Goodbye to Homework Hassles!

Now that school is in full swing, students in nearly all grades are probably tackling homework. Which means parents are, too. No other daily routine seems to cause so much trouble. Mothers and fathers describe struggling with getting kids to start in on their assignments, stay focused on tasks, resist the distractions of technology, and hand in high quality work. Kids who don’t keep track of when homework is due and tests are scheduled prompt their parents to step in as overseers and organizers, monitoring online homework sites, assignments books, and nightly work. With all the well-intentioned parental nagging, cajoling, and threatening, no wonder evenings in many homes devolve into a nonstop series of stressful arguments. Plus, these strategies usually benefit neither students nor parents!

A new book, The Learning Habit, which is based on research with 50,000 families about the habits of families with academically, emotionally, and socially successful children, suggests a different approach—which strikes me as particularly sensible and potentially effective. This is because it transfers homework responsibility from parents to kids, where it belongs, and in the process empowers students to develop critical, lifelong skills.

The authors recommend that every weekday parents schedule 10 minutes per day per grade as dedicated homework time, during which students must concentrate on their work without distractions (which parents are encouraged to eliminate). So a 6th grader would have an hour of work, a high school freshman one and one half hours. A timer is used to signal the specified interval. (If a cell phone is used, I’d suggest silencing all sounds and placing it across the room.) If kids finish their work before the timer goes off, they are allowed to read.

This makes good sense because parents should provide structure such as sacred times, places, and materials for homework. Wisely, kids are asked to participate in decisions about when and where they work. Too often, parents impose guidelines based on their beliefs about what is best. But it’s better to consult even young children, who usually have good ideas about what does and doesn’t work for them.

So far, so good. But this approach may be quite challenging for some parents, especially those who have been intensely managing their kids’ homework. That is because, having set up the structure, mothers and fathers are required to step back and let students do the work.

One potential hurdle: If students don’t finish by the end of their homework time, they have to stop anyway. For parents who worry about the outcome of homework—for example, whether their kids turn in complete and absolutely correct assignments—this may seem unthinkable. How can they let their kids turn in shoddy work? In my opinion, however, the real beauty of this approach lies in the emphasis on the learning process rather than the result of any specific task.

As the authors propose, over time students learn to better manage their time. Instead of daydreaming, procrastinating, or rapidly shifting their focus from one stimulus to another (which this culture trains their brains to do), this homework habit retrains them to concentrate on one task for a set time period. Studies find this approach increases cognitive efficiency by as much as 25%. Moreover, teens develop the skill to buckle down regardless of how they’re feeling about their work—in other words, to use self-discipline—which most predicts success in life.

The authors also argue that this set-up teaches kids from an early age to find much-needed balance in their lives. They don’t dread homework as much because they know there’s a specific end in sight, and they can look forward to downtime to relax and socialize every day.

Some parents might ask, “What if my student just can’t finish homework in the allotted time frame?” To me, this is an observation that should prompt further inquiry. Rather than thinking of kids as “unmotivated” or “lazy,” it makes sense to wonder if there could be an impediment(s). Speaking to teachers and/or school psychologists is a good first step. If learning difficulties or attention deficits are suspected, psychoeducational testing can provide invaluable information along with specific strategies.

Otherwise, while kids are engaged in their homework time, take a deep breath and find something else to do. Knowing they are learning without your direct intervention—not to mention the arguing, coaxing, monitoring and double-checking—evenings can be far more pleasant and productive for you, too. You might even check out my video, “Calling Off the Homework Police”:



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