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Homework comes and goes as a hot topic in the news. Sometimes the focus is on what percent of students stay up late doing homework. Other times it’s on the idea that too much homework can be harmful, that kids aren’t playing outside or spending time with their families. Sometimes it’s about how students are suffering, other times it’s about the burden on parents. I don’t think the data are conclusive on whether homework is, on balance, a good or a bad thing for students. What I do worry about more, though, is the impact of too much homework and not enough time on students who are struggling.
Why too much homework is bad for struggling students
I asked my son’s first grade teacher how long homework should take. Her answer? “Not too long.” It’s usually a math worksheet that’s totally within his capabilities. If I look at it with my teacher eyes, I’d say it’s a 10-minute task for any kid who understood and remembers that day’s math lesson. But there are so many other things that can interfere with that quick 10-minute task. At my house, my child keeps forgetting his homework – like literally forgets it exists between the time he puts it down (on the couch? in the bathroom? by the fridge?) and the time he wanders into the next room. By the time we defeat the many distractions and get him seated, with a pencil, in the general vicinity of a parent, we might already have 30 minutes on the clock! And that was 30 minutes of nagging, negotiating, prompting, reminding, and sometimes whining (although I try not to whine at the children…).
My point is that the teacher is planning homework with the best-case scenario in mind. She’s imagining routines like in her classroom: Everyone takes out their pencil from their desk while she passes out papers. She reads the instructions out loud. Everyone begins quietly scratching away with their pencils.*
* It is painfully clear to me that classrooms rarely actually run this way, but we teachers are often optimistic about what we can get done on that perfect unicorn of a school day!
In real life, struggling students might not remember how to do this work because they didn’t master it in class. They might not be able to read the directions. They might not be able to articulate to their parents what exactly they are supposed to do with an ambiguous worksheet. They might be just plain exhausted from working on the things that are hardest for them all day long.
How to talk to the school about homework problems
When I assigned homework to my special education students, I always made it clear to the students and their parents at the beginning of the year that I was happy to assign homework if they wanted it, but it was always, always, up to parent discretion. If it was taking an unreasonable amount of time, or if the directions didn’t make sense, we would always defer to the experts in home learning: parents. For my students being assigned homework along with their grade-level peers, I encouraged parents to write a note on the homework or send an email to the teacher with feedback about challenging assignments. Teachers don’t know that homework took hours. They have no idea that buckets of tears were shed over an assignment if it comes in looking perfect (or doesn’t come in at all!).
Here are some things about homework that the teacher needs to know to help your child:
- “It’s taking X amount of time.” If you are working with and supervising your child, and homework is taking hours, something is wrong. There is some kind of mismatch between the child and the assignment.
- “He doesn’t know what the word __ means.” If the directions don’t make sense, or if he doesn’t remember how to do the assigned work, he may need a quick review or more extended support.
- “She cries every time she has to read.” Maybe she’s tired or sad to be missing out on time with friends, but if the problem is specific to one acdemic area (reading, writing, math), there may be weaker skills in that area.
- “I had to type/write it myself to get it done.” Some teachers don’t care who is holding the pencil when those vocabulary sentences get written. Sometimes the focus of homework is the thinking and idea generation. Other times (and the older students get, the more true this is) teachers expect full independence in the area of homework, and may be grading the results. If it’s not possible for your child to do the homework on their own, find out if there’s a way to shorten the writing, or an option for them to type if that would make it go more smoothly.
Remember, you and the teacher have the same goal: for your child to learn the content and skills for this year’s classes. If your child is struggling with homework more than their peers, you need to ask more questions than the other parents and try to figure out the best path through the challenges.
If your child is having trouble keeping track of homework all together, check out my 7-part free email series, “Academic Planners for Success” for strategies for using a planner to identify and prioritize homework.
My child won’t do his homework
If the child isn’t even attempting the homework, there can be a few things going on. It could be a pure “behavior” situation. But I wholeheartedly agree with Dr. Ross Greene that “Children do well if they can.” If your child is refusing to do homework, think about what that behavior is telling you about them and what they need.
If the child refuses to attempt the homework, consider:
- The timing: Fatigue and hunger make it hard to work.
- Amount: If they don’t see any light at the end of the homework tunnel, why begin?
- Directions: Where and how should they start? What does that even look like?
- And content: Did they understand it in class?
My child keeps forgetting homework
Forgetting homework goes along with the “won’t do his homework” problem in many cases. Leaving everything at school can be an attempt to avoid the unpleasant situation of facing homework at the end of a long day of school. In other cases, though, children forget their homework at school because they are overwhelmed or rushed through routines.
Here are some troubleshooting steps:
- Set up a simple homework folder. Label the two sides “Keep at home” and “Return to school.” Homework goes in the “Return to school” side and comes home.
- Find a planner system that works for your child. It might be paper or digital.
- Use the school’s online resources. For older children, many schools use Canvas, Google Classroom, or another website to post assignments. Find out from your child’s teachers how they notify students of assignments, and create a home routine of checking it with your child.
- Make a locker or backpack checklist for your child. Laminate it and put it in the homework folder or backpack, or hang it on the inside of their locker.
- Have them find a buddy. Brainstorm a reliable friend (or a few) who always have their homework done. This will be the person to ask if they’re not sure what page the homework was on, or if they forget a due date.
- Make homework part of the daily routine. Ask about it when you see them at the end of the day, and establish a time and a place for getting it done.
Whose homework is it, anyway?
Homework is a sensitive subject for me. It tends to be a one-size-fits-no-one solution to the problem of trying to cram too much teaching into a school day full of obstacles and challenges. “Good” homework can be a helpful way to reinforce skills taught in class. “Bad” homework steals a student’s personal time and causes stress.Homework is a sensitive subject for me. It tends to be a one-size-fits-no-one solution to the problem of trying to cram too much teaching into a school day full of obstacles and challenges. Click To Tweet
At the end of the day, homework is part of the academic relationship between students and teachers. If you find that your child’s homework is causing you stress and taking as much of your time as it is your child’s, it’s time to talk to the teacher and work on a plan to make homework more effective.
For more about homework, check out these other blog posts:
- Creating Space and Time for Homework – Organize a place in your home to minimize distractions and maximize productivity.
- How to Organize a Kid Who Keeps Losing Planners – Download a free one-page weekly planner that lets your child start fresh every Monday.
- How to set up your child’s paper planner for back-to-school success – A planner can be a useful tool, but only if students know how to use it and use it regularly.
- How to Use Google Calendar as Your Homework Planner – Part 1 – Going digital? Google Calendar is a flexible, portable way to stay organized on the go. Check out directions (with video) here.
- How to Organize Your Middle Schooler for Back to School – Get the right supplies to help your child bring what they need back and forth to school.