Jason Wilson*, an Albuquerque middle schooler, has been a good student. But, though he tests above grade level, he has been floundering for two straight semesters. His mom, Georgia, is convinced that poor homework habits are the main reason.
“He is easily distracted and sometimes forgetful,” she says, “I need a strategy—a way to keep him on task.” You think kids hate homework? Just talk to their parents. Few families look forward to that evening phenomenon commonly known as homework hell. The fragile hours sandwiched between your child’s extracurricular activities, dinner and bedtime are often fraught with frustration.
As another school year comes around, “there has to be a plan that works for everybody,” says Ann K. Dolin, a former Washington, D.C.–area teacher and author of Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools and Solutions to Stress-Free Homework (Advantage Books). “Without it, you’re doomed from the get-go.”
Here are some tips for making the process healthier:
Try To Motivate, Not Dictate. You could be inviting a power struggle when you lay down the law and tell your child when, where and how to get his homework done. Instead, have constructive dialogue about how the process can best work for everyone, and set rules based on that. If he feels empowered, he may be more productive.
Remember, Time is Everything. Most teens, especially the younger set, are clueless when it comes to time management. Make sure you and your child have a clear, total picture of all the assignments—daily and long-term—she needs to do. Help her prioritize. For example, if you know ahead of time there is a test on Friday, you may need to adjust your family’s Thursday evening accordingly.
Set the Scene. Georgia thought a quiet space with no distractions was the best place for Jason to get his tasks done. But she has now opted to make a “homework station” at the kitchen table, out in the open. Good move, according to Dolin. The bedroom, a favorite spot for many older kids, is inherently full of time-busting temptations. By the way, she adds that despite kids’ insistence, music as a study buddy will hinder their retention.
Get Extra Support. There will be times when your child is not simply putting off homework, but truly doesn’t understand it. Dolin, who founded ectutoring.com to help connect kids with appropriate tutors, suggests parents first touch base with their child’s teachers to troubleshoot the problem. Many educators will offer free one-onone instruction before or after school. Online resources such as khanacademy.org and factmonster.com are also useful.
Start Early. Burning the midnight oil is not only vexing for parents but it’s also counterproductive for children. Their brains are fried and the quality of their work suffers. Dolin recommends setting a firm homework start time. Be sure kids begin sooner rather than later—preferably before dinner.
Manage The Load. Just because a teacher assigns four hours of homework each night doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice your child’s well-being to complete it. Research from the Center for Public Education reveals that too much homework actually diminishes its effectiveness. Make the executive decision to cap homework time relative to your child’s age, attention span and sleep schedule. Write a note to the teacher explaining your concerns, and ask for an appointment to discuss the homework policy. Try to find a compromise that won’t hurt your child’s grade.
Step Back. School has changed a lot from back in the day, when many of us were left to our own devices. Greater demands on our kids make us want to step in. But new research shows that too much “help” isn’t actually helpful— in fact, it can make things worse. What works: fostering independence by setting clear expectations and then letting your child do the work.
*Some subjects' names have been changed.
This article was originally published in the October issue of ESSENCE magazine, on newsstands now.