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Expert Q and A

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How to Handle Homework Hassles

by Mary Leonhardt

Mary Leonhardt

Mary Leonhardt is the author of many books about literacy issues, and one about homework issues as inspired by her experience as a high school English teacher for 35 years. A description of her books, as well as her comments on current educational issues, can be found at her blog, Teaching a Love of Reading. Read more »

Sorry, Mary Leonhardt is no longer taking questions.

Homework--a dreaded word in households across the country. Yes, we want our schools to be better. Yes, we want our children to have strong academic skills and be prepared for college and a solid, challenging job. If your children are enjoying school and managing to complete their homework mostly on their own, then I wouldn’t worry. They are gaining independent study skills, an invaluable skill for later life.

But what if things are not going that smoothly? What if you’re finding that you need to sit with your son or daughter every night, and coax them through their homework? You know there is no future in doing that, that children need to be independent. But how do you stop?

Let consequences motivate your children.

Perhaps the teacher keeps kids in at recess. Perhaps there is some school treat they cannot do. In high school, students have to have a certain grade point average to participate in activities. Offer to help your children but don’t try to block the school consequences.

But what if consequences are not enough to motivate my child?

You need to be a detective here and try to figure out why your child is balking. Some common reasons:

1. There is just too much homework, or it is too hard.

If this is the case, I would first try to see if other children in the class are also having trouble completing these assignments. If so, then ask for a meeting with the teacher and principal, and some other parents, to talk about the issue. Be prepared to detail the havoc this inappropriate work is having on your child’s self-confidence and feeling about schoolwork.

2. The homework seems appropriate for most of the other children, but your child cannot seem to get it done.

The first step is an appointment with the child’s doctor for a thorough physical. Perhaps there is an underlying physical problem that is causing fatigue. Pediatricians can also do a preliminary screening for emotional problems and, if it looks like that could be a cause, can recommend a good therapist.

Next, I would take a hard look at your family dynamics. Children are all different, and what worked with an older sibling may not work with a younger child. Some kids are fine with parents requiring that homework be done at a certain time. Other kids do better if allowed to manage their homework themselves.

Something else to keep in mind is that family upheaval will often spill over into your child’s ability to complete schoolwork. Talking to a therapist might help.

You've tried these commonsense measures and your child is still not doing homework.

I think now you need to have a meeting with the child’s teacher, and request that some testing for learning disabilities be done, as well as some more formal screening for emotional disabilities. You have a right to request this testing, under Public Law 94-142, a federal law, and under your state laws as well. Regulations differ, but all children who are diagnosed as having an academic or emotional disability, have a right to an Individual Education Plan (an IEP) that should detail what accommodations the school will make so your child can “access the curriculum” (sorry for the jargon, but that is the phrase you should use).

My child is gifted and could easily do the homework, but won’t.

This is pretty common. Gifted children resent having to do work they see as boring and meaningless. Also, many gifted children are very involved with their own interests. I had a student tell me that he stopped doing homework in middle school because he was too busy reading advanced science books.

Trust your instincts here. If your gifted child seems, on the whole, to be happily managing enough of the school workload to keep his academic credentials intact, while pursuing his own interests, I’d stay out of it. If he is completely unengaged and unhappy in school, then you have to get active. Perhaps a more demanding academic program can be found, or a school change is possible.

Should I punish or pressure my child for not doing homework?

This is one question that all of the students I interviewed were unanimous on. No! They explained to me that punishments made them angry and less likely to do homework, that they started cheating just to get their parents off their backs, and that they then believed that their parents only wanted them to do well for their “parent resume” (my students’ term).

Their universal advice was that parents show a warm interest in their work and give help when specifically asked. Period.

How are you managing homework struggles at home?

Sorry, Mary Leonhardt is no longer taking questions. Feel free to comment on the article and let us know what you think about the topic.

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