Seattle's Child

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Getting It Done: Parents Weigh in on Homework

Here's how homework has gone in my house for the past four years:

"Time to sit down and do your homework."

The most likely response: "It's boring; do I have to?"

The second most likely response: "Oh, I forgot it at school."

If not these popular refrains, I can generally count on a heavy sigh, crossed arms and at least one, "I hate homework!"

I've learned a few things in the last seven years of persuading school-age kids to do their homework.

First, badgering doesn't help anyone and only leads to frustration and fights. Secondly, it's better to support them in doing their homework their own way than doing it for them. And thirdly, I have to get in there with them. If I don't, they are apt to take shortcuts, not understand the intention of the exercise and drag out the process for about two hours more than necessary.

But what do I do to make the homework experience a good one for all of us? I talked to a number of experts – parents, tutors and learning consultants – to get some ideas.

Cheryl Murfin is communications director for Fuse, freelance writer and mom to Maddy, 14, and Aidan, 10. They live in Seattle.

Life Lessons and Homework

I would do anything for my daughter Adara, now 23, including her homework.

I didn't do this often, but you know the scenario: She remembers, when you're putting her to bed, that she has a huge paper due the next day, and if she doesn't turn it in she'll fail the class because her teacher's a tyrant and doesn't accept late homework.

So, during the next few hours we'd write the paper (together). I'd be the one typing away on the computer since I didn't have the patience to also deal with her limited typing skills. I'd ask her questions to piece together a decent – but not too decent – looking paper.

She'd tell me, "Don't use that word; I don't even know what that means," or, "I don't write like that, Mom; you need to say this …"

It may not have been the best choice I made as a parent, knowing that children need to fall and experience the consequences of their behavior. But, in this instance, Adara learned a few other life lessons: that staying up late to do homework is better than giving up and not doing it at all, and that her mother loves her and is willing to help. I also used it as an opportunity not to berate her because she should've known better.

She didn't know any better because it was my job to teach her time management. So, we worked together on how I could support her to remember so that this didn't happen again (although it did on and off throughout high school). It didn't, however, stop her from learning to write or passing along the gift of helping.

She's a practicing registered nurse now, and she called me about a year ago and asked for some help. She was working late with her younger brother helping him with a paper that was due in the morning.

And by all means, I don't believe that giving help means doing my children's homework for them. To me it means that I am willing to give up my time and sleep to spend it on them. Because they are worth it, and they know that I love them and will support them as they learn to fly.

Sidse Powell is the mother of three: Adara, 23, Dominic, 9, and Samaia, 6. She lives with her two youngest children on the Eastside. Powell, owner of WriteOn, is a freelance writer and coauthor of a book due out later this year called Powerful Medicine.

Homework His Way

My son is 10 years old and in the fifth grade. Homework is a different experience with him because he has sensory issues, a language disability and organizational problems. I learned long ago that he needs a lot of guidance, so I've always ignored pronouncements to not be involved in a child's homework. I've seen how that turns out for us!

I step back when I can, but my son knows that Mom and Dad are there to help him if need be. We always help him with reading the directions to an assignment because of his language issues. Then, because of the sensory issues, we have to have a dead quiet with a "no distractions" environment for homework. I close the door between the dining room (where we do homework) and the kitchen so he can't hear the sounds or smell the food my husband is cooking.

I can't get away with scanning photos on the computer that's across the room because the noise drives him crazy. I let him practice math facts and spelling while walking in circles, bouncing on an exercise ball or jumping on a mini trampoline. The movement somehow helps him remember. He actually enjoys homework because, unlike in school, he gets one-to-one help with the directions and math word problems. I let him chew gum and I never insist that he stay in his seat. To tell me his summary of what he's just read, he has to get up and act it out, with dramatic voices, facial expressions and body movements.

I think if you can go with the flow and honor the way your children need to do the work, whether it's lying on the floor or bouncing on an exercise ball while they're focusing or letting them get dramatic in their self-expression, you get better cooperation and results.

Nancy Peske Darrow is coauthor of Raising a Sensory Smart Child: The Definitive Handbook for Helping Your Child with Sensory Issues. She and her family, including son Cole Darrow, 10, live in Milwaukee, Wis.

Connecting Homework to the Real World

My son Ben doesn't have a lot of patience when it comes to doing his homework.

He isn't particularly opposed to doing it, but the work is "too easy" and "boring." I know that training a child to do his homework is very important and that I am setting the foundation now for a lifetime of getting work and homework done.

However, sometimes when I read the assignments, I find it a challenge to make him do the problems because they are basically ridiculous.

So, what we do is this: Ben completes his work and then I try to supplement the tasks with real life activities. The problem might be to collect all the coins in our house and count them into piles by kind. He thinks this is a basic and boring task. He has been collecting and stacking coins for some time. So, we turn the activity into a fun "real world" problem. He collects and counts his coins and then we "spend" them.

I put several items into a store and he has to figure out how to spend the money on the things he wants. I've found that adding a "practical life" component to his homework has made things a lot easier.

When we can't make the connection to the real world directly, I make it globally and he seems to get it because we have talked about direct connections so frequently.

In the real world we sometimes do things we don't want to do and that don't necessarily make sense – like brushing our teeth and taking a bath. Homework is one of those things sometimes. So, we'll get the homework done and read a special book together or play an educational game online as an incentive.

Audra Rutherford lives in Seattle and is the development associate at The Church Council of Greater Seattle. Her son Benjamin is 7 years old.

Homework: Efficiency Wins the Battle

Children spend six to seven hours in school each day, most of it seated. By the time they are out they can't wait to get up, move around and have some fun. So naturally, sitting down to do more schoolwork is not an exciting proposition.

This is where a good adult mentor and creative incentives come into play. Here at our after-school program, the key to successful completion of homework is efficiency. If a student is able to move through his or her homework fairly quickly – but accurately! – assignments are less painful. And, we've learned that if there is a payoff at the end of the homework session, the motivation to work efficiently is much deeper.

In our program the payoff is an exciting karate workout that kids really look forward to. For at least an hour they get to move and yell (in a controlled, powerful way, of course) and release all that pent-up energy.

We do have to be careful that working efficiently does not lead to rushed, poor quality work or a missed learning opportunity. That's why in our study center there is a quiet environment to work in and lots of oversight by our mentor. Students are expected to sit quietly with minimal conversation. And the adult mentor spends quite a bit of time asking key questions: What is your homework for today? When is it due? What do you need to complete it? What are you working on right now? Her goal is to make sure the kids are on-task and feel supported. If the students appear to be working efficiently, we leave them be.

If they are working like stubborn mules, we stay with them and help work out a few problems and establish a method for their particular challenges or explain how to figure out the topic so that they can work independently.

Sensei Matthew Day is the director of the Washington Karate Institute and the Washington Karate Ballard Dojo Afterschool Program in Seattle.

Ending the Battle

Homework was a battle last year with my son, who was having some anxiety problems with his teacher. At age 7, he completely melted down when it was homework time. We had to get to the bottom of the teacher problem, of course, but in the meantime I was very frustrated. I tried to use reason with him but to no avail. I got upset as well, also to no avail. I even yelled once or twice because I was so frustrated.

I finally had to treat his meltdowns like I treated the temper tantrums when he was 2.

I sat him at the table. I was available to help – unless or until he had a fit. If that happened, I walked away and went about whatever I needed to do. I didn't harp on his fit; I simply did not give in to it. The only rule: He wasn't allowed to leave the table until the homework was done.

The first night he sat and complained for over an hour. The second night was a little less time. By the fourth night, he sat down, got it done and went to play.

I think sometimes kids try the "control thing" with homework, just as they do with many other aspects of their lives. So parents need to be firm and not make it an optional task. They need to be clear: "This is homework time and, yes, it will be done."

Julie Bonn Heath is owner of JBH Marking & Public Relations. She and her family, including Megan, 15, Nick, 14, and Luke, 8 live in Seaside, Ore.

The Point Reward System

At our house, we created what we call the Point Reward System. I made up a box for my son and called it "Jon's brownie points." It's on the living room table where he typically does his homework. Each night, he gets 10 points if he does his homework without fussing or being difficult.

If he is fussy, he gets no points. If he is worse than fussy, we take points away, which works well as a warning or deterrent. After accumulating 100 points, we go to the store, and he gets to choose a gift for under $10 as a reward for working so hard.

We also do a "rules recap" before the start of every school year. I have him write a few rules he needs to abide by during the school year as a reminder. He recaps everything from 'I will not talk in class' and 'I will not forget my homework at school' to 'I will not be difficult doing homework every night'. Then I have him sign and date it like a contract. This reinforces responsibility and commitment.

If kids have multiple teachers like mine has, sometimes they do not communicate with each other regarding homework loads, so some nights are light and some are heavy. We take breaks often when we have a lot, and we take the work in bite sizes. We do some before dinner, and keep some for after.

Kids need assistance with homework in elementary school. I think as a parent it is essential – they are not yet old enough to manage this by themselves, especially boys who are less studious and have a shorter attention span. I don't sit with him per se, but I set him up and I help him if he needs help. I then verify to make sure the homework has been done correctly and that the results are correct.

"Miriam" and her son "Jon," age 10, wanted to share their perspective but asked that their real names not be published. They live and do their homework in Sammamish.

A Prescription for Homework

I am a parent of two school-age kids (6 and 8 years old) and also a national brain trainer for LearningRx, which helps students strengthen skills like attention, memory, processing speed and others needed for quick and efficient learning. This comes in really handy when I am working with my own kids and their dreaded homework!

Kip, my 8-year-old, hates homework. I used to sit him down in front of a worksheet and hours later he was still working problem number three. I decided to use some of the brain training techniques I had learned from the LearningRx programs to see if I could speed things up. Kip has never been diagnosed with any learning or attention problems, but compared to my daughter, his attention span is short and sporadic (unless, of course, he is playing video games). So, I decided to make his homework time like a video game where he tries to win. I pulled out a stopwatch and started timing him on how fast he could finish a row of math problems or how long he could stay on task without losing focus.

The stopwatch worked! He would finish a row of math problems and say, "What was my time?"

Then he'd try to beat it with the next row. It made homework exciting for him and got him outside playing within minutes compared to hours.

I have also started using some of the LearningRx memory strategies with Kip. Instead of rote memory drills, we create funny stories and links to remember history facts, etc. I know that if Kip can create his own memory links at 8, he will have a great head start on future learning.

Other things that help: I always make sure my kids have a snack after school to get their brains going again, and then assign homework before free time. I give rewards based solely on effort and attitude. I know that if they try, they can succeed. I do sit down to assist my kids. It takes a lot less time if I just sit down and work with them.

Tanya Mitchell is research and development director for Colorado-based LearningRx. Her husband Steve is a Seattle native although the family, including Kip, 8, Emme, 6, and Finn, 4, now live in Florida where Steve was recently deployed.

Sometimes It Helps to Not Be the Parent or Teacher!

Parents often find it very difficult to communicate with kids about the importance of doing homework – and the impact of not doing it – because of the emotional nature of parent-child relationships. This is where a tutor may have some advantage over a parent. A tutor takes the emotional edge out of the homework encounter, relieving stress for both parents and children.

Most often during a tutoring session, even the most "active" child will sit and concentrate for extended periods specifically because they are getting one-on-one, positive attention from someone who is not a parent and not their teacher, both of whom may have other distractions and both of whom the child sees for hours at a time. The tutor is with the child short-term and is someone focused solely on them. Adding to this built-in advantage, if the tutor then rewards the child with occasional play breaks with educational games, the child is again willing to refocus for another extended period.

I recently had a fourth grader with ADHD doing high school algebra during a recent session using this method of work-reward-work. Once a predictable pattern around homework is in place, it is no longer the scary, overwhelming or annoying chore it felt like before.

Very often what we see in the students we tutor is a serious lack of motivation. A question like, "What do you want to do/be in life?" at the beginning of a tutoring session often gets them thinking about application. If a child says, for example, "I want to be an architect," I direct the conversation into what it takes to be an architect and what skills need to be learned. It becomes a discussion of mathematics, art and reading.

The student starts to tell himself that he'd better study math if he wants to be an architect and off he goes on his homework.

Alan Banks is the owner of Tutor Doctor, a local franchise tutoring business that services King, Pierce and Snohomish Counties.

About the Author

Cheryl Murfin (Compiling & Editing)