Pat McNees

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No More Teachers’ Dirty Looks: A Plan for Homework

by Pat McNees


This article was first published in the Washington Post on September 2, 1986, before Faith Clark’s unexpected death and before the publication of her book Hassle-Free Homework.

“My life is ruined by my child’s homework. It’s a knockdown, drag-out fight from the minute they get home until the minute they go to bed.”

Learning therapist Faith Clark has heard this parental lament often enough. As codirector of the Human Development Clinic in Bethesda, Clark helps children and adults overcome or cope with learning problems and disabilities. “Sometimes children are so disorganized,” says Clark, “that it’s hard to diagnose a particular problem. And sometimes the disorganization and poor study skills are the problem, although they are often interpreted by parents and teachers as laziness, lack of motivation, or inattentiveness.”

Ten-year-old Jeff, for example, would sit for hours looking out the window, watching his friends play instead of catching up with yesterday’s assignments. His mother would spend hours managing his homework, exasperated to be playing drill sergeant. Two months after they agreed to try Clark’s “six-week homework plan,” Jeff was in control of his own homework and out playing ball with his friends after school. His grades and mood improved – and his mother had her evenings to herself.

“Giving problem learners a structure removes a whole layer of their problem,” says Clark. But whether they have learning problems or not, one key to avoiding power struggles over homework is to get homework onto the habit level. To make the home a learning place she recommends a six-week plan – the amount of time she believes is needed to organize a child’s study time and space.

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Establish Rituals. This includes regular meal and bedtimes. Set the tone and pace of the day by making mornings as pleasant as possible. For these first six weeks of school, do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do. Play music, for example, do art work, or play catch for a few minutes before your child leaves for school or you leave for work. Avoid the language of “rush” and “hurry,” particularly if your child tends to be very active.

Ask your child: what’s going to be happening today? What are you looking forward to? What are you afraid of? This helps them frame their expectations and gives them a chance to express any anxiety they may be feeling. “A child who leaves the house with a sense of emotional well-being is going to learn more than a child who arrives at school harried and anxious,” says Clark.

Create a Sense of Order. “If they don’t organize their physical world, it is much harder for them to organize their mental world,” says Clark. Teaching children from about the age of 4 to put their things away by color-coding – socks go in the drawer with the blue dot, books on the green-dotted shelf – prepares the groundwork for good study skills later on, says Clark.

“Children’s physical habits are a metaphor for homework – an important part of their mental training,” she says.

Set up a family “don’t-forget-to-take-it” table by the front door, on which to put anything that has to go to school or work – books, school bags, keys, lunches, permission slips, and notes. Take the time to sit and help your children organize their notebooks. See to it that their study areas are as well-stocked as if they were their business office, because they are.

Buy them their own supplies, so they don’t have to borrow. Buy things that make them feel special and well-organized: colored pens and Magic Markers; a good dictionary of their own, in which they can underline the words they look up and learn; (for older kids) their own stapler, cellophane tape, and scissors; reinforcement tabs for three-hole paper; a kitchen timer or alarm watch for marking study and break times; a small “assignment” notebook for recording assignments; a school calendar to give them a visual concept of what “due three weeks from now” means; a set of three-holed pocket folders (one for each subject, to hold graded papers, one for “General Junk” and one “For Parents”); a file box to keep old test papers and book reports in – and anything else they think will make homework easier and more fun.

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Preview Their Homework. During this six-week period, preview your children’s assignments when they come home from school. This is harder if you work, but a certain amount can be done over the phone and when you first get home (especially during these first six weeks), or, with small children, you can ask your sitter or hire a neighborhood teen-ager to help.

Ask, “What do you have to do tonight?” Teach them to write all of their assignments in one small assignment notebook, and look at this now. Open their books to see which pages are to be covered, look at each exercise, read the directions, and elicit from them what kind of learning is expected.

Learning occurs in three stages. First you hear and understand concepts for the first time (as when the teacher explains fractions). Second, you internalize the material and make it your own (e.g., get enough practice adding fractions that you can do so easily). Third and finally, you transfer that learning to a new situation (bake a cake, using one-half teaspoons and one-third cups). Much homework seems dull because it’s for the internalization stage. This is a necessary stage, but you can make it more interesting by helping to transfer new learning to real-life situations.

“Children often can’t name the process they are using,” says Clark. “Give them labels, to help them anchor their knowledge of each process. Ask them: Are you teaching yourself new material, reviewing, practicing, memorizing, problem-solving, or composing, etc.?"” What process will the assignment involve: skimming, reading, studying, understanding, taking notes, researching, working in a workbook, answering questions, outlining or writing? How will you be tested on this?

Ask them to estimate how long each assignment will take and write that estimate in the assignment notebook. “This becomes a game in itself, and helps them learn to estimate how long a task will take. One reason children dread homework is that they have no feeling of what it’s all about and how long it may take.”

Check out their medium- and long-term assignments, and (using their school calendar) help them learn how to pace themselves, how to schedule the reading of a 100-page book over the several days they may have to read and write about it, so they aren’t always doing it at the last possible moment.

“Usually this preview will take about 10 to 15 minutes,” Clark advises. “The first time it’s likely to take more like 30 minutes and may be agonizing.”

After this mental preview, the children put their books away and take their afternoon break. Later, when they open their books, they have some confidence about their homework because they have eliminated most of the negative fantasies they have about impossible quantities of homework. They can set their timer for breaks, and if the assignment is longer or shorter than they estimate they can readjust. No “as soon as you finish” promises that train them to hurry, and no “you can’t play until you finish your work” dictums that make learning a bad guy and ignore current knowledge about how people learn best.

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Home as a Learning Place. During this six-week period, have them study in the same place (a quiet room, preferably theirs) and at the same time each day – not right after school because they definitely need a break then, but before dinner and then again after. Some children study better in the morning, some in the evening, but except for night owls most children do not study efficiently after 8:30 at night.

Help them plan an order of studying. If they’re taking both French and Spanish, have them study something different in between. If math is their hardest subject, have them do it first – maybe half of the problems, then 30 minutes of something else, then the rest of the problems. Teach them to save their most enjoyable homework until last.

Planned breaks are important. The adult brain needs a break about every 45 minutes. Some (especially young and physically active) children may need a five-minute break every 15 minutes; some may be able to break every half hour. Get them to set a kitchen timer for break time, but to try really concentrating until then. Encourage breaks that move their bodies and stimulate their senses (drawing a picture, playing puff basketball, juggling, or even raiding the refrigerator for a snack).

During this six-week period, while you’re helping them establish good habits, make an effort to do parallel activities during “study hour”: Pay the bills while they do math, write letters while they write a paper, set a task for yourself that is as difficult for you as your child’s is for him.

If your child is resisting reading the books assigned in English, agree to read the same books so you can talk about them at the dinner table. Create a total atmosphere of relaxed concentration, with everyone engaged in similar effort and with no television viewing weekdays for this six-week period. If the teacher assigns an educational program, watch it with them and talk about it: react, and interact, because that will turn it into learning.

When they’re done with their homework, take a few minutes to review it. Ask them what they’ve studied, what they had problems with, what they felt good about, which skills and concepts they know they know and which they’ll do more work on another time. If they rush and make careless errors, train them to take time: Take a deep breath, go back and proofread. Make a game of this: Praise them for finding and correcting their own errors before the teacher does. Train them to proofread rather than doing it for them. Concentrate your efforts on appreciating, not correcting or criticizing, them.

The six-week plan doesn’t work for every family, but it has helped many parents get their children on track. Just remember to think of it as a model, and not the way.

“You can’t tell a child how to learn,” says Clark. “But if you don’t tell them how to organize their home learning, they have no structure to push against. Your child will accept or reject the parts that work for him according to his own internal system. Don’t be too concerned that they do it your way, if their way makes learning possible. The key to success in working with children is not to get stuck in any single method – to be willing to present them with structure after structure, until they find their own way of learning and remembering.”

Copyright © 1986 by Pat McNees. All rights reserved. For permission to reprint, contact the author through her website: www.patmcnees.com

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