In therapy, families work on the forests and the trees. I’ve written a lot recently about the forests: acceptance and identity, to name a couple. Today I am going to write about a tree: homework. This tree can be found in several forests such as the Forest of Autonomy and the Forest of Limits.
The inspiration for this post is a new family who came to therapy for one reason, and one reason only: 11-year-old Marcus is very unreliable about homework. Except for a “disastrously messy room” (Marcus’ words) and a “serious allergy to homework” (Dad’s words), Marcus is “a great kid” (Mom’s words). He is an aspiring jazz saxophonist who composes his own music, a bright student who does well on tests and in-class assignments, and a leader among his peers. Teachers like Marcus a great deal but spend a lot of time frustrated with him over missing homework. According to Marcus, he just cannot bring himself to do it; “It’s boring and pointless,” he says. As a result, there is a great deal of arguing in the household, and Mom and Dad spend a lot of time and energy standing over their son and supervising his work. Even with all their efforts, Marcus is only completing about half of his assignments. In our first session, he said to his parents:
I know I have homework to do, but I don’t like doing it as much as you like me doing it. Marcus, age 11
Never before has a child stated so clearly what turns out to be a very problematic dynamic around homework. In Marcus’ family, Mom and Dad care much more about homework than their son, so the roles and responsibilities are all out of kilter.
I am borrowing again from a lovely teacher I once met when I was working with one of her students. I have quoted Mrs. P. before (Perfect Homework), but her words are so wise, they are worth repeating. They define the roles and responsibilities of parents and children in homework:
Parents are responsible for providing an appropriate space, the necessary supplies, and plenty of time for doing homework, but it is the students’ responsibility to write assignments in homework planners, to take required materials home, and to complete work independently. (Thanks again, Mrs. P.!)
Space. There is not one right place for a child to do homework. Very independent kids may prefer to work alone in their bedrooms. More distractible children may do better working at the kitchen table where there is some adult supervision. Absolute quiet is not necessary for most children. Some swear they focus better with background music. Generally speaking, televisions should be off. A collaborative approach works best when selecting a space for homework. It works well for parents to listen to their children’s preferences, give them a try for a set period of time, and then re-evaluate and make adjustments as needed.
Supplies. There are two types of supplies that children need for homework: the day-to-day loose leaf paper, pencils, pens, calculators – you know, the stuff parents load up on the week before school starts. Then there are the supplies for special projects or the books from the library for research papers. Children need to learn to let parents know about needed materials in advance. When the loose leaf paper supply is getting low, it is a child’s responsibility to let a parent know. If poster board is needed for a science project, it is the child’s responsibility to inform a parent well in advance of the due date. Parents should avoid making “emergency” trips to get supplies for projects that are due soon because this reinforces procrastination and forgetfulness. It is a good idea for parents to check with their children on a regular basis about needed supplies, perhaps Friday afternoon. This serves to remind children to plan ahead and it leaves the weekend to do the shopping. I encourage parents to take their children with them to get poster board, library books, etc. This reinforces the very important idea that homework is the child’s responsibility.
Time. Assuring that children have enough time for homework can be a real challenge, especially as they get older and participate in more after-school activities. Parents need to be mindful about scheduling weekend and evening activities so that their children have plenty of time to complete assignments and study. Parents also need to help their children pick and choose among the many desirable options for extracurricular activities. Some children can handle several extracurriculars while others may need to stick to only one. There is more on this in an earlier post (All Work and No Play).
Planners. Children need to write assignments in homework planners and/or check the school’s homework website. If a child forgets to write an assignment down and there is no website to check, it is the child’s responsibility to contact the teacher or a classmate. If, for some reason, a child is unwilling to find a way to get a missing assignment, then she should have to go to school with the work undone and suffer the consequences. In younger grades, this usually means missing recess time. As children get older, they may get lower grades for late assignments. Either way, the child needs to experience these consequences because they reinforce the importance of writing assignments in planners.
Materials. Most children will occasionally leave something at school that they need for homework. If this happens more than occasionally, it may be necessary for parents to impose a logical consequence. In our house, each child gets one free ride to school each semester to pick up a forgotten worksheet or musical instrument or textbook. After that, they have to pay $5.00 for a ride back to school. If they don’t want to pay the fare, they have the option of creative problem-solving. For example, they can go to school a half hour early the next day so they can do the assignment before the bell rings or they can walk to a classmate’s house to borrow a needed item. Whatever happens, it should be clear that bringing needed items home, or obtaining them some other way, is their responsibility.
Independence. This does not mean that parents should never help with homework. Of course, parents can assist with a challenging math problem or proofread a book report. What parents should not do, except in rare situations, is sit down with a child to do homework start to finish. There are many problems with this approach. First, it interferes with the development of essential skills such as self-discipline, self-directed learning, persistence, and accountability. Also, it sets up a precedent that is not sustainable. As children get older, they get more homework. While it may not be a big deal to sit with a 3rd grader who has 30 minutes of homework, imagine finding the time to sit with a 7th grader whose homework requires two hours to complete. Helicoptering during homework will also be ill-received by children by the time they reach middle school. It is best to establish an expectation for independence during homework early on. If a parent is already offering too much homework support, it is best to withdraw it little by little rather than to stop offering support cold turkey. A conversation will be necessary so that the child understands how and why the changes in parent support will happen.
If a child truly cannot get homework done with only occasional assistance from parents, then it might be worth consulting the school psychologist or a private therapist to explore the reasons. Depression, attention deficit disorders, and learning differences are a few reasons children avoid or struggle to complete homework that require professional intervention. In most cases, though, homework neglecters will step up when the expectations are clear and parents hand the responsibility for homework back to their children.
[Names and potentially identifying information have been changed.]