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Posted at 06:00 AM ET, 04/06/2012

The homework trap and what to do about it

This was written by Kenneth Goldberg, a clinical psychologist with 35 years of professional experience in dealing with many different psychological issues. He has worked with children, adolescents and adults. Prior to starting his private practice, Dr. Goldberg served as clinical director for a children’s resident treatment facility, as director of a psychiatric day-treatment program for the chronically mentally ill, and as the head of a rural mental-health center. He is the author of “The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers.”

By Kenneth Goldberg

There are many parents whose major concern is not public policy but what will happen at home tonight. They are not Tiger Moms, but ordinary parents who simply want the best for their children. These parents start out with the full intention of supporting the teachers and their children’s schools. Yet, something goes wrong along the way as they and their children fall into a homework trap.

The problem starts in elementary school. The notes come home, and the parents get “the call.” They meet with the teacher and make plans to make sure everyone is on the same page. Before long, the cast of characters grows. By middle school, there are several teachers, the disciplinarian and the nurse, all fretting over what these children do not do. Their parents feel pressured to oversee their work, as they also feel criticized as if they’ve done something wrong. These parents would do anything to help their children, yet nothing they do reaps results. Soon, they realize that the efforts they are making are actually doing more harm than good.

The key misconception about homework-trapped children is what I call the “myth of motivation.” These children are viewed as lazy and unmotivated, as if they are different from the other children who would rather play than do their homework. There are reasons why these children don’t do their work, and it’s not because they lack motivation.

Rather, they have “under the radar” learning problems. Minor difference in learning capabilities can have major implications on the work that’s sent home, much more than it has on the work done in class.

The most important issue is the child’s work pace. No one would question that a slow running child truly wants to win the race, yet we somehow believe that homework trapped children lack the desire to get their work done.

We know that people don’t spend large amounts of time engaging in tasks they do not do well. Yet, homework-trapped children are made to struggle for hours on end to get everything done. These children would be far better off if they were asked to work for a fixed amount of time (perhaps 10 minutes per night per grade) than to fall into an abyss of working all night to get every worksheet done.

The child, who is forced to keep on working without boundaries, will predictably learn how to avoid. Excessive homework pressures teach children to lie, forget, argue, and procrastinate. This eventually brings in the child study team, not to deal with learning problems, but because the child’s behavior has been bad. With that, the child may get sent to a different class or an alternative school where, voila, homework is no longer required. It’s an odd turn of events that these homework trapped children, who could have succeeded with some homework relief, only get that relief after they’ve acted out.

Because of this, I offer three very simple adjustments that are crucial for homework-trapped children, and which, frankly, I think should be policy for all. They are:

1. Time-bound homework. Just like school starts and stops by the clock, define homework as a fixed period of time. See what the child can do in a reasonable amount of time and work with that child on using the time well.

2. Reduced penalties. Zeros factored in 25 percent of the grade is too harsh of a penalty to alter behavior. Lesser consequences will prove more effective in both mobilizing the child and allowing the parent to approach the issue calmly.

3. Respect lines of authority. Teachers are in charge of their classrooms. Parents should tread lightly when it comes to telling them what to do. Parents are the people in charge of their homes; teachers should not tell parents how to organize their homes. Ultimately, when decisions are to be made about behaviors in the home (i.e. homework), the parent needs to be the one with the final say.

I am aware of the controversy over how much homework children should get. It’s an important debate but not the one I’m concerned with today. I’ll leave that to teachers, the experts in education, to figure out what makes the most sense. But in developing their models, it is critical for teachers to understand that homework assignments are using borrowed ground. Homework requires the tacit permission of the parents to allow it in their homes. While most parents will support the school in what it asks, they also need the power to withdraw that permission, if needed, without consequence to their child’s education.

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