Homework strategies: balancing work and fun, and good study habits are key

    Part two of two.

    WHYY recently hosted a parenting seminar with experts and families on the subject of homework. Here are the remaining highlights from the discussion.

    Part two of a two-part series. (Read part one: Parenting seminar offers strategies for avoiding homework battles)

    Homework ruins evenings and weekends for many families, and is at the core of many arguments. How can families navigate homework together, to foster knowledge, independence, good study skills in students? During a recent WHYY parent seminar, experts, parents, and educators worked on solutions. The panel was moderated by WHYY’s Behavioral Health reporter Maiken Scott.

    Our next parenting seminar, will focus on discipline from the terrible twos to the teenage years. It takes place Oct. 11, 2011, at 6:30 p.m. at WHYY. 

    Balancing work and fun

    Audience Question: We all struggle with balancing work and fun. My child is only five, but I worry that we live in a culture that puts too much stress on our children, and there is no balance, and little time for fun.

    FitzGerald: A lot of schools are very competitive, so it’s almost as if kids staying up until midnight doing homework is a great thing. Parents seem to be almost bragging about how busy their children are. My advice is look at the big picture. How many activities is your child enrolled in? And is that a good thing? Do they have any time for down time, to listen to music, or to do something fun? There has to be time for relaxation and fun.

    Power: The educational community has failed in addressing these issues. Especially with regard to what happens to kids. It’s the responsibility of educators to dialogue with parents and community members on how much free time children have. Even during the school day, there can be so much emphasis on teaching for a test, and not looking at child development, including social and emotional development. When those things are balanced, you will get better results.

    Bradley: Kids are way more “scheduled” today, and their many activities take up a lot of time. When I was a kid, we played one sport, but kids today have a lot of scheduled afternoon activities. By the time they get home and settle down for homework, they are exhausted. So we need to evaluate what we can fit into our schedule. People are starting to talk about these issues though. Research is showing that too much homework, especially for small children, is not effective, and parents are starting to push back. I believe when you come home, you should be allowed to be a kid!

    Audience member: A lot of the activities that used to happen in school no longer take place, so as parents, we’re trying to replace some of the activities that used to be part of the school day, such as physical activity, music, and arts! We can’t even get to the park for more than half an hour during the school week. There is just so much pressure during the school day, and homework is often more of the same, after hours.

    Maiken Scott: How much attention can kids realistically pay, in the course of their long day?

    Power: we expect so much of children to produce, and increasingly at such young ages. Kindergarten is so different today than it was when I was a child. There’s so much pressure to learn skills, to get tasks done, and then the pressure extends after school. If you are fortunate to be born with a gift for focus and attention, it can be relatively easy to respond to these kinds of pressures, but a lot of kids are not naturally gifted in the areas of focus and concentration. I think that’s one of the reasons why so many kids struggle early on academically. They have trouble with focus and attention, and there is so much pressure on them, and next thing you know, they have been labeled as a trouble student, or they have a diagnosis.

    Knowing your child

    Maiken Scott: How important is it for me to know my child, and to understand their temperament?

    Bradley: I believe that temperament is everything. I am a mother of four, and I have four very different children. Their temperament defines a lot of our relationship. It’s a difficult dance to respect who your child is, and work with who they are. There is only so much shifting you can do. It’s vital to pay attention and to see the big picture of who they are.

    FitzGerald: Part of knowing your kid is also knowing their biorhythm, some kids can actually focus best at 8 p.m., others have to do their work early on in the day. Try to understand their work strategy. Some kids need to get the easy stuff done first. That’s part of knowing your kid. Maybe they need to knock out 10 easy things to build confidence. You can’t assume that your kid works exactly how we do.

    Power: Susan, you just brought up a great tip. This is something we call “behavior momentum.” Most of us have a natural aversion to work, and need to find a way to get started. So if you can choose something easy, where the child can have success, you can build what we call “behavior momentum.” This really works, and there is a ton of research that supports this.

    Knowing your teacher

    Maiken Scott: Temperament also comes into play in the teacher-child relationship. How do you negotiate when the teacher is not great for your kids?

    Bradley: This whole concept of “goodness of fit” is really important. When it works, it’s magic. When it’s not working, it’s not so great. You can have a mismatch in temperaments as parent and child, so we have to look where each side can find ways to give, and make that relationship healthier. Teachers who are willing to find that and work with children whose temperaments are not that attractive can make a huge difference in the lives of a child.

    Power: There may not be any variable as important to student success as the student-teacher relationship. Parents need to listen to their kids to find out what that relationship is like, to see if it’s off to a good start. If the kid likes the teacher, you have a great shot at your kid having a great year. So as a parent, you want to do anything possible to increase the likelihood of making that relationship a good one. So if you can find something about the teacher you like, find the competence in that teacher and affirm it, support the teacher, and look to build that relationship. It will result in a better school year for your child.

    FitzGerald: The idea of “liking the teacher” can also be a fleeting thing. For example, one of my older kids didn’t like a teacher, and my youngest kid did. You can’t always be sure which teacher is best and what works for your kid. A lot of schools now have online teacher pages. One of the potential dangers is to be over-involved and shoot off an email at 10 p.m. There’s a fine line between communicating and bombarding. Kids also have to learn how to become their own advocate, so you can say, “If you think you need my help, let me know. Otherwise, try to work it out yourself.” You want to be an involved parent, but the e-communication makes it easy to be a nag, and that’s not good for your kid.

    Audience Tip: I’m an elementary school principal. I process about 120 emails a day, and often parents jump immediately to the superintendent. Your child may need time to adapt to the new teacher and to learn the rules of the class room, and this is what students should do. So try if you can help them to navigate this environment. Otherwise, communicate with the teacher, express your concern–not as in “What I want to happen–I want my kid out of this classroom!” but rather, see if you can solve a problem together within a period of time. A lot of things drive what happens in your child’s classroom. You may think too much homework, but there may be 20 other parents asking for more homework. It is parental pressure that we experience!

    More manageable and fun

    Audience question: How can you make homework assignments more manageable, and more fun?

    Power: If there is a homework assignment book, lay it all out. Negotiate with your child. Break it down into manageable units. Even if the assignment is boring and mundane, maybe you can have a conversation about that and make it meaningful. Have fun around the assignments. Play some games around the more boring assignments.

    Audience Tip: I’m a retired psychologist, and volunteer for after school programs. Homework is often a waste of time, but what we have done with older children, we use the pizza pie approach. Each homework assignment is a slice of the pizza pie, and we’re putting it together. Having a visual concept like that helps some children who are visual learners, and it makes them feel like we have a goal. Sometimes kids struggle with seeing the bigger picture of why they are supposed to do a certain task, so giving them something to work toward helps.

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