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Homework case study #2: The refuser

What happens when your child goes on a schoolwork strike? One expert weighs in.

By Chris Colin

Some kids struggle with homework because it's too difficult. Others worry too much about whether their answers are perfect. For Sarah Wallach, a 16-year-old sophomore at a small parochial school in New York, the problem is more straightforward: She thinks homework is a waste of time.

"What's the point of homework? I go to school — that's when I do my learning. After school I don't feel like doing it," Sarah says. "I don't see why it should matter. If I have a question about something we learned, I can ask the next day in class."

Her teachers don't see it that way, however. Sarah is failing the classes that assign homework, and her mother is at her wit's end.

"She just doesn't feel it's important, so she either forgets it or puts it off and doesn't do it," Wendy Wallach says. "I've tried everything from rewards to taking her computer and TV and phone away. I have her in a special class that offers one-on-one help. I've gotten mad, I've cried — nothing seems to improve the situation."

Even more confounding, her mother says, is that nothing suggests a deeper problem is present: Sarah doesn't exhibit behavioral problems at school, she doesn't drink or do drugs, she isn't depressed, and tests don't indicate any learning disabilities.

"There's no reason she shouldn't be doing her work, that we can see. Absent the homework thing, she's a good teenager," Wallach explains.

For her part, Sarah says a lack of free time is an issue. She has a long school day, followed by an extremely long commute home — though she concedes her disdain for homework preceded the commute. When she gets home, she says she'd rather watch TV, rest, hang out on Facebook, snack, and so on. When she does tackle her homework, it tends to take a lot of time, she gets overwhelmed, and the next day she falls asleep in her classes.

Regarding those classes, Sarah isn't particularly enthusiastic — except for astronomy. She loves her astronomy class and is endlessly fascinated by solar systems. Coincidentally, she says, her astronomy teacher assigns no homework. Asked whether she might consider a career in the field, and therefore be compelled to do better in school, she demurs:

"You have to do math to be a real astronomer. I don't do math."

So might her grades limit other job prospects down the road? Sarah says she's already got it figured out.

"I've wanted to be a model for a long time. I also want to work with children. Grades don't count for either of those. Grades don't matter in the real world," she says. And should the modeling work dry up? "When I'm older, I'm probably hoping to marry rich!"

Enter Carol Josel, a longtime learning specialist and the author of Getting School-Wise: A Student Guidebook (ScarecrowEducation, 2002) and Other-Wise and School-Wise: A Parent Guidebook (ScarecrowEducation, 2003). Josel takes aim at Sarah's premise that homework is pointless.

"Some homework is just busywork, but most of it is important practice,” says Josel. “The school day just isn't long enough. There's not enough time for kids to practice whatever they learn that day. To me, homework is essential."

So how to impart that attitude to someone so defiant about homework? Josel says it's important to look for underlying issues, even if they don't seem apparent at first.

"With the astronomy, I would want her to see that she's selling herself short on the one thing she really likes by saying she can't do math," Josel says. "Somewhere in her head, I think she must understand her idea about modeling is not a reality. I think she's putting major walls up."

Knocking down those walls can be relatively simple.

"Baby steps. If she's getting overwhelmed, she needs to chunk [her assignments] one subject at a time. Start each night with the hardest work, so it's only the easier work that's left when she's tired,” Josel says. “The mom needs to set up a study schedule for her. Tell her, 'Look, give me just one hour — then you can watch TV.'"

"If there's work that's beyond her, go to the teacher for extra help,” she adds. “No teacher in his or her right mind will fail a student who's trying to do the homework."

Meanwhile, astronomy could be a hook for cultivating a more abiding interest in her schoolwork, Josel says. Her mom could take her to planetariums and talk to her about science, she advises. And it wouldn't hurt to appeal to Sarah's strong sense of logic:

"I might say to her, 'Sure, some homework is ridiculous. But you can prove your teachers wrong by doing it. They've already given you a label. Show them they've got you wrong.'"

Josel says none of these kinds of problems is easily solved. But there's good news: Success is contagious.

"Usually with kids, if you get one decent grade, it feels good and it builds on itself," she says. "Even if [Sarah] says she doesn't mind bad grades, nobody likes failure. It needs to be explained to her that failing at an early age becomes a habit. Models can fail too."

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

01/10/2012:
"So most homework is important practice? Even assuming I were to accept that on faith, the 'some homework is busy work' annoys me. Eliminate all the busy work an all that is left is the important stuff. Parents will notice this, even if children and teens don't. If there's still too much homework after that step, then the problem would be with the school day's length. Try no-busy-work and see where it gets you. "
12/19/2011:
"i need help on math just a lil not a lot "
03/24/2011:
"It's impossible to make a blanket judgment that says 'most homework is important practice' - it's like saying 'all doctors are good doctors' or 'all tax money is well spent'. And not all experts on the matter would offer that same opinion of homework by any means. Alfie Kohn's recent book did careful research of the research done on homework and there is no research that demonstrates that homework correlates with greater learning. There are over 45 million children in America placed in thousands of different schools being taught by even more thousands of different teachers and from that vast reality how is it possible to generalize that 'most homework' assigned by these thousands of teachers is 'important practice'? I simply don't grasp the logical basis for such a statement."
02/22/2010:
"Keep the faith, parents!! My son was exactly the same way. He was totally uninterested in school or homework. He consistently received failing marks on almost every mid term report card only to turn all the work in late and bring home a decent grade. Even though he knew the punishment was coming (no computer, phone), he didn't care. He graduated from high school with a 2.8 and didn't get into the college of his dreams. That finally woke him up. He went on to college and got a 3.8 his first semester and was able to transfer to his first choice after two years. "
01/25/2010:
"This story is my son, except that he doesn't have any reasons to give for not doing homework. He flat out lies to me to avoid doing homework. I've taken everything I can think of away from him to try to bargain. He will sit in an empty room staring at the walls for hours on end without touching his homework. He still scores on the advanced levels of the state tests, so I know he's learning. I've asked for help from his teachers, as well as the school counselor. Their only solution is to talk down to him about not doing his homework. What is the point of the homework? It seems as if he is failing his classes for no reason at all. I've given up on hounding him about it because it's ruining our relationship. I'm completely lost on what to do with him. What do you do to motivate a kid like this? I don't see any real solutions in this article."
01/19/2010:
"If it lasted more than 6 months, it could be a very mild ODD (Oppositional Defiant Disorder). ODD teens tend to rationalize a lot about their negativistic behavior.The good new is; it's not a mental illness :). Parents yelling at them fueled their antigonism, as they're not aware they are coming to irrational conclusions. 'Read The Defiant child' by Dr.Douglas A.Riley. Great book right in the target. "
01/19/2010:
"Great article, Chris, to give parents some guidelines and encouragement. Child stubbornness can be overwhelming at times!"
01/19/2010:
"hi its me Sarah from the article. just wanted to say thank you for interviewing me. it was a very fun and a new experience. also, i will probably show my friends this article lol. i feel so special to have been interviewed and my mother said she thinks i gave very well answers. thank you again for letting me take part in this. =) "
01/13/2010:
"it problem same to my son he alway refuse or misssing he home work it seen like the home work is not improtant to him so what and howcan I do to make him goback track because that afective he grade "
01/12/2010:
"She is a product of modern aproach in education and family upbringing. She will marry rich man? End of problems! She will be model? No need for school. No need for responsibility of any kind. Give her a model job but with all reality issues that go with it to get a taste of it. Getting her on 13F freezeing for stupid photos with minimum clothes on her. Leave her without snacks to have 'photo-perfect' body lines. Subject her to all those nasty things in 'model world' that she will be facing every single hour of her 'model life' just to get real what she prefers over homework. "
01/12/2010:
"This article reminds me of myself in high school. I too (30 yrs ago) went to a small parochial all girl high school in Manhattan. Getting to school was a long walk and then the subway at rush hour. I tried my best to pay attention in class. In the evening when I got home I was tired, exhausted, hungry and faced hours of homework. As an adult I learned that I had inattentive type add (no hyperactivity). Focusing on getting to school and the energy it took to pay attention in class exhausted me. Also, the school assigned way too much homework in my opinion. When I would fail i just acted like I didn't care (way cooler then being upset). Maybe your daughter should be evaluated for more subtle learning issues (such as inattentive add). Some problems are hard to detect. Be VERY assertive with the school. Also, they need to do something about the homework load. Parochial schools are great HOWEVER the staff and teachers often do not have the same educational background as teachers ! in good public school district. There are no extra supports or services or testing so you'll have to do this on your own. No one on staff may have a special education degree or experience. You may have to educate them in how to handle your daughter."
01/12/2010:
"Get her a job. Show her that, even in real life, much of what we do is 'work' oriented, it's repetitive, it can be overwhelming, and there's much less free time. This is your daughter's life now. She has to understand that the choices that she makes will affect her ability to go forward in life. Stop bugging her about her homework. If she fails in her classes, so be it. Explain the consequences. Stop punishing her for not completing her homework. Her punishment is that she will have to repeat the class, and may not be able to graduate with her friends. My only question about whether there's something else is your comment that 'she gets overwhelmed' by the homework if she tries to do it. My son has a reading disorder, but it's not really a reading disorder like dyslexia. It's a combination of vision tracking issues (he over focuses, which makes him very tired) and he has trouble prioritizing - he doesn't know what is more important - even trying to summarize a paragraph, he can't figure out what is most important. By solving these underlying problems, he's been making more progress. Can you try to ask your daughter what makes homework tough? Can she take it apart to see where she hits a roadblock? Is it just that she rails against authority and doesn't want to do what they ask her? Because even if she thinks it's a waste of time, someone has asked her to do it, and she needs to learn (as with the start of my comment) that in life, we have to learn to do what people ask us to do even if we don't like it. Hope this helps... "
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