In elementary school, your child only had one teacher to answer to, and she was likely to remind the class of a book report coming due while assigning that night’s math problems. Middle school, of course, is an entirely different ball game. Suddenly your student has a whole host of teachers to answer to, none of whom are necessarily aware of the others’ homework loads. And that’s when your child may drop the…er…ball.
“Neglecting to hand in homework assignments is the number one reason [that] grades of students with average or above-average intelligence drop when they reach middle school,” says Suzanne Thomas, a language arts and social studies teacher at Colonel Mitchell Paige Middle School in La Quinta, Calif. “Whether assignments lie unfinished at the bottom of a backpack, or finished but sadly left on a desk at home, the cumulative points, or rather the lack thereof, can really add up and drag a student’s grade down.”
With most schools offering access to individual students’ grades online, it can be truly depressing to log on and discover that your child, while seeming to do well on classwork and tests, has numerous zeros listed beside homework assignments. The result can be a low or failing grade despite having a fairly good grasp of the subject matter.
On the surface, the solution seems simple enough. Do the homework, hand it in. If only it were so easy! As a parent, you may be dealing with more than your child’s disorganization and poor time management skills. There’s often a battle of wills going on, too. Parents need to help middle schoolers realize that just because they don’t feel like doing something, it doesn’t mean they can’t get it done anyway, says Jeffrey Bernstein, author of 10 Days to a Less Distracted Child. “[If] a child doesn’t feel like getting his homework done after school or it doesn’t feel good, it’s vital that parents make sure the child doesn’t convert that in his head to ‘Well, I just can’t do it,’ ” he says.
Negotiate, Don’t Fight
When your child is dragging her feet and you can feel your frustration level starting to rise, it’s time to negotiate, not argue. A good plan is to suggest that she try concentrating on her assignment for five minutes, Bernstein says. You probably know from your own experience that five minutes allows you to get a good jump-start on any unpopular task—in your case, it might be paying bills. You might want to share this bit of wisdom with your student, as well.
As important as skillful negotiation is, real empathy for your child will often be your winning strategy. Think about it: Have you ever noticed how your child tunes in to stories about your own experiences but tunes out when you veer off into a lecture? The last thing you want to do is shut down your student. It’s essential that you avoid using words like “have to,” “should,” or other sorts of controlling language. Be your child’s advocate rather than his adversary, Bernstein says. This could mean sitting down with your child during those first five minutes of homework to help him organize his material and model a few problems. At some point you might work in a story about how you struggled with 7th grade math, too. Before you know it, that five minutes can turn into 10, then 15, and even the 30 minutes it takes to get the work done.
In a perfect world, mastering the subject matter and handing in assignments on time would be reward enough. And perhaps at some point in your child’s academic career that will be the case. However, during the period of adjustment to middle school’s demands, rewards can prove quite motivating. You have to change them up, though, because the same reward can become boring to kids, Bernstein says. The promise of an hour of TV or video game time once homework is completed loses its appeal after a while. In truth, rewards work best when your child comes up with an idea and you agree to it.
“One of the most neglected rewards is simple praise and encouragement,” Bernstein says. “Parents seldom realize how critical they sound always pointing out the things their kids don’t do, when they really need to point out what he or she has done.” The next time your child is feeling overwhelmed by a homework assignment, motivate her by reminding her of a past success. It might have been the time she was enduring a terrible slump in baseball, yet she stuck with it and hit a grand slam in the season’s final game.
As with most things related to raising kids, there comes a time when you have to step back and let them go it alone. Mistakes will be made and some assignments may slip below the radar, but your child’s resulting grades will clearly demonstrate what happens when he doesn’t make enough of an effort. If your child is resisting your study suggestions, you may find yourself with no other choice than to let him learn the hard way. If you’re in this situation, stay as involved as you can. “Don’t let him hang out to dry,” says Bernstein. Stay in contact with teachers and let your child know you are always there to help if he wants it.
Ultimately, you want to avoid turning discussions about homework into a confrontation. Rely on your negotiation skills and remain reasonable in all situations. Say there comes a night when he’ll only give his homework 15 minutes of attention. Negotiate for another 15 minutes in the morning to get that vocabulary page finished. If he doesn’t stick with this plan, you may have to acquiesce and allow him to deal with the consequences. Just be sure not to follow up with harsh words like “See what happens when you don’t study?” That’ll just turn him against you. The point is to keep a productive conversation going whether he decides to heed your suggestions or not. The conversation should let him know that you still care—if he thinks that you’ve given up, he just may, too. Give him a little space to figure it out on his own, but maintain an interest.
Keep in mind that your child’s difficulty adjusting to the academic demands of middle school is only temporary. “It takes time and a lot of trial and error, but most kids start to pull their act together somewhere between the second half of 6th grade and 7th grade,” says Thomas, the middle school teacher. Until then, remember that patience and understanding go a long way toward helping your child make the transition and, just as important, helping you maintain your sanity.