Sabine Hutcheson – Academic Director – TutorsPlus
Even children who achieve well at school and parents with the best intentions can experience tedious conflicts over assignments. A few changes to the structure and environment of the evening can empower you to alter your child’s attitude and make for a productive and positive homework experience. Instilling good habits along the way improves the quality of their work and fosters independent learning skills for the future.
There are growing calls in Europe to move away from homework altogether because in some households it has become such an adversarial struggle. Some charities and political figures have called for schools to scrap formal homework, warning that it can lead to rebellion and burnout. However, there are still a significant number of education professionals who argue that homework provides vital reinforcement of classwork, as well as a host of useful life skills to equip children for success later on. Feedback from teachers on work that children have completed on their own can also raise a child’s self-esteem and, if it is not seen as a punishment, it can be worthwhile and positive in improving a child’s performance in lessons. Where homework continues to be set, it is widely agreed that the quality, not quantity of your child’s work is what really matters.
Learning life skills
Homework teaches children to become responsible for their own learning and to organise themselves. These skills are best developed with the right kind of supervision and support – the key is to find the best balance between helping them, and allowing them to help themselves. A good routine, a suitable environment and encouraging independent learning skills are crucial in avoiding the homework battle.
No excuses please
Establishing an evening routine early on in a child’s school career sets an expectation that homework is part of daily life, as unavoidable as brushing teeth. If you can create consistency in the homework routine, children know to expect it, which will help to reduce resistance. It is normal for children to come up with colourful excuses to try and avoid homework, but it is important they know there is no possibility for them to be doing anything else during that time every day. For example, if there is no school work set one evening, stick to the routine by encouraging them to read or go over spellings and times tables. Alternatively encourage them to do something quiet and creative, such as writing a story, or completing quizzes. Homework and quiet study needs to be the only option at the same time each day. If your child is not well behaved one evening, re-set the next day and continue with the routine.
Homework should be prioritised and not left to the last minute in the evening when children are tired and less able to concentrate. It is best to allow children a short break to relax when they get home from school, and make sure they have had something healthy to eat before settling down to work, at the same time each day. This also leaves enough time to do something to relax afterwards, creating an incentive for homework to be done without a fuss. The consistency from day to day is as important as the time you choose for homework.
We can do a lot to help our children master good organisational skills, be able to prioritise tasks and become independent learners from an early age. This is very much linked to establishing a good routine, but there are other things that can help. Primary school is not too early to be introducing good filing habits, homework diaries and revision schedules. In the Swiss public system, for example, children are given the week’s homework in one go. The responsibility to complete a large volume of work by competing deadlines can seem daunting and often paralysing. But sitting with your child, working out the week’s priorities and breaking down the work into manageable chunks will teach them to take responsibility for their own timetable, and develop their own schedule. Well organised homework and honest conversations about time consuming or difficult pieces in advance of deadlines will stop the workload seeming overwhelming.
As your child progresses through school, good organisational skills become even more key to academic success. Older students need to be able to keep a large volume of work to refer back to especially in exams. Encourage them to create their own summary cards to add to their revision resources and make it easier to understand the key points in their work later on. Clear, visual resources and well-ordered work will help them when re-visiting content. When study leave begins, older students may still need a level of supervision and support to create a good study timetable and to organise their notes.
The right environment
Homework can take twice as long when children are unfocused or distracted. Whether it is their bedroom desk or in a quiet space downstairs, the right environment impacts hugely on a child’s ability to concentrate. It is also helpful if this area contains resources, such as stationery and dictionaries, to minimise the need for them to get up and disrupt their work. The association of homework with a quiet study environment builds good study skills for later, when revision and independent learning become essential for success.
Ensuring the right kind of study in this quiet time requires varying levels of supervision. We often hear parents concerned that their child spends hours working in their room, but still has issues completing their homework. Teenagers in particular will often be trying to combine concentrated study with checking Facebook, watching TV and using their phone. Bringing the studying downstairs where a parent or helper is close by (and indeed where other children are doing their homework) can help you ensure they are not being distracted by technology.
The internet adds a new dimension to the homework conundrum. Children need to be directed to the right resources and carefully informed about the potential for erroneous information and that plagiarism will not help them in the long run. While the internet is undoubtedly useful for research projects, it is important to encourage the use of reference books, particularly those provided by school, as they contain the core material that children will be tested on.
Studies have shown that children who see their parents read or concentrate on quiet activities are more likely to find it natural to spend time over books. Completing work or admin while your children are doing their homework reinforces the good study environment for homework and encourages them to think that taking time to study is part of normal life.
Helping them to help themselves
A recent UK poll showed that 83% of parents of 9 to 13 year olds struggled to help with homework because they found the tasks too hard (The Guardian Online, 23.03.10). However, parents do not need to be an expert in year 7 Mathematics or year 12 Chemistry to be helpful. In later life, a child will feel much more control over their studies, satisfaction in their work and perform better in exams if they have been encouraged to think through problems and work through difficult questions. Telling them the answer won’t help them. Identifying specific areas they do not understand and finding the answer in their reference books, class notes or internet is much better than giving them the answer on a plate. Eventually this will empower them to do the same by themselves.
Communication is the key
Children can often become defensive and uncommunicative about areas they find difficult. Talking through with them the specific problems about their work will equip them with the skills to approach teachers for help. Children also need to be encouraged about areas they are good at, so they become confident in their academic abilities, as well as self-aware and able to express problem areas. Praise and constructive criticism helps to encourage honesty in a child about their strengths and weaknesses, and should help to breakdown reluctance to accept help or admit there is a problem. Making sure they know not to feel embarrassed and allowing them a degree of autonomy to express where they feel they are underperforming are the first steps to solving the issue.