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Being an Efficient Homework Helper: Turning a Chore into a Challenge

By: Regina G. Richards

"The secret of education lies in respecting the pupil."
— Ralph Waldo Emerson (1803-1882, U.S. poet, essayist and lecturer)

Homework is a constant for most children — it is always there. And for many children, it is often a chore. Just the concept of "homework" can cause multiple anxieties and negative feelings. To assist parents and students, this article presents some tools to help turn this chore into an enjoyable challenge. It focuses on some general preliminaries, basic strategies, and motivation.

To begin, we must keep in mind the characteristics of our own children, because each child has his or her unique strengths, weaknesses, and needs.

When embarking on any project, there are first some questions we need to ask ourselves. These apply whether the project is a page of math facts or a full report.

  • We need to make sure we understand the project: what are we trying to do?
  • We need to assemble our tools: what materials will we need for this project?

Working successfully with our children on schoolwork requires respect, and respect begins with understanding. If a child struggles with and/or resists homework, ask yourself, "why?" As you discover the reasons, share them with your child so he or she better understands the issues. Doing so takes the mystery out of struggles or frustrations. Pediatrician Mel Levine calls this "demystification," which he describes as eliminating mystery by explaining the child's strengths and weaknesses and guiding him to develop more accurate personal insight.

Students may struggle with and/or resist homework for a variety of reasons. These may include any of the following:

  • Your child is experiencing some aspect of a learning disability or learning difference.
  • Your child is inefficient in a skill needed to establish a solid foundation related to the concept.
  • Your child struggles to process one or more components of the task.
  • Your child lacks or is not using the appropriate strategies or tools.
  • Your child is experiencing fatigue, either processing fatigue or general fatigue.

As a parent, we should attend to how our student approaches the task. Help him identify and sort through the different components and determine the needed sub-steps. You can delineate these using a concrete chart or graphic organizer.

Many students express the idea that homework is "stupid" or a "waste of time." Even if you do wonder about the value of the given task, it is critical to communicate an optimistic, important belief that homework positively affects achievement in school and teaches many valuable skills critical for success throughout life. For example:

  • Following directions
  • Independent work habits
  • Time management
  • Use of strategies
  • Follow-through
  • Responsibility

Keep in mind that you and your child are laying an important foundation that will guide his routines for years to come. Starting in early elementary school years, each child begins to establish habits for time management and task completion.

Preliminaries

Location

Establishing a consistent workspace is a critical beginning. The precise location for doing homework does not matter as long as it is free from distractions. For example, trying to read a chapter in the middle of the kitchen while a parent makes dinner and siblings run in and out creates a recipe for failure. In the early grades, you and your child should select the homework location together, identifying a place where you can be close by and available for help. As the child matures, he can be more independent in selecting his own workspace.

Supplies

At the beginning of each school year, help your child create his own Homework Survival Kit with the necessary supplies. If the child receives accommodations for their learning disabilities at school — such as a particular pencil grip, a type of paper, or a Frankin speller — try to let them use them at home too. Children should learn to take care of the supplies in their Homework Survival Kit, therefore sharing is not advisable. Your child, even at age five, should have a large calendar with enough space to note their assignments. This is a critical habit that students will need to use through high school and college.

Lighting and posture

Use of an appropriate writing posture should be encouraged. Therefore, a desk and chair of appropriate size are necessary. The desk should have adequate lighting. Some children enjoy reading in a different position, while in a beanbag chair, for example. Ensure that there is also adequate lighting by the location.

General environment

Keeping in mind that each student may have different needs and preferences, following are some ideas to help students enhance their ability to focus while doing homework:

  • Quiet or soft background music
  • Silence
  • Small crunchy snacks, sour candy, or chewing gum
  • Carbonated beverages (preferably without sugar)

Basic strategies

One of the best gifts that we can give to our students is an appreciation of and ability to use strategies. Strategies enable us to pre-plan and organize activities and tasks. We use strategies to pull in our processing strengths while compensating for processing weaknesses. This ability is very beneficial in a wide range of situations throughout our lives.

Some strategies are obvious, such as mnemonic phrases. Students learning music use the mnemonic "Every Good Boy Does Fine." The first letter of each word in this phrase stands for the notes on a music staff: E; G; B; D; F. The mnemonic "Never Eat Shredded Wheat" can help students remember directions in sequence: N for North; E for East; S the South; and W for West.

Other strategies are less obvious. For example, if you have dinner plans for 6 p.m., you need to determine how long it will take you to get to the restaurant so you know when to begin your travel. You also need to determine how long it will take you to get ready so you know when to start preparing. This time-orientation strategy helps us pre-plan an activity backward from the goal and is valuable for determining how much time we'll need. It can be used in planning any project.

As we help our students use strategies, we may initially need to model how to use the strategy and provide practice. The end goal is for students to develop independence in automatically using strategies. No two people have the same learning style and every individual is a unique combination of strengths and weaknesses. Therefore, a strategy that is extremely beneficial for one student may not be useful for another. In developing a toolbox of strategies, parents can help their students learn when and how to select the appropriate tool. Some valuable resources for tools can be found in the books noted in the References section at the end of this article.

Organization

Some ideas for helping your student organize his book bag or backpack follow. To help increase your child's follow-through, initially you may want to check the bag every few days, providing comments and suggestions to help maintain the organization.

  • Use different colored folders for different subjects.
  • Have a special place for papers that need to come home.
  • Have a special place for papers that will be returned to the teacher.
  • Develop a consistent routine for your child to replace homework in the appropriate spot in the book bag immediately upon completing it.
  • Have a specific place for your child to place the book bag when it is ready to return to school and encourage your child to use this location consistently.
  • Praise your child for following through with the routine.

Understanding the task

Review the basic assignment with your child to ensure that she understands what is required. Many children miss the overall message or global concept. Visual organizers, also called mind maps, are very efficient in presenting the global view in a concrete visual manner. Below is an example of a visual organizer comparing frogs and toads. It identifies some characteristics of each, as well as characteristics similar to both.

Mind map for frogs and toads

Figure 1: A comparison mind map provides a global view in a visual format

In previewing the assignment with your child, be alert to his understanding of vocabulary used. Misinterpreting vocabulary words is a frequent source of frustration for students. Many books describe various forms and use of graphic organizers, including those listed in the References section, below.

Fatigue issues

Students may often interpret feelings of fatigue as boredom or a desire to escape the situation. There are many different types of fatigue and, consequently, many reasons for it. Exploring the reasons is beyond the scope of this article. However, it is helpful to have some basic strategies in a "Parent Tool Kit." Then you may select a tool to help your student manage her feelings of fatigue during homework time.

  • Provide a break that requires hard pressure (called proprioceptive pressure), such as chair push-ups, stretching, lifting a pile books.
  • Allow for a controlled movement break such as walking to another table to sharpen a pencil.
  • Provide a visual break to help relax eye muscles (which may fatigue with excessive bookwork) by asking your child to look out the window at a distant target, count to five, and return to task.
  • Allow your child time for "vegging out" between tasks, perhaps with a short snack. It is helpful to use a timer that rings to indicate the end of the break.
  • Prioritize areas of emphasis: some students perform better doing the harder tasks first; other students perform better starting with simpler tasks.

Some children experience substantial fatigue with the process of writing. One suggestion from The Source for Dyslexia and Dysgraphia is to include exercising and stretching the fingers for a few minutes before and during the task. Use of technology can compensate for fatigue as well as many other writing issues. Some options include: using keyboarding/word processing rather than handwriting; using a spell checker with an auditory component (such as Franklin Language Master 6000b); and/or using a graphics program such as Inspiration® or Kidspiraition®.

Monitor the amount of time your child spends on homework. If you feel your child is requiring an excessively long time, keep track of the time and discuss it with your child's teacher. In some cases, you may wish to suggest that you limit homework to a certain amount of time and that the teacher give your child credit for what was actually completed. In other situations, it may be advisable to decrease the amount of homework, such as having your child complete only the odd problems on a math page.

Encouragement

One of the most valuable tools for parents is the tool of encouragement. Encouragement can help provide demystification for your child and it can help reduce your child's frustration when the task becomes difficult or he becomes fatigued.

An important component of encouragement is to support your child's efforts to work independently and build her confidence in doing homework successfully. Some suggestions follow.

  • Emphasize that you have confidence in your child's ability to do the work.
    • Example: "I know this is hard, but I'm sure you can do it with just a little help. Let's just start with one small part. "
  • Use chunking or staging: break down the assignment into smaller parts and/or simple steps.
    • Example: "Let's start with this part. Let's go over the directions." Then, after child reads the directions, say, "What is the next step?"
  • Provide encouragement frequently throughout the task, helping your child move forward to finish the assignment.
    • Example: "It's great that you did X. Now, let's go on to Y."
    • As your child gains confidence, have him do a small part on his own.
  • Prioritize areas of emphasis.
  • Provide occasional short nonverbal reinforces, such as a kiss on the cheek, a pat on the shoulder, a smile, or bringing a beverage or piece of gum.

If your child continues to ask you for help even though you are confident that the task is within his skill level, you can play a game with him. Begin by placing 10 pieces of candy in a bowl. Tell him that every time he asks you for help, he will give you one piece of candy. When the candy is gone, you will not help any more. Assure him that he will keep whatever pieces of candy remain in the bowl at the end of the homework time. When playing this game with your child, be sure that the task is within his ability to work on his own. You may vary the number of pieces of candy, depending on the task.

Another important component of encouragement is to provide statements of demystification. These help remove the mystery of why one task is difficult while another is easier while increasing your child's understanding of his processing strengths and weaknesses.

Use concrete statements to emphasize strengths, such as:

  • "I saw that drawing you did; you are really great at that kind of artwork."
  • "Very few kids your age can draw like this; you have great talent."

Use concrete statements relevant to your child's struggles, such as:

  • "Many kids struggle because they do things to quickly without thinking enough. This may get them into trouble or cause them to do schoolwork too fast and carelessly. Sometimes you are like these kids because you do things too quickly."

Use concrete statements relevant to your child's efforts to overcome their specific difficulties, such as:

  • "I like the way you have continued to work at this when the other kids have already learned it. It's particularly hard to do something when you're the last to get it done, but you have persisted — and you are almost there."
  • "I can see its hard to keep working on that letter, and you are continuing to persist. Thank you."

In the book, Eli, The Boy Who Hated to Write, Eli describes multiple benefits he experienced due to the impact he felt from encouragement. As parents and teachers, we need to listen to our children about this very critical point.

Motivation

Some children need external motivators to help maintain focus on the task. Some useful suggestions include homework contracts, devices to help monitor time on task, or rewards. It is important that you are setting realistic goals for your child and that they are not overly stressed in their area of learning disability. Some children, for example, take longer to write by hand or to calculate sums so you need to be realistic about time allowed.

Contracts

Homework contracts may take many forms. Write the contract with your child, making sure it is within your child's ability level. Focus on one goal at a time. Examples follow.

  • "I, Johnny, will complete my homework without argument for five nights in a row. When I accomplish this, I can watch 30 extra minutes of TV."
  • "I, Susie, will mark off a square on my chart each night that I complete all my homework assignments. When I have marked off five squares, I will select a reward from my list."

The criteria in your contract should change as the child's skills change. Furthermore, it is important to be specific regarding your expectations regarding homework completion. Indicate definite starting and stopping points as well as minimum requirements.

Monitoring time on task

A timer is a useful device for monitoring time on task. It makes the passage of time more concrete for your child. Identify a reasonable time for your child to complete an assignment (or a given part) and set the timer to ring after that time. It is useful for your child to be able to observe the passage of time, on either the timer or hourglass. Example statements follow:

  • "You have agreed to practice typing for five minutes every night. This means five minutes with good focus. I will set the timer and if you focus and practice appropriately the whole time, you will be done. Remember, I will have to restart the timer if you fool around in the middle."
  • "You have a half-hour to complete this part of the assignment. I'm setting this timer for 30 minutes. If you finish your homework correctly by the time the bell goes off, then you will get X reward (or sticker)."

If your child is earning points or stickers for appropriate follow through, you may want to allow him to earn rewards for a given number of stickers. To phase out his dependence on the stickers, require a larger number of stickers for a reward as he becomes more responsible.

Spinner

Young children respond well to games as motivational aids. You can develop a customized game spinner by using cardboard and brads, or you may purchase blank spinners from an educational supply store. Fill in each section of the spinner with a reward. Use tape so that you can occasionally change the awards. Be sure to vary the prizes on the spinner so that some are more desirable. You may want to have a space marked "no-win."

Establish criteria with your child, such as completing a homework assignment appropriately or finishing all of the homework tasks for the evening. When your child meets the criteria (i.e. completes the task), allow her to spin the spinner and earn the reward indicated. Be sure to use an appropriate positive statement such as, "Great job tonight! You've earned a spin on the spinner."

To phase out dependence on the spinner, change the rewards to points. These points will then accumulate towards a specific prize. Increase the number of points needed to earn the prize as your child becomes more responsible. An example of a spinner follows.

Example of a spinner

Learning from mistakes

Another critical tool for parents to have is the tool of helping their children learn from their mistakes. This is important because too many students are afraid to be wrong. We give our children a valuable gift by helping them understand that mistakes are valuable because they help us learn how to adjust and improve our approach as we move through a task.

Robert Brooks and Sam Goldstein in their book, Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength Hope and Optimism in Your Child, devote a whole chapter to learning from mistakes. They discuss various obstacles that interfere as well as some valuable guiding principles for parents to keep in mind. Following is a summary of Brooks' and Goldstein's Obstacles and Guiding Principles:

Obstacles to a positive outlook about mistakes

  • Temperament and biological factors
  • Negative comments of parents
  • Parents setting the bar too high
  • Dealing with the fear of mistakes in ways that worsened the situation

Guiding principles to help children deal with mistakes

  • Serve as a model for dealing with mistakes and setbacks
  • Set and evaluate realistic expectations
  • In different ways, emphasize that mistakes are not only accepted but also expected
  • Loving our children should not be contingent on whether or not they make mistakes

In summary

Developing the concept of having a tool kit to use when working with our children can be a fun and rewarding process. Some key factors to keep in mind are:

  • Have fun with your tools and strategies
  • Encourage your child to have fun
  • Expand upon the suggestions given, using them as guidelines
  • Pay attention to your child's strengths and weaknesses
  • Develop your own strategies
  • Continue to expand your Parents' Tool Kit as your child matures

References

References

Click the "References" link above to hide these references.

Brooks, R. & Goldstein, S. (2002). Raising Resilient Children: Fostering Strength, Hope, and Optimism in Your Child. New York: McGraw-Hill. http://www.retctrpress.com

Canter, L. & Hauser, L. (1988). Homework Without Tears: A Parent's Guide for Motivating Children to do Homework and to Succeed in School. New York: HarperReference (Harper Collins).

Franklin Electronic Publishers, Inc., Speaking Language Master (model LM-6000B). Burlington, NJ: Author. http://www.franklin.com

Lavoie, R. How Difficult Can This Be? - FAT City. Steuben, ME: Eagle Hill Foundation. Distributed by PBS VIDEO in association with WTA. Available in the LD OnLine Store

Lavoie, R. (2007). The Motivation Breakthrough. New York: Touchstone (Simon & Schuster). Available in the LD OnLine Store

Levine, M.D. (2001). Educational Care: A System for Understanding Children with Learning Differences at Home and at School. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service, Inc. http://www.epsbooks.com

Levine, M.D. (1992). All Kinds of Minds: A Young Student's Book About Learning Abilities and Learning Disorders. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service http://www.epsbooks.com

Levine, M.D. (1990). Keeping a Head in School: A Student's Book About Learning Abilities and Learning Disorders. Cambridge, MA: Educators Publishing Service http://www.epsbooks.com

Levine, M.D. (2003). The Myth of Laziness. New York: Simon & Schuster. http://www.retctrpress.com

Richards, R.G. & Richards, E.I. (2000). Eli, the Boy Who Hated to Write: Understanding Dysgraphia. Riverside, CA: RET Center Press. http://www.retctrpress.com

Richards, R.G. (2001). LEARN: Playful Strategies for All Students. Riverside, CA: RET Center Press. http://www.retctrpress.com

Richards, R.G. (1997). Memory Foundations for Reading: Visual Mnemonics for Sound/Symbol Relationships. Riverside, CA: RET Center Press. http://www.retctrpress.com

Richards, R.G. (1999). The Source for Dyslexia and Dysgraphia. East Moline, IL: LinguiSystems. http://www.linguisystems.com

Richards, R.G. (2003). The Source for Learning and Memory Strategies. East Moline, IL: LinguiSystems. http://www.linguisystems.com

Richards, R.G. (2006). The Source for Reading Comprehension Strategies. East Moline, IL: LinguiSystems. http://www.linguisystems.com

Kidspiration (visual organizers for grades K-3) & Inspiration (visual organizers for grades 6 to adult). Available in the LD OnLine Store

Richards, R.G. (January, 2008). Being an Efficient Homework Helper: Turning a Chore into a Challenge. Written exclusively for LD OnLine.