need for school the next day. In the morning, while she's getting ready for school, she can check her calendar to see if she's switching houses and if she needs to pack her school supplies. Tell your child to check off each item on the list as she packs her bag to make sure nothing is forgotten.

Page 3 of 5 -- Find out why pushing your child for an 'A' could be harmful on page 4.
Parents often have different approaches to homework and learning. It's important to discuss these differences to make sure you're on the same page. Dimerman suggests creating a communication book so you can work together with your former partner and your child as a team. If there's a new partner in the picture, he or she should tread carefully. Kids don't usually like being "parented" by so many adults, Dimerman adds. So a new partner can offer support, such as helping to brainstorm ideas for a project, or driving the kids to the library to pick up books, for example, but not discipline for a failing grade. That's best left to the child's actual parent.

Life lessons
Between friends, sports and all the other extracurricular activities available, it can be difficult for a child to maintain grades. Have a conversation about how to organize the week so everything will get done. If you think your child is overstressed because of extracurricular activities, try to come up with a creative solution to manage time better before yanking him from an activity he loves, says Dimerman. Use this as a "teachable moment" in time management. Only if the child continues to struggle is it time to intervene and drop an activity or two.

For the most part, parents should allow their children to learn from the natural or logical consequences that follow from not getting work done on time, says Dimerman. These consequences can include feeling anxious, embarrassed or worried about getting a poor grade, or not finishing the work at all. Though it may be difficult to stand back and watch this happen, Dimerman says that children learn better from these consequences than any punishment a parent can impose. It's your responsibility to make sure your children are learning what they need to, but kids also need to make mistakes – there are valuable lessons to be learned through trial and error.

"It's important that parents understand how their good intentions may be robbing their children of the opportunity to acquire skills they need to build blocks to where they're going," says Dimerman.

Why pushing your kids to get an 'A' can be bad for them
There's more to it than just the pressure to live up to your parental expectations. Joan W. Stafford, an Ottawa-based family therapist and former teacher, points out other consequences that parents may not realize their involvement inflicts on their children.

1. Your child could lose his motivation entirely if your expectations seem to be unreasonable and unattainable.

2. If you're always stepping in to make corrections and "help out," there's no incentive to do a good job, because your children learn that you will fix any errors and make sure they get a good mark.

3. Your kids will miss out on the positive feeling that comes with finishing an assignment, and instead feel inadequate or embarrassed. "It takes away from the child's sense of accomplishment," says Stafford. "If the parent corrects the homework and says, ‘This is wrong. This is how it should be,' then what the child has put into it is completely devalued."

4. Your child may feel like a fraud at school for turning in work she knows she couldn't produce on her own.

5. There's a strong risk of your child being left behind by the class. When a teacher consistently sees perfect homework, he doesn't see where the child is struggling and doesn't know which concepts need to be reviewed in class.

Page 4 of 5 -- Learn how to beat the most common homework excuses on page 5.
Common excuses
1. "I'll do it later!" Create a homework schedule so that homework is always done at the same time. If Sally has soccer on Tuesday after school, it's OK if homework time is later that day than the other days of the week, just as long as the time is the same every Tuesday. Put the schedule on the fridge so the whole family can see it. Next time your child complains, point to it and remind her that homework time is now, not later.

2. "I did it at Dad's house."
It's important to have trust in your kids. But if you're having a problem – for example, your child is saying he did work at the other parent's house when in fact he didn't – get him to show you his work as it's done. In a communication book, note when the homework is completed, list assignments and initial them, so you and your former partner can keep on top of things.

3. "Oh no, I forgot my books at school again!" Talk to the school to see if you can keep an extra set of textbooks at home – many will agree. Libraries also carry a number of textbooks. Tip: Library books can only be taken out for so long. Organize with nearby parents to take turns borrowing the textbooks so that if it's not at your house, then it's easily accessible.

4. "I can't do my work. The computer isn't working." The public library isn't just a great resource for books. It also has computer and Internet access – for free!

Read to your kids
Kids learn by example and try to emulate their parents, so family reading time is a great way to show that adults enjoy reading, too. Every night before bed, read a chapter aloud from a book, suggests Joan W. Stafford, a family therapist and former teacher in Ottawa. But don't use it as a form of punishment. If your child's bedtime is 8 o'clock, but he doesn't go to bed until 8:30 one night, don't take away reading time – it's too important.

Online resources
• Get free online tutoring for kids in grades 9 to 12.

• Here you'll find great homework tools, such as a scientific calculator, periodic table and glossary. There are also virtual seminars in which teachers provide step-by-step instruction on key topics for high schoolers, such as math, science and research skills.

The World Almanac for Kids contains loads of information on thousands of topics, such as animals, mythology and religion – all just a click away.

• Library and Archives Canada has great bilingual links appropriate for both elementary and high school kids.

• This website is a great source for all things Canadian.

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Expert strategies to get kids to do their homework