Mark Le Messurier, 2010
Randomly survey a few people about school homework. Do you know the sort of responses likely to come your way? I do, because this has been a part of my work over the last few years. Most roll their eyes and make a cynical comment or two. They tell of boring exercises, repetitive worksheets, mindless contracts and projects that were somehow designed to improve their learning, planning and organisation. In truth, what emerges is an abundance of strong emotion and opinion that we could be doing better with the quality of homework on offer to students. Questions frequently raised by administrators, teachers and parents include; "Is homework really beneficial to students?" If so, "how much homework should students get?" "What should 'state of the art' homework look like for primary and senior students?" "Is there a perfect model?" "Is this one model likely to fit the needs of most students?" "How do we embed meaning into the homework presented to students?" And, "what role should I play?"
This article is written with educators and parents in mind.
It gathers an assortment of practical ideas to ease typical difficulties surrounding homework. What is presented is realistic advice, mindful of the kids who struggle with concentration, literacy and numeracy, or feel so fatigued by the time they arrive home from school that an emotional blow out over homework is just a heartbeat away. Students with learning or emotional difficulties do it so much tougher than those without. As a result, so do their mothers, fathers and teachers. Successful homework approaches depend on of educators and parents synchronising their communication and attitudes, and recognising that homework is a highly complex undertaking. Without us, the adults, pooling our efforts and understandings we shouldn't be shocked when our kids become expert at avoiding and sabotaging it.
What is homework?
Homework in this article refers to an activity set by a teacher that students are required to complete outside of school. In the early years, homework usually centres about developing basic literacy, numeracy and thinking skills. During the middle phase of schooling the focus becomes broader; reading, reviewing, report writing, investigating, project work and so on. Senior students tend to undertake activities directly linked to their course of study and this typically requires greater rigor and commitment.
The thing about homework
Let's be honest. The thought of tackling homework following a day of school is not terribly enticing when there are so many other wonderful distractions on offer.
Those who believe in the virtues of homework say it encourages a good study routine and is an opportunity for students to review the day's learning. They say the earlier students start the better. They present a logical and compelling argument that the workload within the secondary school curriculum is too much to be adequately covered during the day and this makes homework absolutely necessary.
On the other hand, those arguing against homework say it impedes family life, adds to family tensions and accelerates student burn-out which can impact negatively on student achievement (Bennett and Kalish, 2006). They suggest that because of its deskbound nature it is partly responsible for childhood obesity. They argue that the pressure of nightly homework (up to four and five hours in senior years) results in students having to give away healthy lives as their life revolves around an exacting homework schedule (Buell, 2004). They spend less time with the family and less time participating in extracurricular activities. There is little or no 'down time' available to simply relax, and socialise.
There is also an argument that homework actively discriminates against kids. Those living within consistent and ordered home environments, who are set up to work in a quiet, well-lit location, who are supervised and have steady parental support, their own room, a desk, a computer and fast internet connection have a distinct advantage over students without these. Indeed, there is evidence to suggest that students from lower socioeconomic backgrounds can be disadvantaged by homework (Cooper and Valentine, 2001).
The truth is, passionate opinions about homework are rife in both educational and popular literature. American education activist and author Alfie Kohn has long claimed there is not a single study that conclusively shows homework helps kids to learn, and repeatedly cites that the amount of time students spend on homework has more than doubled in the United States between 1981 and 2002. He scorns the growing trend of homework becoming a regular, everyday part of the kindergarten (Kohn, 2006). In Australia, adolescent psychologist Dr Michael Carr-Gregg has weighed into the homework debate a number of times. He believes that students in Years 10 to 12 (senior students) should do up to two hours of homework a day, but students prior to Year 10 should not do homework (Carr-Gregg, 2004). As well, Ian Lillico, a highly reputable Australian principal, educational leader and commentator believes that asking students to do gardening, housework, reading, sport or some reading are much better options than the sedentary, poorly designed homework tasks many of them regularly receive (Ian Lillico, 2010).
What does the research say?
An exhaustive study in response to community attitudes about homework was undertaken by The Department of Education and the Arts in Queensland, Australia in 2004. It examined 64 studies associated with homework for school aged children largely from Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States. In summary, this study's results, and those from other researchers, suggest the following;
Most parents expect schools to set homework for kids.
Most parents with younger children are more likely to actively participate in the homework process.
Positive parental homework involvement is beneficial to students and is associated with higher levels of student achievement (Hoover-Dempsey et al., 2001).
Parents have a powerful influence on homework. Their influence comes from the environment they create, the way they use their power and the way in which they encourage their children to engage with homework. Student literacy and numeracy outcomes can improve when they engage in active conversation with family members (Epstein et al., 1997).
Homework that is meaningful and driven by student input is linked to improving attitudes, knowledge and student retention (Corno, 2000).
Students who generally participate in homework tend to moderately outperform students who do not. However, 'a more homework the better' attitude by parents or teachers is definitely not a good policy. Moderate amounts of time spent on homework are linked to better results, but a great deal or very little time spent on homework is actually less productive. The idea of diminishing returns from homework is now generally accepted. This means when middle school students spend more than an hour and a half a night there is a correlation with lower scores (Cooper, et al., 2006).
Studies into homework over the years have revealed that community attitudes are cyclical and are more strongly related to broader cultural, social, national and international economic trends, rather than any real empirical evidence suggested by research on homework (Cooper, 2001a).
Investigations into homework in the United Kingdom, Australia and the United States have delivered time allocations for each year level that is generally accepted. A desirable rule of thumb is to load students with no more than ten minutes of homework per school day in Year 1, and increase it by less than ten minutes a day with each year level increase (Cooper, 2001a; 1999; Sharp et al., 2001). This allocation of homework time falls into line with the research study, Homework: Learning from Practice, conducted by the Office for Standards in Education (Ofsted UK, 1997). This study suggested the following time allocations for primary and secondary schools:
What do teachers say?
I have been in a fortunate position to work with a number of schools between 2002 and 2010 as they have reviewed their homework policy and practices. A beginning point in the process has been to survey students, teachers and parents to gauge current attitudes and levels of satisfaction about homework. Broadly speaking, survey responses from teachers reveal most tend to set regular homework because they believe it is expected by parents, despite often questioning its value. Primary teachers are more inclined to give this response and secondary teachers are more inclined to express the merits of homework in terms of opportunities for students to review work and expand learning.
The following statements reflect the rich diversity of teacher opinion:
"Homework positively improves the home and school partnership, as well as student learning."
"It's hard to estimate exactly how much time students will have to spend on their homework and if you get it wrong one way or the other you're doomed."
"I resent having to conform to a fixed school policy on homework. I'd much prefer to exercise my judgment based on what we are doing in class and the needs and interests of students."
"It's difficult to vary homework so that it is seen as relevant, stimulating and absorbing to all students and parents. The more I think about it, that's impossible."
"I wrestle whether it's best to set one task each night or run a weekly contract styled program where students can manage the workload themselves."
"The question I ponder as a principal is should we be falling into line with community attitudes or leading the community in what we determine is a state of art homework approach?"
"We have a homework policy, but very few are consistent with it. Most staff quietly do what they want to do."
"I know, in a perfect world, I should I modify every student's homework to reflect their learning issues and how much support they are likely to get from their parents. But, I have nowhere near the amount of time available to do this."
"It shouldn't be up to me to train parents how to do homework with their kids. If they want their kids to succeed they need to get serious and get their act together."
"I can easily overlook marking homework because there always seems to be something of a more pressing priority to do."
"I hate the damage homework can have on my relationship with students when it's not done."
"Everone knows we should be doing better with homework. No one is sure what to do"
"I think homework should be done away with for primary school students. Most teachers plan badly or set the same boring stuff for the sake of it. Homework is an awful waste of time."
Then, there was the instance where the principal of a school decided to take a tough stand on homework (McIntyre, 2004). She chose to suspend students who failed to do it. In the first three weeks of the project thirty-one students were suspended for failing to do homework. Following this, the rate of incomplete homework dropped to just a handful of students. Naturally, the principal felt a reasonable degree of success had been achieved. However, not all parents were happy. Quite a number felt that students were being robbed of their right to be at school and to be educated by being suspended. They also believed these students were actually being given a reward for not doing homework by having a couple of days away from school. What this example clearly highlights is that a constructive, open, ongoing, consultative process with parents and students is a crucial part of the change process.
There is no way around it.
All stakeholders need to be involved in the journey.
What do parents say?
Most parents want the very best for their kids and see homework as one of the few ways available to them to actively help a child to get ahead at school (Cooper et al., 2000). Consequently, a few adopt an overly zealous, an excessively intense, or a hypercritical stance on homework often resulting in classic problematic outcomes. This approach is often driven by parents who want high achievement from their children, or because they lack belief in their child or in the child's teacher. Others take on a more balanced process with a view that healthy participation improves family understandings and maintains connections to classroom activities and school life. Increasingly, we are also recognising that time is a very precious commodity for contemporary families. Changes within families include a rise in single parent families, increased working hours and attractive opportunities that compete with homework (Hofferth, et al., 2001). As a result, the character of homework is being questioned by many in the community.
Survey responses from Australian parents surveyed about homework reveal the following range of attitudes:
"Homework should only be to finish off work for kids at primary school and lower high school."
"Even with busy lifestyles, homework is a must every school night. It helps children to consolidate learning, keep a study routine and value the learning that takes place at school."
"Too many parents know the pointlessness of so many of the homework exercises and are a party to the toll they take on their kids, yet they allow themselves to be intimidated by a teacher or school's poor planning."
"Parents need to know how to help, when to help and what to do, especially when things go wrong at home with homework. Homework and schoolwork has changed so much over the years we need coaching about how to best support our children at home."
"I expect my child to have homework, but please make it meaningful and consolidating!"
"Homework is useless when set for no purpose."
"Homework is completely unfair because not all parents have the same time available to spend with their children, and when we do try to squeeze it in, the kids are tired and at their worst."
"Isn't family time important too? They grow up too fast. Time is so precious."
"Our child's teacher sets homework, but rarely marks it. What's the point of that?"
"Too often homework is a verbal instruction and my child becomes distressed because he can't remember what to do."
"I agree with homework, but don't like it when I end up doing it for them."
"Every week, our kids get the same old work sheets. They hate them and so do we."
"My son is in year 2. Some of the curriculum jargon that comes home from school is gobbledygook. He doesn't understand it, we don't and some of the words can't even be found in the dictionary! What is the point of this, really?"
"Homework tasks have to match the child's interests and abilities."
"There's a theory that giving younger children homework will prepare them for homework in high school. That's rubbish. That's like saying hitting your head against a brick wall will prepare you for a migraine!"
Parents frequently raise questions as, what am I expected to do if my child is unwilling, forgets or can't do the homework? This fuels questions concerning whether homework is a teacher's or a parent's responsibility. And, if it is a shared responsibility, there is often uncertainty about how to communicate the difficulty to a teacher, and what sort of response they will receive from the teacher.
Many of the survey responses from parents specifically request training from teachers to help them deal with homework more successfully. Other parents worry about how much help they should be providing and whether they should be vetting the quality of their child's homework?
What do students say?
What do the often forgotten voices of students say on this matter? The comments below represent the opinions of students from two cohorts, a ten year old group and a fourteen year old group (Warton, 2001). The groups were evenly split from 816 students in total. These students were asked their opinion on the value of homework to them. Collectively they are enrolled between eight co-educational schools in the city of Adelaide, Australia. Four schools could be described as higher fee paying non-government schools and the remaining four were government schools. The data was collected between 2002 and 2008 and the only purpose was to examine student feedback as a means for their schools to plan homework more appropriately.
Student responses on the value of homework to them:
"I like homework. It helps."
"You have to take homework seriously because it helps you to remember what you are learning."
"It can be good, but sometimes it's bad."
"I don't like some of it. It's too hard or confusing."
"I have stuff on some nights so it's hard to fit it in."
"Homework makes me tired and in a bad mood."
"It's alright. We shouldn't have homework on Friday night or on the weekend."
"It's boring and annoying, but I usually do it."
"When it's hard I don't do it and when it's for certain teachers I don't do it."
"I hate it."
There was surprisingly little variation between the opinions of male and female students, or between the ten year old and fourteen year old group. As well, there were only minor variations in the opinions of students from government and non-government schools. Students from non-government schools had marginally stronger views about the merit of homework, but only marginal. In summary, student responses fell into three broad categories. About 20% of kids like it or do homework because they see genuine value in it for them and about 60% comply, some willingly and others begrudgingly. The final 20% either hate it or are poised to reject it.
A contemporary view of homework, the Homework Grid
Up until recently attitudes about homework had been solidly set in concrete. Homework had become entirely institutionalised and followed a ritual of teachers setting homework exercises for the sake of setting them. Very recently leading educators have turned their attention to homework. This, in part, has been driven by falling school retention rates, declining academic results (especially for our boys) and difficulty in keeping students engaged with learning at school (Epstein, et al., 2001).
There is a mounting sense among parents and educators that we should be doing better with school and homework to meet the changing needs of our students, our families and our communities. Educators and parents alike are now critically questioning the merits of traditional homework in contemporary society. The spark has been ignited and there is no turning back! The sort of quality thinking and planning required to underpin homework is finally under the closest of scrutiny. Consciously or unconsciously, the nature of homework has been redefined and quality educators are scrambling to improve the part they play in homework, and its character.
As an initiative to make homework more relevant to students and families the Homework Grid® was created by staff at St Augustine's Parish School, Salisbury, South Australia, Australia in 2002. It was an innovative attempt to circuit-break the homework overload caused by the tradition of teachers setting homework exercises because that's what had always been done. The Homework Grid presents us with wonderful chance to integrate contemporary family life styles with school and learning. Already, a number of junior and middle schools throughout Australia are beginning to implement the Homework Grid or aspects of it.
The homework Grid is thoroughly encouraging of family interactions. Some are viewing it as way for children and young teens to opt back into family life because it actually considers the diverse outside of school talents and interests of students. Its grid like structure permits time for children to pursue their own interests in the context of learning.
Grid activities (cells) might include:
By and large, the grid is followed over a fortnightly cycle. In terms of time commitment, each cell approximates about 45 minutes for middle school students and less for primary aged students. While ample scope remains for class work to be set by teachers, it does need to fit into the appropriate cells (eg. continuing an assignment, reading, completing work left from a lesson at school, etc). The options of topics to be entered into each cell is endless, providing it reflects the age and interests of students. For a more detailed explanation of the Homework Grid and possible adaptations, I recommend you read Ian Lillico's handbook called, Homework and the Homework Grid, available through his website http://www.boysforward.com
However, a word of caution is offered here. Experience has shown that the successful implementation of the grid demands a vibrant, ongoing partnership with parents and students. Continuing exchanges and feedback leads to the creation of stimulating ideas and meaningful directions. Without this, the grid will quickly take on the stale and unchallenging dimensions that traditional homework has been guilty of in the past. Not surprisingly, this reflects the findings from the exhaustive Australian study undertaken by The Department of Education and the Arts in Queensland, Australia in 2004. They concluded that successful homework outcomes are reliant on sound teacher preparation, teachers who elicit input from students and parents, the inclusion of 'real life' tasks to maintain the motivation of students, and the quality of parental support available.
FOR TEACHERS; an opportunity to workshop homework with parents
Once an educator begins to workshop homework with parents concerns are readily shared. So often a parent will comment, "There just isn't a rule book for raising kids, and there isn't one for homework either!" They will explain that because schools have changed so rapidly on so many fronts they are grateful to receive insights into how to work homework more successfully with their children.
For many a practical and informative approach is like a breath of fresh air. First, it connects the most powerful people in a child's life, parents and teachers, to participate in constructively shaping a child's attitude and response to homework. Second, clear access to a success-based plan provides parents with a straightforward composed approach. This approach is for students of all ages and can be adapted to support specific personalities and needs.
My suggestion to educators is to break what follows, into 2 one hour workshops scheduled for early in the school year. A good idea is to aim the first workshop at parents only. Then a week later, follow up with a second workshop where parents and their children are invited. In this way both parents and children hear precisely the same thing. As for parents, simply take from this what may be helpful!
Initiating a collective wisdom
Whether schools decide to engage the Homework Grid, maintain precisely what they have, or choose variations, there will always be issues bubbling about the management of homework routines and expectations. After all, kids typically fall into one of three broad categories when it comes to homework. They either like it, comply or reject it.
The idea of introducing shared understandings that students, teachers and parents can generally agree on is essential if we want homework to be a viable proposition (Cooper, 2001b). Too often, confusions and misunderstandings surrounding homework is a perfect battleground among educators, parents, and students. A good starting point is to review the 'homework essentials' because success hinges on all parties knowing what they need to do, what others are doing, and why.
Homework essentials, for students
Homework essentials, for parents
- Decide on the first task to be tackled for homework
- Train them to estimate how long the task, or each task, should take (use the kitchen timer)
- Watch them work at it for the estimated time so you understand more about their learning style
- THINK. Was the goal achieved?
- If it was, fabulous!
- If it was not, encourage them to think about why not, and make an adjustment
- Work out the next goal and return to work for the time estimated to finish the task
- How long can he concentrate?
- Is she easily distracted or restless?
- Does he make a quick, purposeful start or is he an avoider?
- Does she naturally plan ahead?
- Does he really understand the concepts presented?
- How long does the homework usually take?
- Is she an efficient worker?
- When he's struggling, how does he handle the natural frustration that arises?
- "What part do you need help with?"
- "What parts do you understand?"
- "Can you give me an example?"
- "What do you think the answer is?"
- "How can you check it?"
Homework essentials, for teachers
Thoughts about structure, routine and expectations
Setting up routines and expectations at home that compliment homework is a parental responsibility. While great teachers can nourish and support the endeavour of parents, in the end, parents have to steer the process themselves. Parents who generally maintain a routine, and are prepared to find appealing ways to lead their child to plan and organise really do contribute to their children's capacity to remember homework, persevere with it and succeed. Ideally, such structures need to begin early in a child's school life, even if it is the simple act of helping a five year old read the school reader before they launch into television or video games after school. Gradually, as kids mature they usually want to become more independent and begin to mimic the regular structure that has been long established by parents. However, our tough kids are likely to require continuing intelligent parental input for much longer because the homework routine, along with a number of other habits and expectations, will not magically lock into place as early is it does for others.
The starting point here is to start, because the longer a parent avoids homework routines and expectations, the more entrenched a child or teen's unproductive habits become and the more challenging it is to influence productive changes.
Parent challenge, one:
Take a moment to quiz yourself.
Reflect on what may be working against your child's capacity to effectively deal with homework. Try to identify the issues at play. This is one way to help you to plan more thoughtfully.
Parent challenge, two:
Challenge yourself by thinking about these questions. Then, let's spend some time talking about them.
Making a start at home
To begin, find time to talk with your children about homework. Steer away from being confrontational, instead suggest present the idea it is time for a change and for everyone to step up. Explain that by pulling together a few new routines and a different way to organise homework, things can be better. Also make it clear that to "kick start" this new idea an incentive based plan is on offer. So there is plenty of opportunity for the kids to earn rewards not usually available to them. Also explain that the plan will also attract a negative consequence for not following through on agreed homework expectations.
Creating a homework timetable or schedule
Times best suited for homework vary from home to home. A good way to approach this is to have each child fill in a blank 'after school time table'. Get them to fill in each half hour time slot from Monday to Friday (most students keep Friday evenings free to relax and schedule weekend homework, if it is necessary, for late Sunday afternoon). Record all regular weekly activities; must watch television programs, dance lessons, Cubs or Guides, Karate, Tap Dancing and so on. In this way children and young teens quickly see that relatively little time is expected on homework compared to the total amount of recreational time they have on offer. Once this exercise is completed it becomes obvious that certain times of each day more naturally lend themselves to homework opportunities. Select the best time for homework for each day and fill out a new timetable.
Place it in a prominent position.
Most parents encourage their kids to unwind and have a snack after school, then tackle the bulk of homework before dinner, leaving the rest of the evening relatively free. It may be necessary to negotiate recording your child's favourite television program if the homework seems to clash with it. They can then watch it later as a pay off for completing their homework. Alternatively, a more black and white approach for some is best, that is, there is an expectation that homework will be completed before the program is viewed.
Designing a timetable or schedule is a wonderful first step because if homework does not exist in a parent's home routine, then why should it exist in the child's routine? Keep the communication open and adjust the timetable occasionally so it continues to work well. Bear in mind that it is unfair to expect an unmotivated student to break old habits and adopt new routines without your positive and proactive support. Active ongoing support necessary to underpin new routines is often overlooked by adults and this can result in the new approach failing after just a week or two.
CASE STUDY, "Why isn't your homework done, Lachlan?"
Nine year old Lachlan had been identified with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and mild learning difficulties several years ago. Each afternoon he went to after school care and was collected by his parents at 6pm. Each morning as they dropped him off at school they would ask him to make sure he did his homework at after-school care. However, the excitement of being with friends and wanting to join in meant homework was the last thing he thought of during his time there. Besides, doing homework wasn't really a prized practice for the children at after-school care anyway.
When his parents collected him they always asked if his homework was done, and of course it always wasn't. From that moment his relationship with them iced over. They felt irritable as they knew that after a rushed dinner they would need to help Lachlan with his homework. By the time dinner was done it was 7.30pm, and although he wanted to try, Lachlan was tired and unmotivated. His resources were depleted!
Amazingly, his parents persisted with this totally unproductive homework routine for the next six years rather than creatively exploring other far more constructive avenues to support Lachlan!
CASE STUDY, No structures for Kat
Fourteen year old Kat arrived home to an empty house each night. She had been identified as a gifted student with moderate concentration problems. Kat was always well-intentioned, but hampered by her daydreamy, procrastinating nature. Her good homework intentions were always thwarted by a succession of minor distractions: feeding the dog, grooming the dog, making a phone call, answering the phone, texting messages on her mobile, watching television, remembering to turn on the electric blankets for mum and dad, making a snack, looking at a magazine, bringing in the mail and making another snack peppered away at her commitment to homework. Two hours later her parents would arrive home. Invariably they were disappointed with her poor attempt at homework. Her parents allowed Kat to unsuccessfully continue with this consistent failure. By the time she turned sixteen she refused to go to school. It was too hard. Secondary school success relied heavily on work being completed out of school hours, and there was too much unstructured time for Kat to cope.
Link a 'screen free' time to homework
From the earliest of times build an understanding that homework time is a television, computer game, video game and telephone free time. For quite a few very well adjusted kids, homework requirements pale into insignificance when compared to the entertainment value of television, the computer, the phone and so on. This potential conflict needs to be resolved. Homework has to exist within its own right. Creating this block of time means homework has a chance to become a genuine part of the student's routine. Many families I work with will take this a step further and whether their child has homework or not, they create a consistent screen free time at this time anyway.
A few families eliminate the word homework from their vocabulary and replace it with the word study. Instead, of homework time they have a study time. For some, this simple word change goes a long way towards minimising hearing, "I don't have any homework." Study time is about studying, even if there is no set homework. However, it's amazing how much more homework kids willingly pull out of their bag when they have study time!
Create an agreement
The homework timetable gains a little more importance when displayed with a contract or an agreement signed by your child, yourself, and possibly their teacher. This written promise is a visual reminder of the individual steps required to achieve homework success.
Where is best to do homework?
Sometimes the kitchen table is best as a parent can hover while they are busy with other tasks. This gives them the opportunity to watch their child work, help out when asked and develop an understanding about the rhythm of their child's attentiveness and perseverance. However, as students mature they often appreciate their own space. When this point is reached, then rework the bedroom or a spare room so that it becomes a place that is inviting for researching, study and homework. A room set up for the purpose of homework can give a surprising edge to kids.
The importance of incentives and rewards
Incentives are powerful, gentle persuaders. Their job, at least to start with, is to help a child's persistence and motivation until a homework routine begins to firm up. When a goal is within reach, every human being is far more likely to put in that extra effort to reach it, and kids are no different! Offer simple affordable incentives that are enticing! Friday dinner at a fast food place, own choice take-away, a toy, a book, hiring a dvd or going to the movies. Keep the understanding simple. If the homework commitment is kept for the week then the child receives their planned reward.
Each afternoon or evening the homework period is successful mark off progress. This helps kids to see where their efforts are taking them as they adapt to the new routine. On occasions when the homework period is unsuccessful previous incentives earned cannot be taken away, the result is that no incentive is awarded for that time.
Initially, a small daily incentive for completing a successful afternoon or evening of homework, followed up by a larger incentive at the end of the week is highly motivating. Over time, however, the aim is for children to adjust to the new homework routine without the use of incentives. After a term of consistently using this approach, the program can be altered so that an incentive is achieved each fortnight or half way through the term, rather than at the end of each week. In the meantime, incentives are an effective way of consolidating the positive changes you want to create.
When the homework goal is not achieved one evening because a child has forgotten, refused or has been too disorganised, it is not necessary to become heated or punish them. Instead, briefly state your disappointment, remind them of what could have happened, and say they will have to deal with their poor choice at school the next day. This is when a parent's easy and direct communication with the child's teacher is crucial. It becomes a far more positive approach when a parent can see themself in the role as their child's coach. All coaches want the best performance from the protégé, but, when all is said and done, the athlete is the one running the race. A parent's focus has to be on sending truly positive and useful invitations to encourage homework participation. The harsh reality is none of us can make anyone do something they refuse to do. Nor can we insist that anyone holds the same attitude as we do. This applies equally to our children.
Simply aim at restarting the homework plan constructively and optimistically tomorrow.
Teachers understand that this approach places an obligation on them to follow up on unfinished or neglected homework the next day at school. A frequent response is to guarantee the student completes the homework in an inconvenient time for them. It doesn't take too long, providing an educator consistently responds in this way, for a student to realise the easiest way to deal with homework. Perceptive teachers and principals will always be supportive because they understand that this design is all about encouraging the independence and learning confidence in students.
Teachers are also in a wonderfully unique position to offer suggestions to help parents deal with homework far more successfully. Here are a few suggestions often raised by resourceful teachers.
Most of us use self-bargaining techniques, but overlook teaching kids how to do it. Countless times you've said to yourself, "I'll finish this off, and then get a cup of coffee." In a simple way this is self-bargaining, and we use it because the idea helps us to regulate what needs to be done. Leading the way and showing how to develop this skill, can be fundamental to the success of some.
Here's the essence of helping a child to self-bargain. Try this;
Let's say your child does not feel like doing their homework.
Explain to them that they know the consequence for not doing it. The outcome will be that they'll have to do it at school the next day. This is the moment to teach them how to self-bargain. The bargain is to do the homework just well enough so it will be accepted by their teacher. It does not have to be perfect. Make a start by structuring the homework task into bit parts. Try using the self-bargaining train at the end of the chapter to show what needs to be done.
Once your child uses this system they'll find a style of thinking that is clearer and makes task completion easier, and the bonus is that it can be adapted for so many other things as well.
Playing easy to listen to background music seems to help some students be settled and concentrate for longer. Perhaps the feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world also allows supports a better focus. Encourage children and teens to experiment with music and see if it provides an edge for them.
An after school workout
It is surprising how many parents of children who are hyperactive or overactive say that vigorous afternoon exercise is a wonderful homework helper. Activities such as swim club, athletics, gymnastics, bike clubs, running clubs and so on are often mentioned. These parents believe the burst of intense physical activity assists their child to be calmer and quieter as they attend to homework.
School homework systems
An increasing number of schools are setting up formal opportunities for students to complete homework. Indeed, according to evidence from research, the provision of homework centres in schools is considered to provide a positive influence on the achievement and retention of some students in schools (Cosdon, et al., 2001). Such clubs and centres offer additional access to learning resources and a social environment that is encouraging to study. In my part of the world, this system attracts various names; Homework Hall, Second Chance Homework and Homework Club to mention a few that follow up on homework not completed the previous night. Best results rely on these situations being constructive, buoyant and dependable.
Other schools are beginning to offer schemes where students can opt to stay back after dismissal to complete their homework, or at least the bulk of it, with support of a teacher. This allows students who wish to complete homework immediately to get it out of the way. It is also supportive of students whose home life does not contribute to the successful completion of homework. Wisely, some educators intervene and encourage students to stop a subject or an elective, and construct a situation where students are able to do all or some of the homework, at school. Having made a start certainly makes it easier for most students to follow up at home. This also confirms they understand it and can do it.
By year 9 Brad was a homework avoider. It had become habitual and he was good at it. As much as his parents helped, offered incentives, shouted and threatened it was a losing battle. There was also a heavy emotional toll on the family. Brad's school supported his parents by insisting that Brad reported to the duty teacher in the resource centre each afternoon following dismissal. His task was to do his homework. Brad was completely unimpressed with this at first, yet several terms later he openly revealed it was the first time in his bumpy school career that his homework was out of the way before 5pm, giving him the evening free. What does Brad's shock admission teach us?
Take the time to have a good laugh about the homework excuses.
Let kids into the secret that they are age old. Here are a few to start you off. Do you have any of your own to add?
When kids are taught how to use a school diary, learn the art of making it a friend, are afforded the time in each lesson to fill it in and discover its value, school diaries work for students. Most appear to struggle and in a few instances the school diary will not work for students. Their disorganisation may be so profound that the diary itself becomes yet another victim to the chaos they seem to create. When this is recognised creative teachers invent fabulous ways to transfer the information to home; faxing, emailing, using a personal organiser, placing messages on MP3 players, iPods®, mailing work home, texting, telephoning, having the student use a dictaphone, leaving messages on their answering machine and placing messages or photos of the homework on to the student's mobile phone can make valuable contributions.
CASE STUDY, the power of a teacher's casual remark
This case study reflects the power a casual remark made by a teacher can have. It was written by one of the parents I work with.
"I watched my daughter, bending over the table preparing to begin her homework. She busied herself setting her belongings up and pushed away the sign she had made. I asked why doing her homework was no longer the problem it used to be.
"It's easy now, mum. When I get home, I put my homework on the table, have a snack, a drink and just do it," she responded.
A few days later I spoke with her teacher about the change in Luci's attitude. Apparently, she had given this advice to all of her students, and it must have impressed Luci to such an extent that she immediately went home and made a sign saying, 'Set your homework up here first. Get a snack. Get a drink. NOW do it!' The sign stays permanently at the table as a prompt for Luci each afternoon."
A PARENT'S ROLE: What do I do when my child forgets or refuses to do their homework?
Imagine that today is the first day to implement the new homework approach. Over the past week discussions have taken place to optimistically launch the new plan. An electronic free time linked to homework time has been negotiated. Agreements have been arranged and signed, incentives and the incentive chart have been planned, and the teacher's support is in place.
It has been agreed that 5pm to 6pm is the perfect time for homework on this particular afternoon.
It is now 4:45pm and time for a prompt. As you walk past them stretched out on the floor watching their favourite television program, remind them you will be available to help out with homework once the program is finished.
The hour of 5:00pm arrives. The one hour homework time slot has commenced, so at this point you are hoping the television will be switched off by your child.
At 5:05pm you calmly switch the television off and let them know that you are available to help up to 6pm. Then, walk away. Ensure the television remains off.
At 5:30pm mention that you remain available for the next thirty minutes to help out with homework.
Finally, at 6:00pm announce that you are no longer available to help out with homework. At this point your child may begin their homework. That's fine, but you remain unavailable. On the other hand, if they don't start their homework, then whatever happens tomorrow is a direct result of their poor choice tonight. Thoroughly resist the temptation to lecture, complain, or listen to excuses. Do not allow an emotionally heated situation to develop over their poor choice. What many families do at this point is to ensure that television and computer games are not allowed for the remainder of the evening. It's imperative to have this written into the agreement right from the outset. This is the time to set the standard and be consistent.
The next morning once your child has left for school contact their teacher via the school office, note, diary, fax, e-mail, text message, telephone or whatever method you know is least intrusive and most convenient for the teacher. This is when your previous communication in developing the plan with the teacher pays off, because you know the teacher will follow through making sure your child will complete the homework at an inconvenient time during the day. Gradually, your child will learn.
A PARENT'S ROLE: What do I do when my child chooses to do their homework?
It is 4:45pm and it's time a prompt, "I'm available to help with homework in about fifteen minutes." Then suddenly, at 5:00pm your child switches the television off and starts the homework.
Here are several healthy points:
Why use the terms, "I'm available or unavailable"
Being available or unavailable to support homework is a style of language that is less emotive or confronting. These words are less likely to feed the emotion that can so easily boil over when discussing homework issues at home with children and teens. Your children will soon learn what available and unavailable means, and it is certainly better than shouting out,
"Where's your homework?"
"What have you got for homework?"
"Why aren't you doing your homework?"
"Show me your homework!"
"Do your homework now!"
"Get it out of your bag."
"When will you start it?"
"Do it now or there's no TV for a month!"
"Why haven't you started your home work yet?"
Using the terms available or unavailable delivers the message that you value your child's homework, but most importantly it says that their homework has to be primarily their concern. As a mother once said to me, "While I spent so much time worrying about my son's homework he knew he didn't have to."
On the surface homework seems a perfectly simple idea, and for quite a few it is. Kids in this group please their parents and teachers as they commit to this unique learning process. They revel in it and find homework stimulating, relevant and useful. For these students homework enhances learning and connects the family to school life. Here, homework is truly beneficial.
Yet, the reality for the students we know as tough kids, those battling learning difficulties, immaturity, concentration problems, impulsiveness, mood swings or chaotic home lives, is that regular homework practice is tricky to achieve. These kids rely on our acuity and resourcefulness to appropriately consult, reduce and modify tasks to make homework manageable and meaningful for them (Bryan, et al., 2001). What has been written in this chapter is intended to be a level headed guide to support these kids and their families who are struggling with homework to find a way to get back on track. I have no doubt that in most cases the process described and advice will be helpful.
For a few students, however, the problems surrounding homework are radically more serious. Their poor connection to homework is just the tip of the iceberg. Many have already surrendered their personal investment in learning at school. At this point they hand their management to us and place opportunities for reengagement in our hands. Their future hinges on our capacity to communicate, work together and manipulate resources. Sometimes the best decision for these kids and their families, will be to do away with homework altogether, for a while or forever.
Finally, no matter where your opinion about homework lies, make yourself familiar with the abundant supply of homework research rather than working from a point of view that is prejudiced, mythical or out of date. Homework has to be seen as 'a work in progress' because whatever is considered perfect for the moment will not be thought of as state of the art several years later.
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Buell, J. (2004). Closing the Book on Homework: Enhancing Public Education and Freeing Family Time. Temple; University Press.
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Cooper, H. (2001a). Homework for All – In Moderation, Educational Leadership, 58(7), 34–39.
Cooper, H. (2001b). The Battle over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents, Second Edition, CA: Corwin Press.
Cooper, Harris, Jorgianne Civey, and Erica A. Patall, "Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement? A Synthesis of Research, 1987-2003." Review of Educational Research, 76, 2006, 1-62.
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Department of Education and the Arts, Queensland. (2004) Homework Literature Review Summary of key research findings. Queensland.
Epstein, J., Simon, B.S. and Salinas, K.C. (1997). Involving Parents in Homework in the Middle Grades (Research Bulletin No. 18) Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins University, Center for Evaluation.
Epstein, J., and Van Voorhis, F.L. (2001). More Than Minutes: Teachers' Roles in Designing Homework, Educational Psychologist, 36(3), 181–193.
Hofferth, S.L., and Sandberg, J. F. (2001). Changes in American Children's Use of Time, 1981–1997. In T. Owens and S. Hofferth (Eds), Advances in life course research series: Children at the millennium.
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