child caring

Removing some of the homework hurdles

By Barbara F. Meltz
Globe Staff / September 19, 2002

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When it comes to homework, internationally renown educator Lucy Calkins is one parent who's determined to leave last year's mistakes behind, particularly her sons' practice of doing homework between instant messages.

Even though Calkins has always followed her own rule about computers (she believes they belong in public spaces in the house where adults can monitor what's on the screen, not in children's bedrooms), she was fooled into thinking that any time spent on the computer is good for children.

"I would tell myself, `At least they're reading, at least they're writing,' " she says.

She's changed her mind about that. With her sons now in eighth and 10th grades, there are new rules. Homework cannot be done in front of the computer.

"It fractures their attention," says Calkins.

From now on, Evan and Miles can't go online without asking permission, even if it's to do research; computer play time, including instant messaging, is limited to 30 minutes a day once homework is done, or for a break between subjects, 10 minutes at a time; and there's an honor-system log-in sheet to note start and finish time. What's more, she's hired homework police for when she's not home: a nanny whose main job is to keep them off the Internet.

"This is not a small problem," Calkins says with great candor. She should know. A professor at Teachers College, Columbia University, she's the author of a best-selling book, "Raising Lifelong Learners, A Parent's Guide" (Addison Wesley).

Children's homework long has been the bane of family existence: A child dashes it off in 10 minutes, leaves it to the last minute, or treats each assignment like a term project. He wants you to do the homework for him, or doesn't want you to even see it. There are raised voices, tearful threats, cries of, "I hate school! I hate you!"

Just as surely as there are ways to head off some of this at the pass, some frustration with homework is inevitable. So is homework itself: Don't waste your time wishing it away. While scattered schools may experiment with no- or limited-homework policies, the trend nationwide is for more homework, not less. Even though research is inconclusive about the relationship between homework and academic achievement, most teachers and academicians value it as a way to enhance self-discipline and consolidate learning.

Turns out, it's often parents, not students, who erect hurdles to homework.

Educator Janine Bempechat, senior research associate at the center for the Study of Human Development at Brown University, says getting homework done is the single most important job children have. "Parents who put extra-curricular activities ahead of it have it backward," she says. She frowns even on parents of elementary school students who send in excuse notes: "Susie couldn't finish her homework; she had a violin lesson."

"You buy a sackful of trouble when you do that," says Bempechat. "Children need to know early on that homework is a responsibility; everything else is a privilege." In homes where there are constant homework struggles, simply reducing extracurricular activities often provides relief.

Parents who do homework for their children also miss the point. "Homework is meant to be practice. That means you are allowed to make mistakes. Otherwise, how does a teacher know if a student is grasping the material?" asks educational psychologist and learning specialist Jane M. Healy, author of "Your Child's Growing Mind" (Doubleday).

Also, when parents consistently do the work, a child can begin to think it's because he couldn't do it on his own. "That can become a self-fulfilling prophesy and undermine self-esteem in the process," says Anne Roberston, coordinator of the National Parent Information Network, a nonprofit educational resource for parents.

There's another simple truth about homework: "Habits get set early," says Bempechat. There's a right and wrong way to do homework, starting with the first assignment your child ever gets.

Establish a routine, with a set time and place. Routines can vary from child to child, but every child needs one. When: Don't just impose a schedule; work it out together, taking into consideration your family's routine and each child's temperament. At the Verrier household in Arlington, fourth-grader Sarah doesn't like homework hanging over her head; she starts it as soon as she gets home. Emily, in seventh grade, needs time to decompress; her start time is 5 p.m. Days with outside activities may have a different routine, but they need a routine nonetheless. A child in an after-school program may be expected to finish some homework there.

Where: Just because you invested in a desk and lamp and bookshelves in her bedroom doesn't mean homework will get done there; elementary students tend to prefer to do their work in the heart of the family (watch for a retreat to the bedroom in seventh or eighth grade.) The kitchen table, the rec room floor, even your big bed, is fine, as long as there's no TV or radio going, and each child has a drawer or box to store equipment. It's also OK to have siblings working around the same table, as long as they are respectful of each other. (With some children, you may need to be specific about what they can't say, for instance: "That's so easy! I can't believe you can't do it!")

Once a routine is established, a child should slip into it pretty quickly, says Robertson. If he has to be nagged every day, probably the routine isn't respecting his needs, he says.

Don't wait to tell the teacher about a problem. Research shows that 10 minutes of homework a day is appropriate in first or second grade (Healy advocates for kindergarteners and first-graders not to have homework), with 10-minute-a-day additional increments per grade, so that by fifth grade, there's close to an hour. That amount in fifth grade is critical, says Bempechat, because it eases the transition to the increased rigor of middle school. Bempechat is author of "Getting Our Kids Back on Track, Educating Children for the Future" (Jossey-Bass).

If your child takes more time than prescribed, ask other parents how long it takes their children. If many work overtime, there likely is a problem with the assignments. Get a group of parents to bring it to a teacher's attention. If only your child struggles, that's even more reason to tell the teacher immediately, says Calkins. It could indicate a learning or behavioral issue or simply be a matter of your child's learning how to organize and focus. Tricia Verrier, Sarah and Emily's mother, has met with teachers every year to discuss daughter Emily's proclivity to procrastination, and she continues to do that, even in middle school.

Offer support, generate excitement. Be available but don't hover; if your child needs you sitting next to him, something's wrong. Here's what is appropriate to do: Answer questions about how to do the work, help locate materials, type while he dictates, proofread, point out mistakes ("You might want to double check your addition in this problem."). Your attitude definitely counts. "Show interest, generate excitement," says Calkins: " `I never knew the story of the Alamo. This is so interesting!' " That helps them grow bigger thoughts than they would on their own, she says.

Make sure your child is organized. What location is to real estate, organization is to homework. Calkins is convinced that study skills each and every day matter more than anything, including studying for a test. With that in mind, she got into nitty-gritty details with son Miles this year. She helped him organize all his paperwork with an accordion folder for handouts, down to the detail of whether the most recent handout goes at the front or back of a folder (instead of just being jammed in) and where returned tests should go (instead of being wadded up and thrown away in frustration).

Tricia Verrier, who has vowed this year to give her daughter more independence with her homework, says hassles at her house have been eased greatly by the Ottoson Middle School's homework telephone hotline where teachers record the daily assignments. By the second day of school, it already had been a lifesaver.

"On the first day, they handed out homework agenda notebooks. The second day, Emily opened her backpack and said, `Oh, where's my homework agenda?' I was beside myself," says Verrier. "I had to walk away." But not before she muttered, "At least you can call the hotline."