Deidre Stidom, a mother of four in Greenwood, S.C., remembers being woken up by her son, Alex, at 2 a.m. one night because he’d just remembered that he had a big project due at school the next day. They set off for the local Wal-Mart to buy a trifold poster board, then worked through the night together finding information online and preparing the presentation.
Many parents can recount a similar story about their child’s worst homework “emergency.” But experts say you can avoid crises like this. The keys: Helping your child develop a homework routine and conveying your own positive attitude about school assignments.
Set a Time
From the start of the school year, establish a set time for homework. This can be the same time each day, such as after dinner. It can also be right after school, though some experts suggest that children, especially as they get older, need time to unwind after a long day. Or given the reality of varying daily activities, it can be a weekly schedule worked out in advance. Any time that’s consistent, at least for that day, and that’s labeled “homework time” will do the trick.
Choose a Place
Also important is a set place to do homework. The nature of that location is less important than identifying it as a homework “station.”
“I’ve seen children work in front of the TV and on the kitchen table while mom is talking on the phone,” says Caron Goode, a former teacher and founder of the Academy for Coaching Parents International in Fort Worth, Texas. “But if they go to the same place every day and the time is called ‘homework time,’ then the child’s mind gets very focused and they’ll do their task.”
Be sure to have supplies readily available. Adam Waxler, a middle school history teacher in Bradenton, Fla., and author of a blog called the Teaching Tips Machine, recommends keeping a box handy with everything your child might need, such as erasers and markers. “It stops the child from procrastinating,” he says. “They come up with stalling tactics, like they need to find a pencil or they want to know where the glue is. And this behavior causes tension between the parent and the child.”
Another reason that children procrastinate or avoid homework is because they feel overwhelmed. You can help homework seem more manageable by breaking it into smaller chunks. “For children who have difficulty with attention or focus, who are easily distracted, it often takes a parent or older sibling to break up large homework assignments into smaller tasks,” says Goode.
For example, if there are six spelling words to learn, have your child work on three and then take a break. Or have him complete part of a reading assignment, then talk to you about it. “If the child is told to read a six-page chapter at night, that can be overwhelming and it might be the reason it never gets done,” says Goode. “If they report on what they read, it gives them a mental break.”
Such “chunking” can also help with larger, long-term projects. You might make a chart with stages to accomplish. For a book report, these steps might start with going to the library to select a book, then reading one chapter per night, followed by drafting and then revising the report. For a science project, the first step might be to brainstorm for a suitable project and then to gather supplies, conduct the experiment, write up the results, and create a display. The child can feel a sense of accomplishment and control by checking off each step as it’s completed.
Keep in Touch
For homework that is confusing or difficult, take advantage of telephone hotlines or teacher websites that offer live help or detailed instructions, recommends Janice Wood, an associate professor of early childhood and primary education at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville. These options are becoming increasingly common, she says. Another good idea is to keep on hand a contact list of classmates who can be called for clarification.
Regular communication with the teacher is vital, too. “Stay informed as a parent,” says Wood. “Make sure you get to know your child’s teacher. Understand the type of homework assignments and how many are given each day. The more informed the parent, the better. You can communicate and be knowledgeable when your child brings home assignments. Attend parent-teacher conferences and school events so you can be at the nerve center of what’s going on.”
A good relationship with the teacher can even allow room for negotiation. If your child feels particularly stressed about finishing homework on a weeknight because of the demands of other activities, for instance, you might be able to ask for weekly rather than nightly deadlines that would allow for shifting some of the homework to the weekend.
Finally, model the behavior that you want your child to have. “If parents are rushing out of the house in the morning, then kids are going to rush out with them,” says Goode. To avoid morning chaos, gather everything needed the night before and allow extra time in the morning to get moving. A positive attitude helps, too. “If you have a fairly positive mindset about homework and a routine to do it, it’s likely to get done,” says Wood. “Parents that feel positive about school have children that feel positive.”
One thing that Wood advises against is giving children money for finishing homework. “A lot of people ask me about rewards or money or tokens or chips when children complete assignments,” she says. “But you have to be a little careful about that. Parents have to understand the reasons for homework. It’s given to practice skills and review what’s been learned.”
Giving money, she says, sends the wrong message. Instead, she recommends celebrating instead of rewarding. A celebration might involve a cake at dinnertime or a special family activity. This is a way to recognize a job well done and to communicate the entire family’s support.
Creating a nurturing and structured environment will help avoid any more middle-of-the-night homework emergencies.