The thing about adolescents is: they are often elusive, independent creatures…until they aren’t. They often want to be independent, but they don’t realize they lack the executive functioning skills to get the job done alone.
So when the teen in your life gets overwhelmed by homework or falls behind in school, it can feel really overwhelming for you, too. Maybe for a couple months now, school has seemed fine. A late assignment or missed homework here or there, but kids are only human. And then BAM! The progress report hits you like a ton of bricks. Your child has some catching up to do.
And while I do believe that teens should experience age appropriate consequences for their choices, I also don’t think we learn by failing. Struggle, yes. Failure, no. So if you find your family in this situation, here’s what I recommend.
Make a list
Gather all the information you need in one place.
Start with the progress report. Every worrisome grade tells a story of some assignments that need follow up.
Log into your school’s parent portal, or have your child log into their system. Some schools use Canvas, others use Google Classroom or another platform. And unfortunately, some schools use more than one, with can complicate this process. Teachers tend to use these platforms in unexpected ways, so here are some things to look for:
“Gradebook” listing of assignments and their status. If the assignment isn’t described, check the assignment date against other info sources.
- Notice/Memo/Announcement fields. Sometimes these are used for due date reminders or important assignment info.
- Daily posts. Google Classroom calls this the Stream. It’s where you can see the history of assignments in chronological order, including any comments or details from the teacher.
- If there’s information you can’t find, it’s time for an email to the teacher. I strongly recommend that kids, from about 6th grade on, participate in the writing of that email. By high school, it should come from them, even if you have to sit by them and help with the wording.
Take the list of missing assignments and do some triage. Is anything too old to turn in for credit? Let it go!
Are there things in there that are done, but not turned in? Turn them in now! If it’s work that can be turned in digitally, do it! If it’s on paper, I suggest snapping pictures and emailing them to the teacher, before filing them in the folder. That way, if the backpack gremlins attack, or if your kid is like mine and tunes out at the most inconvenient times, the teacher will at least know to ask about it.
OK, the rest of the stuff on this list is real work. If you’ve been sorting through the piles for a while, it might be time for a break. But is there some piece of work that could be finished tonight? Something that’s half-finished? Something that’s just a couple of days old and fresh in their memory? You want your child to walk away from this planning session feeling calmer and more confident that they can sort this out.
Do the dumb stuff
Next time you sit down with your child to work through the homework backlog, start with the low hanging fruit. Because of the way grading works, there are some points in a class that are much easier to earn than others. Like class participation. In some classes, that’s remembering to say “present” when they call your name and not audibly snoring. In others, the teacher has specific criteria for the quantity and quality of participation.
And sometimes homework points can be easier to earn than test grade points, or project points. Take a look at the small things, like notebook checks, worksheets, study guides, that are quick to complete. The points add up! Unfortunately, those “dumb” assignments can seem like they aren’t worth your student’s time on a day-to-day basis, but over time they make a difference.
Due dates? Do dates.
All that homework comes with a due date (or maybe it came with a due date, but that ship has sailed and you’re trying to catch up). That date is based on the teacher’s plans – other lesson plans, school events, marking period dates – along with his estimation of how much time students need to do the work.
What the teacher doesn’t know when he writes the due date is what your week looks like. That’s why, next to every assignment on the list, you need a DO date. This is the date you are planning to do the thing. This takes into account your family’s schedule and the student’s capacity for taking on more work. Sometimes this means rearranging family responsibilities, temporarily. Can someone else unload the dishwasher tonight if it means your kid can turn in a missing Spanish assignment? If your family needs some tools for better time management, to fill in some gaps in executive functioning skills, read more here!
Guard against next time
Well, this isn’t fun. I have been in many of these situations, as a teacher, as a tutor, as a parent, as a friend or family member, and as the struggling student, too. One thing all those experiences have in common is that no one had a good time! This is a painful, embarrassing, overwhelming problem to solve. Kids would avoid it if they could.
I can hear you now: But it’s their work, and I’m busy too! I know it feels like a huge step backwards to go back to checking your teen’s homework every night. And you probably don’t have to go that far. But remember bumper bowling? A 50-pound kid’s 5-pound ball would wobble down a regular bowling lane and into the gutter 9 times out of 10. He’d never get a chance to knock down the pins! You have to be your kid’s bumpers here. Adolescents are still developing their executive functioning skills. What seems obvious to you, including how they should spend their study time, may completely elude them.
To help prevent problems and catch them earlier next term, here’s what I recommend:
- Take that list of info you gathered at the beginning. Where does most of the info come from?
- Make a daily and weekly checklist to help your student collect all the work they need to do (until they are doing it independently).
- Schedule a very quick after school check in. Your goal isn’t to tell your child what to work on. It is to ask them if they have made a plan for what they need to work on.
- Consider a whiteboard for your student’s wall where they can list the assignments for today and erase them as they are done. That way they (and you) can see at a glance what kind of evening lies ahead.
- Plan a more substantial weekly checklist. I like to do either a Friday afternoon debrief or a Sunday evening planning session at home. But for my students, we check in when I see them, even if it’s the middle of the week. Include planning for the week ahead (sports, appointments) and checking in about any homework or ongoing projects. Remember to set “do” dates!
Hang in there
Your kids have come so far over the years! Remember when you had to hold their hands when they walked, or they would fall over?
They don’t need that anymore. But there was a time when they really, really, did. Think of this kind of homework support as that. While your child’s executive functioning skills are still developing through the teen years, you are there to provide structure, guidance, and balance, while your child does the hard work of learning to stand on their own. This too shall pass!
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