We’ve managed to take our homework time from gory to glory. Well, maybe not “glory.” But our homework time now is generally peaceful, productive, and brief—and a lot better than it used to be. In case anyone else struggles with homework, I thought I’d share the things that worked for us.
1. Harness the Power of Habit. Same Bat Time, Same Bat Channel. A solid schedule is important for every aspect of life with young children, and homework is no exception. Having a regular homework time and a regular place for doing homework is huge. After school, we play outside for an hour, then come in and the kids with homework sit at the table and do their homework while I make dinner (it’s mostly just Liz doing nightly homework right now, she’s in second grade, though sometimes one of the younger kids will have something to do also). Our school shelf is in a hutch right next to the table, stocked with pencils, erasers, sharpener, our reading books, and the homework sheets that come home from school. As I go back and forth between kitchen and dining room getting everything ready for dinner, I answer questions and check on progress. It used to be that the mere mention of “homework time” met with raised hackles and dug-in heels, but now the kids move to it without a fuss—it’s just a regular part of our day. And many days Liz now starts her homework all on her own without me saying a word! The things that bring joy to a parent’s heart.
2. Divine Intervention. The first step in our homework time is to place a statue of St. Thomas Aquinas on the table and pray for his assistance (“St. Thomas Aquinas, please help us learn. St. Thomas Aquinas, pray for us!”) I think it’s a good technique for getting the kids “in the zone.” It signals that homework time has started—ready, set, go! Plus, the intercession of a great saint is always welcome. This ritual has started fading away now since Liz often starts her homework on her own, but it’s always available to refocus our young scholars’ attention when needed.
3. Keep Your Eyes on the Clock. We used to spend more time in contention over homework than we spent in actually doing homework. To combat that, I placed a clock on the table and logged how we spent our homework time: one column for minutes wasted, one column for minutes spent actually doing homework. I’d give my charges a running commentary as to how the time was being logged as we sat at the table during homework time, telling the kids “This is wasted time” when it was, and marking down those minutes in the wasted column. When they got back to actually doing homework, I’d say: “Good, this is productive time,” and log the minutes accordingly. When at last the homework was completed, I’d share the final tallies. Then the kids could see how much faster homework time would go if they would just do it. This worked really well for us.
4. Motivation. A huge help in conjunction with the clock is external motivation. When there is something the child wants to do, if you tell her she can do it as soon as the homework is finished, you’ll see just how fast homework can get done. And if you’re keeping track of the time, then you can show her in a tangible way. This proved very effective. And once the child gets the idea that homework time can—and should—be fifteen or twenty minutes, as opposed to an hour or more, it resets all the expectations about how homework time is approached.
5. Well Begun is Half Done. Along the same lines, I’ve gotten some good results by telling the kids: “Well begun is half done,” and explaining that when you’re faced with a task you don’t really want to do, just getting started is often the hardest part. But once you do get started, you’ll be surprised at how quickly it goes. So if you don’t want to do it, hop to it! Get it over with as quickly as you can! For my family, I’ve found that a few catch phrases like this can help get things moving when enthusiasm is ebbing.
6. Look for Solutions, not Problems. When I hear the words “I can’t do it!” or “It’s too hard!” I tell them it’s time to refocus their attention: we’re looking for solutions, not problems. We’re looking for what we can do, not what we can’t. So, for example, if your child’s doing a sheet of math facts, and problem number five is a real stumper, don’t wail. Skip it! Go on and find the problems you can do. Often, if you skip the hard one, and search through the rest of the homework sheet for easy problems that you can solve quickly, you’ll end up with most of the work sheet completed. I tell the kids that every task has its harder parts and its easier parts, so look for the easy ones and knock them out. Then you can come back to the few remaining tough nuts, but now you’ll be approaching them with the confidence of having already completed the rest of the homework. Plus, a homework sheet with lots of answers already filled in looks a lot more manageable than one that’s still mostly blank.
7. Sleep on It. Occasionally, no amount of cajoling or rhyming motivational slogans will do the trick. You hit an impasse and your budding scholar refuses to study. At those times, as a last resort (because I try to diffuse reluctance to avoid homework time becoming a battle), I have occasionally had to tell a young pupil: “If you can’t do your homework, you must be very tired. Go to bed and get some rest. If you’re energy recovers so that you can do your homework, you can come back and I’ll be happy to help you. Otherwise I’ll see you in the morning.” So far this has always worked. The young scholar has found the wherewithal to get the job done, and the evening has moved on peacefully. And fortunately I haven’t had to call on this tactic for a long time now. Knock on wood!
8. Independence Day. One of the things kids learn from homework is how to do things for themselves. This is a good lesson. And necessary—especially if you have other little ones who will be soon be joining their older sibling in the nightly educational festivities. Spending an hour with one child wrangling over homework is onerous. Trying to do the same with three or four kids is simply impossible. So the kids have to learn to do their homework themselves. I’m there to help and answer questions, but not to prod and prompt on each question. Besides, the kids learning to be responsible for themselves and their own tasks has benefits that extend far beyond addition and subtraction. Being a self-starter, developing self-discipline and a can-do attitude, have a ‘multiplying’ effect that improves life far beyond the realm of text books. And since they’ve got to do their homework anyway, they may as well use it start learning those skills!
Copyright 2016 Jake Frost