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Homework case study #1: The foot-dragger

Lift up those proverbially dragging feet with these homework hints.

By Chris Colin

For Sarah San Juan, a 10-year-old at a popular K-8 public elementary school in San Francisco, fifth grade is swell — until the end of the day, when it's homework time.

"She drags her feet," says her mother. "First she has to go find the right pencil. Then she has to go find an eraser. Then she doesn't have the paper she needs."

If only Sarah's problem were school supplies. To hear the aspiring veterinarian describe it, she often feels unprepared. As a result, she frequently daydreams in class, unable to focus. Mostly the problem is math, though the fifth-grader struggles with more advanced books too.

Does she differ from the other kids in her class? "[Schoolwork] is easier for them because they're smart,” Sarah says. “They raise their hands a lot in class, and I don't."

Sarah has taken diagnostic tests, but they didn’t indicate learning disabilities. Her mother concluded that the problem was developmental, so Sarah's parents have enrolled her in both after-school tutoring twice a week and a before-school program four days a week. The extra tutoring has helped a bit, but problems persist, and both Sarah and her mother say conversations about homework can be tense.

"There have been tears. She gets quiet. She'll go off by herself, maybe get into some kind of art project," her mother says. For her part, Sarah says she gets nervous about being reprimanded. Still, she remembers a time when she didn't struggle over schoolwork and speaks of it fondly.

"School was easier when I was little. We only learned adding and subtracting. I liked doing that then. Then we started doing multiplication in third grade," Sarah says.

"It's clear that the homework problem is just a presenting symptom," says long-time homework researcher Dr. Harris Cooper, a professor and the chair of Duke University's Psychology and Neuroscience Department. "It's not the root cause. Homework's where the school and the family intersect, the part where the parents become most clearly aware of the difficulties their daughter is having."

Cooper says there's no magic bullet in cases like this, but there are clear steps parents should take.

"Before she sits down to do her homework, it's important for them to first walk through what material she's going to need to get her homework done quickly," he says. "They should also make sure she's had a snack before she sits down, so she's not distracted by hunger."

The parents' behavior can be just as important as the child's. While Sarah's studying, Cooper says her mom and dad should be engaged in activities that won't interfere — reading a book or balancing the checkbook, for example. What's more, their emotional response is important.

"We have evidence that parents and children communicate emotions in the course of doing homework, so it's really important to stay positive and relaxed," Cooper explains. "Monitor the kid for frustration. Be a stage manager — make sure there's a good place to study. Be a role model. Be a mentor when asked for help; offer guidance not solutions. Be a motivator — show them that it's really important to succeed. And be on the same side as the teacher."

Of course, if the child doesn't understand the material, homework isn't the issue, he adds.

"It might be necessary to have the teacher cut back a bit just to avoid the frustration. If she's getting tutoring, it seems like she's getting enough practice on math outside of class," Cooper says. "It's not uncommon that the amount is too much anyway. Relatively recently, a national survey done by the MetLife Foundation asked parents how much homework their child brings home each evening. One in five said too much. In most instances, the child will grow out of these difficulties.”

Even if Sarah is struggling more than some of her classmates, it’s also worth remembering that "procrastinitus" is a widespread disease. How common is it for children to drag their feet about doing things that make them uncomfortable?

Cooper chuckles.

"How common is it with adults?" he replies.

Chris Colin is the author of What Really Happened to the Class of '93 and writes the "On the Job" column for the San Francisco Chronicle as well as stories for the New York Times, Mother Jones, McSweeney’s Quarterly, and GOOD magazine. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and daughter.

Comments from GreatSchools.org readers

04/22/2011:
"My son's in 4th grade, he received a 27 page packet of math to do on a Monday due Tuesday because they were doing the MSP (it's a test here in Washington) Teachers are not permitted to assign homework on MSP days, so, she assigned it on monday. 5 miserable hours later, my son finished up his packet and went to bed. She requires ALOT of homework from a 4th grader. Every night we have 4 pages front and back of math sheets, 2 pages of spelling homework, 30 min of reading followed by a half page book report on what he read. Somedays it goes well, and he gets to go outside and play, lateley it's been really hard and it's taken him from 4 when he gets out of school to 8 when he goes to bed to finish his homework. I finally broke lastnight and sent him to soccer practice with out getting his book report written. She called me today, and Yelled at me that he didn't get his homework done, therefore none of his work would be accepted. I'm so frustrated I don't know what to do. I can't keep him inside all the time doing homework 4 hours a night, and not getting any family or outside time it's just not working, he's starting to hate school and I don't want him to feel that way. Any ideas???"
01/25/2010:
"My daughter is in second grade and hates to do her homework. For the past several weeks now, it has been frustrating for both me and her. We ususally end up in screaming matches. she refuses to do her literacy homework. Help I am at my wits end. "
01/12/2010:
"My son is a First Grqader in a German immersion school he constantly struggles on finishing his work at school so we finish at home but it takes us good 2 hours fighting the 'houseaufgabe' he's speaking, knows the words and reads, but he's such a 'day dreaner' the teacher has moved him to another desk alone, left him with no gym, nothing seems to work for him to finish his work at shcool... he finds it 'boting' they have to copy from a paper to his own and then to do a picture of what he wrote... that's the only part he enjoys the picture part and the coloring...and then he gets very upset that he does not have time to play... "
01/11/2010:
"My granddaughter had lots of homework in 3rd grade, and has almost nothing in 4th grade, and her grades are steadily declining. I am concerned. I saw her ITBS scores take a nose dive, and really concerned about the CRCT this spring. I think homework is VITAL AND KEEPS THE FLOW OF LEARNING GOING IF THEY DO IT ASAP AFTER SCHOOL..."
01/6/2010:
"You have great advice for children whose parents speak and read and understand English. My own students' parents do not, so they come to my ESL class before and after school to get help with the homework they don't understand. But even that is not enough; many students ride buses and don't have options like school help or tutoring."
01/5/2010:
"I just took a Master's program and one of our topics was on homework. I personally see some cases where it appears the work is assigned just to assign work, but then there are instances where it is necessary. Nowadays schools are trying to cram so much into each school day that some time for needed extra work on certain areas gets lost. There are also some areas I can see need at least a brief go at home, like spelling, learning the times tables,reading chapters to get familiar with the subject, and that sort of thing. Had enough time been alloted for each class, homework might not be needed. However, I have seen where some homework seems to get assigned because it is expected. Many of the 'projects' assigned aren't completed by the student any way, so what does the student learn? (Look at some of the finished projects and you can see adult hands at work.) Homework should practice what was learned that day or prepare a student for the next day. It should also help a s! tudent learn how to work on his/her own with less supervision. Adult workers sometimes get work to take home, too. I had to learn city schemes - what addresses were in what route - when I started at the Postal Service. Couldn't do that only at work in the classroom. My dad used to bring home paperwork from the office. It's the amount and type of work we expect the children to do that should be questioned. I would also question the amount of classroom time and the amount of time in the schoolday. I have seen some subjects and ideas taught to children that end up pushing out the basics of the 3 R's, particularly 'rithmatic. Ideas are also sliding down the grades. Algebra starting in 5th grade? "
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