Here is the best guide to helping kids do homework successfully that we’ve seen, published by the National Association of School Psychologists on their website, NASPonline.org. Our thanks to NASP for sharing it with us.
There are two key strategies parents can draw on to reduce homework hassles. The first is to establish clear routines around homework, including when and where homework gets done and setting up daily schedules for homework. The second is to build in rewards or incentives to use with children for whom “good grades” is not a sufficient reward for doing homework.
Tasks are easiest to accomplish when tied to specific routines. By establishing daily routines for homework completion, you will not only make homework go more smoothly, but you will also be fostering a sense of order your child can apply to later life, including college and work.
Step 1. Find a location in the house where homework will be done. The right location will depend on your child and the culture of your family. Some children do best at a desk in their bedroom. It is a quiet location, away from the hubbub of family noise. Other children become too distracted by the things they keep in their bedroom and do better at a place removed from those distractions, like the dining room table. Some children need to work by themselves. Others need to have parents nearby to help keep them on task and to answer questions when problems arise. Ask your child where the best place is to work. Both you and your child need to discuss pros and cons of different settings to arrive at a mutually agreed upon location.
Step 2. Set up a homework center. Once you and your child have identified a location, fix it up as a home office/homework center. Make sure there is a clear workspace large enough to set out all the materials necessary for completing assignments. Outfit the homework center with the kinds of supplies your child is most likely to need, such as pencils, pens, colored markers, rulers, scissors, a dictionary and thesaurus, graph paper, construction paper, glue and cellophane tape, lined paper, a calculator, spell checker, and, depending on the age and needs of your child, a computer or laptop. If the homework center is a place that will be used for other things (such as the dining room table), then your child can keep the supplies in a portable crate or bin. If possible, the homework center should include a bulletin board that can hold a monthly calendar on which your child can keep track of longterm assignments. Allowing children some leeway in decorating the homework center can help them feel at home there, but you should be careful that it does not become too cluttered with distracting materials.
Step 3. Establish a homework time. Your child should get in the habit of doing homework at the same time every day. The time may vary depending on the individual child. Some children need a break right after school to get some exercise and have a snack. Others need to start homework while they are still in a school mode (i.e., right after school when there is still some momentum left from getting through the day). In general, it may be best to get homework done either before dinner or as early in the evening as the child can tolerate. The later it gets, the more tired the child becomes and the more slowly the homework gets done.
Step 4. Establish a daily homework schedule. In general, at least into middle school, the homework session should begin with your sitting down with your child and drawing up a homework schedule. You should review all the assignments and make sure your child understands them and has all the necessary materials. Ask your child to estimate how long it will take to complete each assignment. Then ask when each assignment will get started. If your child needs help with any assignment, then this should be determined at the beginning so that the start times can take into account parent availability. A Daily Homework Planner is included at the end of this handout and contains a place for identifying when breaks may be taken and what rewards may be earned.
Many children who are not motivated by the enjoyment of doing homework are motivated by the high grade they hope to earn as a result of doing a quality job. Thus, the grade is an incentive, motivating the child to do homework with care and in a timely manner. For children who are not motivated by grades, parents will need to look for other rewards to help them get through their nightly chores. Incentive systems fall into two categories: simple and elaborate.
Simple incentive systems. The simplest incentive system is reminding the child of a fun activity to do when homework is done. It may be a favorite television show, a chance to spend some time with a video or computer game, talking on the telephone or instant messaging, or playing a game with a parent. This system of withholding fun things until the drudgery is over is sometimes called Grandma’s Law because grandmothers often use it quite effectively (“First take out the trash, then you can have chocolate chip cookies.”). Having something to look forward to can be a powerful incentive to get the hard work done. When parents remind children of this as they sit down at their desks they may be able to spark the engine that drives the child to stick with the work until it is done.
Elaborate incentive systems. These involve more planning and more work on the part of parents but in some cases are necessary to address more significant homework problems. More complex incentives systems might include a structure for earning points that could be used to “purchase” privileges or rewards or a system that provides greater reward for accomplishing more difficult homework tasks. These systems work best when parents and children together develop them. Giving children input gives them a sense of control and ownership, making the system more likely to succeed. We have found that children are generally realistic in setting goals and deciding on rewards and penalties when they are involved in the decision-making process.
Building in breaks. These are good for the child who cannot quite make it to the end without a small reward en route. When creating the daily homework schedule, it may be useful with these children to identify when they will take their breaks. Some children prefer to take breaks at specific time intervals (every 15 minutes), while others do better when the breaks occur after they finish an activity. If you use this approach, you should discuss with your child how long the breaks will last and what will be done during the breaks (get a snack, call a friend, play one level on a video game). The Daily Homework Planner includes sections where breaks and end-of-homework rewards can be identified.
Building in choice. This can be an effective strategy for parents to use with children who resist homework. Choice can be incorporated into both the order in which the child agrees to complete assignments and the schedule they will follow to get the work done. Building in choice not only helps motivate children but can also reduce power struggles between parents and children.
Developing Incentive Systems
Step 1. Describe the problem behaviors. Parents and children decide which behaviors are causing problems at homework time. For some children putting homework off to the last minute is the problem; for others, it is forgetting materials or neglecting to write down assignments. Still others rush through their work and make careless mistakes, while others dawdle over assignments, taking hours to complete what should take only a few minutes. It is important to be as specific as possible when describing the problem behaviors. The problem behavior should be described as behaviors that can be seen or heard; for instance, complains about homework or rushes through homework, making many mistakes are better descriptors than has a bad attitude or is lazy.
Step 2. Set a goal. Usually the goal relates directly to the problem behavior. For instance, if not writing down assignments is the problem, the goal might be: “Joe will write down his assignments in his assignment book for every class.”
Step 3. Decide on possible rewards and penalties. Homework incentive systems work best when children have a menu of rewards to choose from, since no single reward will be attractive for long. We recommend a point system in which points can be earned for the goal behaviors and traded in for the reward the child wants to earn. The bigger the reward, the more points the child will need to earn it. The menu should include both larger, more expensive rewards that may take a week or a month to earn and smaller, inexpensive rewards that can be earned daily. It may also be necessary to build penalties into the system. This is usually the loss of a privilege (such as the chance to watch a favorite TV show or the chance to talk on the telephone to a friend).
Once the system is up and running, and if you find your child is earning more penalties than rewards, then the program needs to be revised so that your child can be more successful. Usually when this kind of system fails, we think of it as a design failure rather than the failure of the child to respond to rewards. It may be a good idea if you are having difficulty designing a system that works to consult a specialist, such as a school psychologist or counselor, for assistance.
Step 4. Write a homework contract. The contract should say exactly what the child agrees to do and exactly what the parents’ roles and responsibilities will be. When the contract is in place, it should reduce some of the tension parents and kids often experience around homework. For instance, if part of the contract is that the child will earn a point for not complaining about homework, then if the child does complain, this should not be cause for a battle between parent and child: the child simply does not earn that point. Parents should also be sure to praise their children for following the contract. It will be important for parents to agree to a contract they can live with; that is, avoiding penalties they are either unable or unwilling to impose (e.g., if both parents work and are not at home, they cannot monitor whether a child is beginning homework right after school, so an alternative contract may need to be written).
We have found that it is a rare incentive system that works the first time. Parents should expect to try it out and redesign it to work the kinks out. Eventually, once the child is used to doing the behaviors specified in the contract, the contract can be rewritten to work on another problem behavior. Your child over time may be willing to drop the use of an incentive system altogether. This is often a long-term goal, however, and you should be ready to write a new contract if your child slips back to bad habits once a system is dropped.
Click here to download the homework planner and incentive sheet.
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“Be sure to study for the test on Friday,” one of your child’s teachers is certain to say some day soon.
Does your child know how?
While many teachers spend some class time teaching study skills, students often need more guidance than they get in the classroom. In middle school, there’s more homework, it becomes more difficult and it requires analytical skills your child may not have developed yet.
The study skills your child needs to do well on her test on Friday are the same ones she will need to succeed in high school and college: getting organized, taking good notes and studying effectively.
As your child moves toward independence, she’s less likely to ask for your advice. She will need to go through some trial and error to come up with the strategies most compatible with her learning style. And you’ll want to encourage her to take responsibility for her own school work. You can help her by monitoring homework, asking questions and helping her evaluate what works for her — and what doesn’t.
Helping your child get organized
Getting organized is crucial for your child, says Linda Winburn, a veteran South Carolina middle school teacher who became the state’s 2005 Teacher of the Year. “And the key is parent involvement.”
Some tips to help your child get organized:
Provide a place to study.
It doesn’t have to be a desk, says Winburn. “A kitchen counter is a great place, especially if mom’s in the kitchen cooking.”
The desk or table surface should be big enough so that your student can spread out papers and books. Make sure essential supplies such as pens, paper and calculator are close by. Have good lighting and a sturdy chair that’s the right height available.
Help your child develop a system to keep track of important papers.
If your child tends to forget to turn in homework or can’t quite keep track of how he’s doing in a class, it might help to get him a binder with a folder in the front for completed work ready to be turned in and a folder in the back for papers returned by the teacher.
“For me, staying organized meant creating a system — any system — and sticking to it,” says Gabriela Kipnis, now a student at the University of Pennsylvania. “I had fun color-coding, organizing and using dividers, but the truth is, all that mattered was that there was a method that I stuck with.”
Make sure your child has — and uses — a planner to keep track of assignments.
Help your child get in the habit of writing down each daily assignment in each subject and checking it off when it’s complete. Some schools provide these to students, and if not, you might want to work with your PTA or parent organization to provide planners at your school.
Encourage your child to estimate how long each assignment will take.
He can then plan a realistic schedule, building in study breaks after subjects that are most challenging, and allowing for soccer games and band practice. Helping your child keep track of time spent studying — rather than staring at a blank page — will help him think about how he’s using his time. If he’s spending too much time on a subject that might be a signal that he needs extra help or tutoring.
Help your child break big projects into smaller ones.
A big research project will seem less overwhelming and will be less likely to be left until the last minute if it’s done in manageable chunks, each with its own deadline.
Communicate with your child’s teachers.
If your child is struggling with organizational skills, talk to the school counselor or teachers about what might be causing the problems and brainstorm approaches to solve them.
“Did you do your homework?”
Parents need to ask more questions than this one, teachers advise. How much should you help with homework? Monitor homework but remember it’s your child’s homework, not yours. You can help by asking questions that help guide your child to his own solutions. Some examples:
- What information do you need to do this assignment?
- Where are you going to look for it?
- Where do you think you should begin?
- What do you need to do next?
- Can you describe how you’re going to solve this problem?
- How did you solve this problem?
- What did you try that didn’t work?
- Why does this answer seem right to you?
- Tell me more about this part?
Studying for tests
Studying for tests is a skill. For struggling students, it’s a mystery.
“Unsuccessful test takers don’t know where the questions come from,” says Jim Burke, a California high school English teacher and the author of a number of books about teaching and learning. “The kids who don’t succeed tend to think the others are lucky.”
Parents can help their children manage their time and attention — which means turning of the cell phone, the TV and the iPod, says Burke.
Some tips to remember in helping your child:
Rereading isn’t the same as learning.
“Reviewing alone is not enough, says Kipnis, the UPenn student, reflecting on what she has learned along the way. “Thinking of potential essay questions and outlining them or working out the challenging math problems helps me learn how to apply the material so that I do not blank when I see the questions on the test.”
“For math and sciences, a big problem that I had was that I would spend a lot of time reviewing the concepts, but I wouldn’t learn them because I was not practicing applying the concepts,” she says. “I was the most productive when I created sheets with tons of practice problems and just practiced applying the concept in many different ways.”
There are other ways your student can practice this kind of active learning – highlighting his notes, using Post-its to mark key textbook passages, making study cards, and mapping and diagramming concepts.
People are productive at different times of day.
Some people focus better in the morning, others at night. Help your child find the times that his efforts will be most effective.
Sometimes we just have to memorize.
You may have used a mnemonic like Roy G. Biv to remember the colors of the rainbow (red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo, violet) or My Very Educated Mother Just Sent Us Nine Pizzas to remember the correct order of the planets, back when Pluto was still considered the ninth one. Inventing your own silly mnemonic together works just as well and can lighten up a study session.
Help your child make the most of his time.
If she carries a review sheet or book along with her, sitting in the doctor’s waiting room or waiting out a traffic jam can be productive study time. That leaves more time for a basketball game after school.
Make sure your child knows the basics.
Find out the skills students at your child’s grade level are expected to have. Middle school students are generally expected to have learned basic multiplication and division facts, for example. If your child can’t quickly recall them, it is likely to hurt her scores on math tests.
Look for other sources of support.
Find out the best way to reach your child’s teachers and keep that contact information handy all year. Is there a college student in your neighborhood who can help with math, a relative who can tutor him in Spanish? Talk to your child about finding a “study buddy” or group. Study groups can be effective because students can fill in the gaps in each other’s knowledge and test their understanding of the material by explaining it to others.
Reflect on what works.
Some questions you can ask your child: How do you know when you’ve studied enough? How did you keep yourself focused? How much time did you plan to spend and how much did you actually spend? How would you do this differently next time?
Help your child destress.
Good study skills can help reduce anxiety, and so can relaxation exercises and regular physical activity. If your child seems unusually anxious about tests, talk to him about it. If the work seems too difficult for your child or the workload too great, contact the school.
“Have a conversation with the teacher,” says Winburn, the South Carolina teacher. “Maybe the child doesn’t need to be doing 100 problems to practice a concept. Maybe 10 is just fine.”
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