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How to catch a falling son

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By Christina Tynan-Wood

Don’t push the homework button

Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, a clinical psychologist, wrote The Homework Trap because it was the book he wished he’d had when his son was in school.

“Imagine Pavlov’s dog,” Goldberg told me. “Pavlov taught the dog to salivate to a bell by using positive stimulation. And they teach rats to push a button the same way. But you can also teach the rat not to push a button with negative stimulation. That’s what we are doing to these boys (and girls) with homework.”

Some students are fine with homework. But for others this nightly ritual is hell. Maybe they didn’t pay attention in class so they don’t know what the homework is or how to do it. Perhaps they have trouble sitting still again after a long day in school. Some have a low-level learning disability, which leaves them disadvantaged when it comes to processing information that’s spoken out loud. (Boys are much more likely than girls to have one of these.)

Whatever the reason for the student’s difficulty with homework, it’s a big part of school. So concerned parents spend hours on it every night. We lose family time, pleasant after-school activities, and the harmony of family life. It becomes a war between parent and child to get this essential work done.

“People work in containers,” Goldberg says. “We go to school for five hours. We go to work for eight. But a homework-trapped student has to do homework until it is done or everyone is too exhausted to care.”

I thought about all the fights Cole and I have had over the years about homework. It seemed pointless – and cruel.

The solution? “Set a fixed amount of time for homework – ten minutes per class is a good amount,” says Goldberg. When the time is up, he’s done. The idea is that over time you’re changing how your child approaches and feels about homework. Eventually, says Goldberg, Cole will be able to complete all his homework without the usual strife. (Ideally, you work with the teacher to devise a homework solution that works while you’re retraining your child to approach homework differently.)

Would this solution work? And would we get cooperation from the school? We’d have to see.

Let’s make a deal

I would like to give up on this system that’s teaching my son that he can’t succeed and enroll him in a virtual school at or Connections Academy — or move so he can go to an all-boys school. But Cole wants to stay in this school. So we settled on a plan to get him caught up: if he fails, I get to choose.

I printed out a list of all the missing assignments and tests. He grabbed at it, gratefully. He hadn’t been paying attention and had no idea what was missing.

Then I asked my mother to stop by every afternoon after school. She has never been part of the homework battle, so I thought she might be a more effective person to help him get through it all. She read while Cole plugged away online at the Khan Academy, quickly getting up to speed on chemistry and algebra. In Salman Khan (at the Khan Academy), Cole discovered a math and chemistry teacher he could relate to, as I thought he might.

He also did his best to impress his grandmother with his dutiful attention to work. Though she didn’t do much but sit observing, occasionally she’d gently redirect him back to his studies if he strayed. She stayed for one hour. Once she left, homework time was over. He could do more work if he liked, and sometimes he would. But that was up to him.

One thing was clear: this new method was working. Suddenly, homework wasn’t something Cole put every ounce of his intelligence and effort into avoiding. With a hard stop at the end of an hour — and a lot of work to do — it was easier just to do it.

Cole started turning in piles of homework. He started to look less hopeless. One Sunday when my mother was visiting, he came out of his room, hugged her, and said, “Thanks to you, I got the highest grade in class on my chemistry test yesterday.” His familiar look of failure was starting to wash off. Three weeks later, we got Cole’s report card: Three C’s (math, chemistry, and civics) and a B+ (creative writing, previously his lowest grade.)

He passed. But his GPA will never recover — unless he goes to summer school, retakes those classes, or switches to a virtual school.

We sat down together to look at his bittersweet victory. I made it clear that we were all impressed by what he had accomplished. “Learning honors chemistry in three weeks is no small feat,” I told him. “Not many people could do that. If you had started sooner, you might have made the honor roll.”

He nodded. “I lacked initiative,” he told me. “But I learned my lesson.”

Did he? “He’ll be fine,” Tisha Green Rinker, Connections Academy's senior manager of school counseling told me. “I’ve seen pregnant kids who dropped out at 15 come to us, get a high school diploma, and go on to college. Cole has something none of those kids — or many of the ‘numbers’ your experts are looking at — have: you. You care. You believe in him. And you are willing to do what it takes to help him figure it out.”

She’s right. When I dropped out of high school, I could easily have become a statistic used to support a theory. Many of the experts I spoke to would probably have predicted an unhappy outcome for me. Still, my mother encouraged me to follow the path that was right for me. Finding my way to college by going outside the box may have been one of the most important lessons I learned as a student.

As the parent of a struggling boy, though, it’s not always easy to feel so sanguine. Faced with so many disheartening statistics about failing boys, no parent can afford to sit back and have faith that their care will be enough to pull the kid through. I still don't know if Cole will achieve his dreams — or anything at all — but I choose to believe in him. It’s not even really a choice. I refuse, am unable, to see him as one of these dire statistics. Not today. Probably not ever, however things turn out.

I’ve learned a few things in all these years of helping this boy survive school: even when he seems not to be, he is listening. Even when he says he’s got it, he needs help finding a solution he can’t see or a way to reach a goal he’s given up on.

But the biggest lesson I’ve learned is that people who tell me what this boy can’t do are usually wrong.

I’ve been told he can’t take tests. (He aces them.) That he can’t pay attention without medication. (He’s fine. Pick up the pace!) That he will bring down the class EOG average. (He often gets the highest score.) And that he can’t handle the workload. (Honors Chemistry and Honors Algebra 2 in three weeks! You try that.)

So here’s what I say to ‘He won’t achieve his dreams’: how about we wager some money on that?

Christina Tynan-Wood has written for Better Homes and Gardens, Popular Science, PC World, PC Magazine, InfoWorld, and many others. She currently writes the "Family Tech" column in Family Circle and blogs at