By Priscilla L. Vail, M.A.T.
Homework is a fact of life for most children, but many parents are confused about their role in this daily drama and aren't sure how to mesh homework with the general dynamics of personal and family life. Here are some guidelines developed over my many years of family life and full-time teaching.
First, obtain from the administrators of your child's school a statement of the homework policy. If one doesn't exist, press for it. Putting philosophy and practice into concise wording will be beneficial all around. The statement should explain the purpose of homework and how much time students should realistically budget for it. For example, in elementary school the purpose might be reinforcement and practice of skills presented during the day. In middle school, the purpose might be to elaborate on concepts and information from class by doing projects, reading or writing on the same topic. In high school, the purpose might be independent gathering of new information to use in classroom discussion.
Next, ask for a statement of purpose from your child's teacher. Does the teacher's statement match the overall statement from the school? Ask what you and the student are expected to do in case of difficulty. After fourth grade, when curriculum becomes departmentalized, do teachers compare notes with one another to avoid giant overload? If not, an overall school policy should enforce such coordination. How much time should the child spend? A common rule of thumb is ten minutes per grade level.
Third, decide what your family homework policy will be. After all, it's called homework... it's going to be done in your home. You need a family policy of when, where, how much, and what to do in case of trouble. You and your child need to be very clear about ownership. It is your obligation as a parent to provide time, space, and support, but the work belongs to the child.
You and your child should develop a Time and Space Homework Pact. Discuss whether homework comes right after school, after a snack, or after supper. Decide where homework will be done: at the kitchen table where there is companionable noise, in the bedroom where there are possible distractions of daydreaming, or in the living room where it is quiet. Children differ in their tolerance for distraction, their length of concentration span, and their ability to shift from one subject to another. All these differences and preferences should be taken into account in formulating the pact. Then the pact should be written out, signed, and posted with the understanding that it will remain in effect for 6 weeks. After that, there will be time for renegotiation. But having it in full view will dissolve and resolve daily disputes.
Drudgery is a part of any job or profession. Schooling has its share and often homework is where it shows. Memorizing vocabulary for a foreign language, the multiplication tables, or some history dates is a chore, but it's the only way to acquire some of the information basic to thinking. However, homework can be much more than that. Projects, such as making a diorama of a period in history or designing costumes or sets for a novel, liberate creativity, cement knowledge, and are enjoyable. Who says homework has to hurt? If your child's teacher hasn't assigned any such projects, ask for an appointment and inquire whether there will be any opportunities coming along. Offer to help. Remember that children who have trouble with reading and writing are often talented at hands-on projects. See if you can arrange ways to showcase your child's talents.
If you find that the reading level of your child's homework is too high, speak to the teacher. "Johnny is getting help with reading, so you know the importance we as a family place on that. But while he's struggling, could you reduce his reading homework? Could you choose a novel he could listen to on tape?"
As a parent, you also may have to read some assignments aloud to your child or get a simpler source of the information. A family I know well went through high school reading the Golden Book Encyclopedia. The student could get the overall information in easily legible and digestible form. Basic understanding gave other facts a framework.
Although human beings use many different kinds of memory depending on the task at hand, when we think about schooling, learning, and test-taking, we're apt to think only of rote memory. We can enhance memory with a three-part glue: physical experience, supportive emotional climate, and language. For example, if your child needs to learn the difference between "hogans" and "pueblos," let her make a model or draw a picture of each one, talk about what it would be like to live in each, attaching the terminology to the concept with easy conversation.
If understanding precedes memorization, facts stick. If your child needs to memorize arithmetic facts, first let the child use buttons, cubes, or blocks to represent the numbers involved. Then ask your child to draw the equation or situation. Only when that is done and fully understood should the child go to written numerals. And only when objects, drawings, and numerals all make sense should the child try to memorize.
Try to be sure any new information your child is trying to learn connects with something already familiar. It's the Velcro phenomenon: new information needs a place to stick. Children (and adults!) have a very difficult time attaching two unfamiliars to each other. For example, if a child doesn't have the concepts of islands and native populations, it's silly to try to teach about the aborigines of the Archipelago. Sometimes, you, as a parent, may have to find, invent, or learn the connectors.
Homework can be a welcome island of privacy, quiet, competence, and success in a people-crowded, noisy, demanding world. Your job as a parent is to provide the time and space structure, the peaceful environment, the contagious assumption your child can do the job, and the willingness to run interference if things zoom out of control.
Remember that emotions influence learning and schoolwork. Do all in your power to turn homework into an experience that will foster optimism and pride. Be willing to call a halt if it goes on too long and, with a calm voice and quiet determination, hold the institution to the policy it has declared.
Parents who have followed this 6-part series deserve thanks from the children on whose behalf they have read and thought. Since children may not think to, or know how to, thank such adults, let me be the conduit of their appreciation to you for your time and attention to them. Thanks and congratulations for having such a delicious responsibility!