For this back-to-school season, I would like to offer some advice about one of the most frequent problems presented to me in over 30 years of clinical practice: battles over homework. I have half-jokingly told many parents that if the schools of New York State no longer required homework, our children’s education would suffer (slightly). But, as a child psychologist, I would be out of business.
Many parents accept this conflict with their children as an unavoidable consequence of responsible parenting. These battles, however, rarely result in improved learning or performance in school. More often than not, battles over homework lead to vicious cycles of nagging by parents and avoidance or refusal by children, with no improvement in a child’s school performance — and certainly no progress toward what should be our ultimate goals: helping children enjoy learning and develop age-appropriate discipline and independence with respect to their schoolwork.
Before I present a plan for reducing battles over homework, it is important to begin with this essential reminder:
The solution to the problem of homework always begins with an accurate diagnosis and a recognition of the demands placed on your child. Parents should never assume that a child who resists doing homework is “lazy.”
Every child whose parents or teachers report ongoing resistance to completing schoolwork or homework; every child whose performance in school is below expectations based on his parents’ or teachers’ intuitive assessment of his intellectual potential; and every child who, over an extended period of time, complains that he “hates school” or “hates reading,” should be evaluated for the presence of an attention or learning disorder.
These children are not lazy. Your child may be anxious, frustrated, discouraged, distracted, or angry — but this is not laziness. I frequently explain to parents that, as a psychologist, the word lazy is not in my dictionary. Lazy, at best, is a description, not an explanation.
For children with learning difficulties, doing their homework is like running with a sprained ankle: It is possible, although painful, and he will look for ways to avoid or postpone this painful and discouraging task.
A Homework Plan
Homework, like any constructive activity, involves moments of frustration, discouragement, and anxiety. If you begin with some appreciation of your child’s frustration and discouragement, you will be better able to put in place a structure that helps him learn to work through his frustration - to develop increments of frustration tolerance and self-discipline.
I offer families who struggle with this problem a Homework Plan:
• Set aside a specified — and limited — time for homework. Establish, early in the evening, a homework hour.
• For most children, immediately after school is not the best time for homework. This is a time for sports, for music and drama, and free play.
• During the homework hour, all electronics are turned off — for the entire family.
• Work is done in a communal place, at the kitchen or dining room table. Contrary to older conventional wisdom, most elementary school children are able to work more much effectively in a common area, with an adult and even other children present, than in the “quiet” of their rooms.
• Parents may do their own ”homework” during this time, but they are present and continually available to help, to offer encouragement, and to answer children’s questions. Your goal is to create, to the extent possible, a library atmosphere in your home, again, for a specified and limited period of time. Ideally, therefore, parents should not make or receive telephone calls during this hour. And when homework is done, there is time for play.
• Begin with a reasonable — a doable — amount of time set aside for homework. If your child is unable to work for 20 minutes, begin with 10 minutes. Then try 15 minutes the next week. Acknowledge every increment of effort, however small.
• Be positive and give frequent encouragement. Make note of every improvement, not every mistake.
• Be generous with your praise. Praise their effort, not their innate ability. But do not be afraid of praise.
• Anticipate setbacks. After a difficult day, reset for the following day.
• Give them time. A child’s difficulty completing homework begins as a problem of frustration and discouragement, but it is then complicated by defiant attitudes and feelings of unfairness. A homework plan will begin to reduce these defiant attitudes, but this will not happen overnight.
Most families have found these suggestions helpful, especially for elementary school children. Establishing a homework hour allows parents to move away from a language of threats (“If you don’t ... you won’t be able to ...”) to a language of opportunities (“When” or “As soon as” you have finished ... we’ll have a chance to ...”).
Of course, for many hurried families, there are complications and potential glitches in implementing any homework plan. It is often difficult, with children’s many activities, to find a consistent time for homework. Some flexibility — some amendments to the plan — may be required. But we should not use the complications of scheduling or other competing demands as an excuse, a reason not to establish the structure of a reasonable homework routine.
Copyright Ken Barish, Ph.D.
Ken Barish is the author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems.
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The Number One Question About Boys
by Michael Thompson
Michael Thompson, Ph.D. is a consultant, author and psychologist specializing in children and families. Read more »
Sorry, Michael Thompson is no longer taking questions.
As a psychologist who makes his living as a traveling lecturer, I speak to audiences of mothers, fathers and teachers every week. Over the course of a year, I probably answer more than 1,000 questions from parents, and the majority of those queries are, naturally, about sons. Occasionally someone asks, "What is the most-asked question about boys?" and it always makes me ponder: What is the one thing about boy behavior that most troubles parents?
I used to think the number one question was about how to get boys to talk. "How do I get my 15-year-old to speak to me?" moms would ask. "Why won't my son talk to me about college?" an exasperated father would wonder. "I can tell my third-grader is angry and hurt, but when I ask him about it, he won't answer me or he says that things are 'fine,'" a mother reports. Lack of talkativeness in boys is a big issue and a frustration for mothers, but mostly in middle-school and teenage boys. Many little guys are still telling their mothers everything (or their moms just seem to know everything).
Perhaps the number one question is from parents wondering why boys hate school and homework so much. "How can I help motivate my son?" a father asks. "He doesn't seem to care about school at all," a mother worries, "He just spends a few minutes on his homework." There is no question that more boys than girls seem to dislike school and fight back against it; no question that boys get more C's and D's than girls. More boys drop out before finishing high school. Academic underachievement is a big concern for many parents of boys.
Then there are the questions about boy bullying, aggression, anger and dumb behavior. And, what about their bad judgment? Why do they get so explosive and do such stupid things sometimes? Why don't they seem to grasp social cues or follow the rules the way girls do?
In the end, however, when I mentally add up all the questions that I am asked about boys of all ages, I have to conclude that THE number one question is about the high activity level of boys; their constant need for movement, running, and what seems like--but mostly is not--physical aggression. Boys' need to touch, to poke, to wrestle and to take physical risks is, at times, both baffling and frustrating for adults.
"My son can't sit still in class. He's always getting in trouble with the teacher. The school wants him evaluated for ADHD, but I think he's a normal boy. He's so sweet at home."
"Why does he want to run all the time; why does he run into the street?" wonders the mother of a 2 ½ -year-old.
"My son's school has a Zero Tolerance policy; they suspended him for stick-fighting at recess. He's only in Kindergarten, and he didn't hurt anybody."
"Why can't they sit still and listen when we're reading out loud. Why do they always pile on top of each other?" asks a Kindergarten teacher.
"My sons fight and wrestle every day. It's so upsetting to me," says the mom of two boys, 11 and 13, fearing that it means her sons won't have a good relationship when they grow up. I reassure her that many loving brothers wrestled as boys and continue wrestling into their twenties, thirties and forties.
Most of these questions come from women. They haven't lived inside a boy's body, and as a result they sometimes have a hard time identifying with how it feels to have the body, the muscles, the hormones and the physical drive of a boy. But men know. They remember how hard it was to sit still when they were little.
My basic answer to all these questions is biological: Most boys are made this way. Some boys are calm and quiet. But by school age, three-quarters of the boys in a classroom are more restless, more impulsive and more developmentally immature than any of the girls.
You cannot hold boys to a "girl standard" when it comes to physical movement. That said, there are some boys who are so distractible, impulsive and hyper that they need our help. How do we tell the difference? How do we know what is normal? When a boy is in trouble in school, is it because he is hyperactive or is the problem teachers who have no tolerance for normal boy behavior? It can be difficult for parents to sort these things out. That's one reason they turn to PBS Parents for advice.
So tell me, what's your number one question about your boy?
Sorry, Michael Thompson is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.