Homework Blues?

Question:
For some children, doing homework is a way to show their growing sense of competence and independence. But for other children, homework is a constant source of frustration and discouragement. How can we help more of our children become successful with homework?

A: At our school, children at all grade levels are required to do homework. In first grade, they need to do at least fifteen minutes of reading and another fifteen to twenty minutes of work in another subject area. For many years, homework was a source of tension since children repeatedly failed to complete their assignments. This changed when I began to offer the children some choices about homework.

I create a weekly homework sheet that I send home on Monday night so the parents can see what’s expected of their child that week. I assign homework in a different subject area each night and give three or four choices about how to do the homework task. For example, on Monday night children have a choice about how to practice their vocabulary words: write sentences using the words, do a word search, or make a flip book illustrating the words. On Tuesday night, they have choices about how to practice math skills and on Wednesday night, they can choose how to practice reading comprehension. On Thursday night, everyone needs to do the same task, which is a word scramble, but they can choose the level of difficulty. On the nights when there are several tasks to choose from, children also have a choice about how many of these options to do. Some children will choose to do each vocabulary option; others might choose to do one.

In order for this approach to be successful, I need to prepare children. I don’t assign any homework in the first six weeks of school. Instead, I spend that time teaching children how to do homework. Along with discussions about how to manage time, listen carefully, etc., I also teach, model, and practice how to do each of the possible choice activities. I provide all the necessary materials, which they can take home, and we talk about and practice how to use and care for the materials.

Throughout the year, I monitor each child’s progress with homework and in the process discover a lot about their learning styles and needs. I help them, as needed, with their choices. For example, if a child consistently chooses to make flip books for vocabulary practice, I might encourage them to try another choice so they can stretch their skills. Or if a child consistently attempts to do everything because s/he can’t decide what to do, I’ll provide the structure s/he needs in order to learn how to make good choices.

I also send a letter home to parents explaining the homework sheet and the concept of choice. I make it clear that it’s OK for their child to only do one of the listed choices and reinforce that idea in conversations throughout the year.

Toni D’Agostino has been teaching primary grade children for fifteen years, mostly at K. T. Murphy Elementary School in Stamford, Connecticut. K.T. Murphy Elementary School uses the Responsive Classroom approach school-wide.

A: I work closely with both children and parents to help make homework successful. Early in the school year I have a group discussion with the children about their experiences with homework so far in school: What’s been hard? Easy? What have they liked or not liked about homework? Why? I then review with them what they need at home in order to successfully complete their homework—for example, a specified time and a quiet place.

We brainstorm problems that might get in the way of completing homework, group the problems into common categories, and come up with solutions. For example, one common category is that there’s an event that competes with homework time. A solution is to do homework before or after the event.

After the brainstorming and problem-solving session, I send a letter home to families in which I share the list of problems and solutions. I ask that parents sign and return a slip of paper that says they and their child have read, discussed, and understood the homework expectations and procedures.

At our first family conference, which happens during the first six weeks of school, I talk with parents about their child’s past history with homework, highlighting both successes and challenges. This is the first step in an ongoing conversation with parents about homework. Between the first and second conference, which happens in December, children fill in their daily homework assignments on a chart which they take home each night and have parents sign. There’s room for parents to write a daily comment and many take advantage of this, which becomes part of the conversation about homework. At our December conference, we talk as a team (parents, child, teacher) about whether the amount and kind of homework is just right, not enough, or too much for the child. We then make adjustments—homework needs and tolerances are not the same for every child. We also talk about whether the parents will continue reading and signing the chart each day. Many times, parents and children both want to continue using the daily homework chart.

I think it’s important to consider the impact of homework on the whole family. Regular communication with children and parents about homework helps make homework a successful learning experience rather than a burden and source of frustration.

April Bates teaches a grade three-four multiage class at Southern Aroostook Community School in Dyer Brook, Maine. She has been teaching for twenty years and is a certified Responsive Classroom presenter.

A: Students need to know that there are good reasons for homework. Year after year, just before I was about to hand my class their first homework assignment, I asked the following question: “Aside from staying up late at night and devising better and better ways to make you miserable, why do you think your school and your teachers give homework?”

By the upper elementary grades, most students knew how to reply: homework offers a chance to practice, to demonstrate knowledge, and to improve reading or computation or writing skills. Although these might seem like pat answers, I think it’s useful for students to articulate them as a reminder of homework’s value. To these reasons, I might add that homework helps foster independent work habits and gives children the chance to think for themselves and be their own problem solvers.

But doing homework is hard. Children need to concentrate, follow directions, organize materials, solve problems, and work independently. So we talk about the hard parts as well as the purposes, with kids sharing their strategies for homework success. One year, a group of students put together a self-help book on homework tips and tricks that included advice such as, “It helps me to first run around and get my energy out and then start.”

In addition to leading discussions about homework strategies, here are a few other ways to address some common homework dilemmas:

  • The child doesn’t remember all the details of the assignment. Early in the school year, teach children how to do homework. This includes modeling and practicing how to listen carefully to homework assignments, take notes, and ask clarifying questions. For the child who has trouble listening and remembering, arrange a check-in at the end of each school day.
  • The child gets frustrated because homework takes too long. Children have different learning needs and styles. If a child consistently is unable to complete homework, ask yourself, “How might I modify this assignment to fit this child’s learning style?” For example, you might suggest that a child only do five or ten of fifteen division problems.
  • The child has difficulty working at home. To help the child who has difficulty doing homework at home because of family problems, lack of space, lack of quiet, or lack of support, help them create a homework friendly space. Sometimes this means thinking about how to organize quiet time and space at home; other times it means arranging a time and place to do their homework at school.

We need to insist respectfully and firmly that homework be completed, translating reasons for not doing it into opportunities to learn new time and work management skills. But we also need to be flexible, paying attention to the needs of each individual child.

Ruth Sidney Charney is the author of Teaching Children to Care: Classroom Management for Ethical and Academic Growth, K–8 .

Tags: Homework