Homework, Part 4: The Parent Partnership

Homework makes some families absolutely miserable. (I don’t mean eye rolling and sighing because it has to get done — that’s good frustration to barrel through in order to develop grit, self-discipline, and time management.) I mean regular melt downs, tears, lying, yelling (parent AND child) — complete disruption of the household because of homework.

One of our philosophical premises here, based on Dr. Montessori’s work and much more research in the century following her, is that all children want to please the adults around them and they are doing the best they can with what they have.  We also believe that every sincere feeling is involuntary.  Staunch, stubborn, regular refusal is therefore likely not misbehavior, but rather a symptom of something else.

If misery is part of your homework routine, then we need to partner together to tackle it.  Your child is not learning constructive coping skills or building academic skills in that environment.  When we partner together, we will try to figure out the root of the problem. Often there is some cognitive obstacle and the resistance is just a symptom.

We will talk through your observations and the teachers’ observations. Testing may be appropriate to identify some hidden obstacle in the way your child processes. Maybe he/she is overscheduled.  Maybe the homework assigned is overwhelming, and we need to back off.  Whatever the situation, we will analyze it (and change it if we have to) together until it has improved. This is what the TFS parent partnership is all about–working together to make sure each child is growing up in the environment he/she needs in order to thrive!

Homework Part 3: Help vs. No Help

Another homework question that comes up a lot for students of all ages is the question of parent help. The student may be too dependent on parent help, the student may resist parent help, or it all may be a very messy process of some help, some nagging, some yelling, and some crying (on all sides!).  To answer this question, we have to get back to the purpose of the homework and think about the type of help we provide.

If the purpose of the homework is preparation for class (usually this is reading or researching), then creating a situation where the child is doing that preparation effectively is the most helpful thing you can do.  Creating the time for the work or possibly helping them locate audio books or software to support this might be the best way to assist.

If the purpose of the homework is practice or a final project, then the child really needs to be able to do it without your help (aside from creating the time and space for them to complete the work).  If the child cannot complete this work on his/her own, then the teacher needs to know so they can address the needs in class.  If this is a chronic issue, then we may need to meet about providing the child with the proper plan and support for moving forward in that subject.  The most effective assistance will be offering supplies, time, and space.

The type of help we give is very important. The most important rule of help to remember is that every time you help, you send the message that “you cannot do this on your own.”  This is an okay message to send when it’s true and you want to send this message. Unfortunately, we often send this message when we don’t intend to and we create helpless dependence on us, an aversion to failure/risk, and lower self-confidence.

Dr. Montessori said the child’s perennial request is “help me do it by myself.”  Giving feedback, editing a paper, or looking over a math sheet might be fine if you challenge the child to think through what they already know. “You might re-read the first paragraph and look for appropriate capitalization.”  Or “You didn’t show your work on #9. Doesn’t your teacher require you to show your work?” This is empowering the child to develop good habits.  Sitting down to the computer to edit their paper or cutting out their science fair paragraphs is not empowering them… in fact it undercuts their growth.  The daily grind of hard work, making mistakes, and receiving feedback is developing cognitive and emotional habits they need for life.

Many kids won’t want their parents’ help.  This is fine too and displays a healthy sense of independence. Whether they feel vulnerable about the paper they wrote or they are just separating from their parents a bit, this is a healthy step for them to take.  It shows great maturity and executive function skills if they can do their homework and turn it in without parent  involvement — in fact this should be every parents’ goal before senior year.

If you have concerns about your child’s follow-through, you should partner with the teachers, letting the teachers know that you are hands-off and asking them to let you know if you should be more directive or if you should support them with any structure or discipline at home.  Your relationship will be better without the added conflict, and your child will develop more self-confidence, organizational skills, and independence necessary for college and life beyond!

Homework, Part 2: Time and Place

Homework is preparing kids academically, but it also serves a very important role for the development of executive functioning.  Executive functioning is a key task of the frontal lobe of the brain and one of the most important functions for our children to develop in order to function as an adult.  It’s the center of planning ahead, estimating time, making decisions, prioritizing tasks, problem solving, and organizing things and thoughts.  It comes naturally to a fraction of kids, but most will need to practice it. Aside from any academic value, homework provides one of the best opportunities for executive function development.

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Remembering that they have it, figuring out when to do it, how much time they need to set aside, evaluating later whether they set the right amount of time aside, figuring out the environment they need to work on it independently, what to do when they don’t know the assignment, what to do when they can’t complete the assignment, and figuring out how to get the assignments back to school and turned in are huge parts of the homework process.

As parents, how do we help them practice all of this without actually doing it for them?  We have to help create the time and space (Do they know the schedule in the evening?  Do they know the schedule for the week?) for the homework to get done, but ALSO to evaluate and problem solve the variety of obstacles that will inevitably get in the way. Instead of telling them when to do their homework, you can talk about the schedule and ask them when they want to insert homework into that schedule.

We can help them evaluate if their plans are actually working or not.  Did they get it done when they thought they would?  Was that the best time to try to do it?  If they don’t know what their homework is, challenge them to figure out how to find the assignment.  If they are likely to leave it at home, challenge them to think through alternate plans and use one (pack backpack the night before, email it to themselves, set it by the front door, put it all the way in the car).  If it’s still not getting done, your child may need to lose some privilege of making these decisions for themselves (or the privilege of having other fun activities in their schedule), but your goal should always be to wean your way out of the process as soon as you can, maybe letting academic and home-based consequences do your work for you eventually.

Working backwards from adulthood/college, if they are not going to live with you, they have to figure the above out. They will need their frontal lobe for a successful life… whether they have Shakespeare to read or not.

Kara Douglass
Head of School

Homework, Part 1

Homework is perhaps one of the most dreaded concepts for most kids (and many of their parents). There is a lot of research out there about the effectiveness of homework and it’s pretty mixed, but I believe that it’s mixed because not all homework assignments are equally valuable, and different kids learn with different rhythms (some absorbing everything during the day and shutting down at night and others needing to revisit concepts and practice later when it’s quiet).  

At TFS we believe that homework has a place, but it is not a measurement of how academic a program is or how successful a student will be.  Here are a few of our guidelines.

1. Homework does NOT need to start early.
Young children have such absorbent minds, if they are stimulated, they are soaking it up.  They also have concrete minds, so they need materials to accompany most conceptual work.  Until they have truly internalized abstract concepts (around 3rd/4th grade) they shouldn’t be doing work that isn’t concrete.  Their “homework” is to read with you, play, create, and engage in concrete chores and work at home.  Many schools have started giving homework as early as preschool, but research shows that kids who have such homework don’t perform any differently on developmental benchmarks than kids who had no homework.  Anecdotally, many of them just grow to hate school and hate “learning.”

2Homework should be purposeful.
We do not believe busy work is good for anyone, especially when it takes away from downtime, jobs, or other enrichment activities kids may have after school.  Once we start giving homework, it should be providing students with practice as they develop a particular skill, preparation for class, such as reading ahead of time, or projects and papers that are too lengthy to finish within the class time.

3. Length of time varies.
We don’t want anyone spending every waking minute doing homework, so we try to curb the amount of work to 40-60 minutes in 4th, 5th, and 6th grade, and 30 minutes per class on average in Upper School, but this will vary. Students who get more accomplished during the school day will have less than kids who need downtime and play time during the school day.  Kids who work slower will spend more time on homework than kids who work quickly. As they get older and homework is more project-based, students will have nights without work between units, and then nights with more work as a deadline approaches (much like the professional work place).

On balance though, we believe that seven hours of school plus some extra work many nights to practice or prepare or complete a project (for our abstract thinkers) is plenty of work for a student to achieve and excel in college and beyond.  We’re aiming for a sweet spot between pushing them outside their comfort zone and burning them out in their stress zones.  Fill the extra time with other wonderful activities for their brains (like boredom and chores!) and time with you (even if you parent adolescents!).

Kara Douglass
Head of School