Homework Strategies

Homework strategies

Image credit: Olga Milagros/shutterstock.com


My friends, Marie-Noelle and Paul, are a behaviour tech and a high school teacher respectively. They have 2 daughters, Emily (Grade 5, turning 10 in October) and Vivian (Grade 2, aged 7). They have a few years of homework as parents under their belts. I asked Marie-Noelle to share their homework strategies:

 

When and Where to Do Homework

It definitely took some trial and error over the years and we constantly fine-tune our routine. If there is one main piece of advice that I can give about homework time, it is exactly that – it takes constant fine-tuning. Here’s what I’ve learned over 5 years of dealing with homework time:

  1. Your approach will need to be tailored for your child and his/her temperament. When Emily started school, Paul and I had agreed to do homework immediately after school to instill that work ethic as early as possible. We quickly realized  that Emily’s brain doesn’t work that way. She needed down time before dinner, and was much more effective with her homework after dinner. As for Vivian, it doesn’t seem to make much difference when she does her homework.
  2. I like to have my kids do their homework at a large table (the dining room table in our case) and have all of their materials in one place so that they don’t need to get up and ultimately get distracted by the cat, or a speck of dust in the air! It also means that they are nearby and we can easily assist if needed while we are doing other things (dishes, etc).  We have a pencil case, dedicated for home, filled with extra pencils, highlighters, erasers, coins in a ziploc bag (useful for counting), etc. which we keep near our dedicated homework space so that they do not have to wander off for more supplies.
  3. Younger siblings who have not yet started school might be envious of the extra attention. Vivian cried almost every day of kindergarten because she “wanted homework like Emily”. I remember many evenings when I or Emily made up homework for Vivian just so that she wouldn’t be so sad. I’d have her trace her name, or phone number (good skills to learn early) to keep her busy and quiet while Emily did her homework. Having them match colors, counting coins, tracing words, etc can keep them busy. When Vivian started school and had her own homework, we realized that sometimes one kid needed to be shifted to the computer table. We divide and conquer and one parent works with one kid while the other parent works with the other kid.

  4. Over the years, as homework became more detailed and Emily had more than one teacher and multiple subjects, we realized that having our own agenda at home to mark down assignments, due dates, quizzes, etc. was vital. It allowed Paul and me to be on the same page about what was due, and meant that we didn’t have to fish through her agenda for work that had been assigned a week ago. I made myself a spreadsheet in Word and printed it out. This agenda also allows us to teach Emily some organizational skills. I see a lot of students struggling with organizing their due dates for projects. Because we helped Emily to write her homework on this spreadsheet at home, she got to practice this skill. Different teachers assign work differently. This past year, Emily’s French teacher had students write homework in their agendas but also used an online tool to assign homework. The problem with this was that dates would vary from one location to the other (even on the online tool, different tabs would have different due dates). It would confuse the heck out of Paul, Emily, and I. We came to rely mostly on the what Emily wrote in her school agenda in order to fill out our home agenda. Her English teacher gave out a printed pink slip to each student to keep in their agenda pocket for the week. This was a problem when Emily didn’t keep it in there and then lost it or had three slips from previous weeks and it took forever to find the correct one. Once she learned to transfer the info on the pink slip to her home agenda, it helped a lot. In the beginning, I transferred the info and I’d ask her when she thought the best time to do each piece of homework was. If I found her deadline to be short, I’d question her about it and make changes as need be. It didn’t take long for Emily to ask if she could do it herself. She had a clearer understanding of how her teachers assigned work so it was easier for her to fill it out (she did it more quickly than I could). She felt good about “being a big girl” and doing it herself.

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Example of how we use our agenda (pictured above):

  • We filled out the sheet on a Monday when she received her homework for the week:
    • “Voc5” ( French vocabulary) due on Wednesday.
    • “Escales” (history quiz) on the Friday – she entered this twice on the agenda to remind her to review for it twice.
    • Word work (English vocabulary)
  • On Monday evening, she realized that she didn’t have time to complete her Voc5. As it is only due on Wednesday, she crossed it out and moved it to be completed on Tuesday.

 

Motivation

Paul and I tend to involve the girls a lot in planning our evenings. I like to tell them what is planned for the evening when we are in the car so they know what’s in store for the night. I usually add phrases like “you’ll have free time to watch tv before dinner, and if we get homework done well, maybe we can play a game before bed”. I think that helps them understand that their evening is not only filled with work and it allows them to tell us if they have a suggestions. I love hearing their ideas because they are often ones we don’t think about as adults – there are times they’ve asked to go sledding instead of watching TV!

If your kid is not being him/herself, chances are something is bothering them. Kids don’t come home thinking “I’m going to make homework time the most terrible ever”. They want to get it done as much as the parents do. And with Emily, we quickly came to realize that if she had a hard day at school with friends, her mind would not be focused on homework. Even if we think that “Bobby stole my blue pencil today” is not a problem, to them, it’s significant. Sometimes taking 2 minutes to validate that feeling of annoyance will clear the way for easier homework time.

Apps for teaching reading and math can be good tools to use when one’s kid is not self-motivated. If there is written work to be done that the kids are not thrilled about, I try to reward them with something they like better but that is still educational and homework-related. (Read about good educational apps and online resources here: Educational Apps and Online Resources.)

In the beginning, concentration was difficult for Emily. I remember taking two-five minute breaks after 10-15 minutes of work so that she could refocus. I can’t even remember why concentration was difficult. I think part of it was that reading was slow for her, so it required a lot of effort. That brings me to my next point; adapting homework when needed is important. Some kids will get through their homework in no time because it comes easy to them. For others, it doesn’t, so homework time can seem like an eternity. I suggest asking their teachers how much time they expect the homework they assign to take, and if your child takes much longer (despite being reasonably on task), then adapt the work. Have them complete 5 of the 10 questions, and write a note to the teacher that homework time took longer than it should. Communication with the teacher helps a lot in this respect. If they have difficulty concentrating at home, but not in school (and vice versa), then maybe something needs to be adapted (time of day homework is done, or location, etc.). For Emily and Vivian, they tend to do homework at the kitchen table and stay focused but on days when one or the other needs more quiet, then one will move downstairs to the computer table.

 

Teaching Independence

Emily is very studious so she is now great at organizing herself. It didn’t take her long to learn these skills. When she started school, she definitely was not independent. Paul or myself were required to sit next to her and keep her on track. Again, I think the reading was slow for her, and she often required guidance. We slowly weaned her off our support by keeping ourselves busy, at first next to her at the table (with our tablet or other distraction) and then later, on the couch next to the table. Once she became a bit more independent, we’d stay in the kitchen cleaning up or preparing future meals so we were close by, but not really in her sight.

 

I think that by the time she was in grade 3, she had become quite independent. By independent, I mean that we still sat with her before she started her homework and asked her what she planned on working on but we didn’t help her with it unless she asked us to. We also checked her homework afterwards at her request. I think there are a few schools of thought on the subject of how much you should be involved in correcting your child’s homework. I like to find a balance between teaching them to edit their own work and just telling them when their work is wrong and showing them how to correct it. If it’s vocabulary I’m verifying, I like to tell Emily how many words need reviewing, and let her try to find the mistakes. If she doesn’t find them after 3 or 4 tries, then I point out the words but she still has to figure out why they are wrong herself. To do this, she can use resources such as her school books. I find this helps them be independent in school, and it teaches them the vital skill of editing which fewer and fewer students have by the time they reach high school. I’ve seen parents complete homework for their kid because their child forgot and it was due the next day or simply because it was difficult.

 

A Few Things to Consider

For every do, there is a don’t, but ideally, there’s an in-between. I think it’s about finding a good balance and again – fine-tuning e.g. when you realize schedules aren’t appropriate anymore (holidays, sports, family time and many other things can come into play when dealing with homework).

  1. Do be involved in homework time, but don’t hover like a helicopter. This means being there physically, but not necessarily next to him/her. Find a way to help with homework but not do it for them. It’s like a tug of war… sometimes you need to let go a little to gain strength and win the tug.
  2. Do expect the best out of your child, but don’t expect your best. Everyone is different, and what you think is good, may not be what your child thinks is good. That has been an interesting point with Emily. I value proper grammar and spelling when writing. As for Emily, she has repeatedly said to me “but, Mommy, if you understood I wrote “elephant” even though I spelled it “elefent”, why do I need to spell it properly?” I get her point, but I gently coaxed her to edit her work so that she knows that skill for when she has a job. The problem for Emily is that she’s only 9 years old; she’s not thinking about getting a job anytime soon! All this to say, I always invite her to edit her work, I ask her if she wants me to point out her spelling mistakes, and if she says no, I respect that. When she returns upset from school because she lost points for spelling, I ask her again if she wants me to edit her work; the answer has usually changed. Again, the words tug of war comes to mind… you have to let some details go to win in the end (and realize you can’t always win at tug of war!).
  3. Do give encouragement when your child is struggling, but don’t enable the behaviour. For a while, Emily struggled with certain concepts in math. She would eventually crumble into a heaping mess of tears and whining. Paul and I would often take some time to console her and talk to her about these difficulties. Soon we realized that it seemed this happened almost every night that she had math to do. We got the sense that it had become Emily’s tactic to avoid doing the work – the consoling and talking would take a lot of time. I eventually “put my foot down”, and told her there was going to be no discussing these difficulties during homework time. Basically we came up with a plan. If she was frustrated, she could request a two minute break, during which she could put her head down, but Paul and I would not discuss anything. We’d return to the work, and that was it. It seemed harsh, but she soon developed that “grit” she needed to deal with her frustrations. Of course, I didn’t leave her hanging – I encouraged her to talk about these frustrations after homework time, but most important of all, I would make sure to compliment her when homework time went well.

 

A Word From Emily and Vivian

I asked Emily and Vivian if they had advice to give parents that may have a kid that will start having homework.

From Emily: (Grade 5, turning 10 in October)

“If parents want to tell their kids what homework to do (if the kids can’t plan their own homework time yet), they should give a few instructions at a time.”

This is a great point she has made. I used to tell her “do your math, then vocabulary, and then I’ll help you with your reading”. Emily would always tell me that I was overwhelming her. Emily is extremely vocal; probably more vocal than most kids. Not every kid will tell their parents that they have given too many instructions at once with their words. Instead, it’ll come out in their behaviour such as lack of concentration, etc. But if from the start, you give a choice instead of commands, it makes the process a lot easier. Does your child want to start with math, vocabulary, or reading? Let them pick, do that work, then go onto the next choice.

 

“Do not constantly ask if we need help.”

Again, great point. There are times that we see our kids struggle, and we want to “save” them. It’s okay to let them struggle. It also teaches them the skill of asking for help when needed. Of course, if your kid has breakdowns before they ask for help, perhaps they need to be offered help a few minutes before they break down so that they slowly learn that skill. Parents will learn with trial and error! I sure did, which is why I think she felt that I’d ask too often… I wanted to prevent the dreaded breakdown, but as she learned to ask for help herself, I learned to back off.

 

From Vivian (Grade 2, age 7):

“I think homework is better with help.”

I really think she means “I would love it if my Mommy did my homework” (lol), but I think it shows the contrast with her sister’s response. Younger grades require more parental support, whereas older grades appreciate having independence.

 

“I think homework is funner when it’s funner.”

With a few more questions, I realized she means homework is more fun when it involves games. Vivian once received a gift of a Winnie the Pooh preschool workbook which was made up of educational games. It had a Snakes and Ladder type game where the board had the capital letters of the alphabet (not in order) as the “track” to the winning square. It also included cards and a board. When you picked a card with the lowercase “a” for instance, she had to put her player piece on the capital “A” on the board. She enjoys learning this way far more than written work.

 

Thank you Marie-Noelle, Emily, & Vivian for taking the time to share your strategies and insights!

 

If you have any tips to share, or if you have any questions, please communicate them in the comments section below.

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