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Posted at 10:30 AM ET, 06/03/2012

Why some kids can’t do homework (and what teachers should do about it)

This was written by Kenneth Goldberg, a clinical psychologist with 35 years of professional experience working with children, adolescents and adults. Now in private practice, he served previouslsy as clinical director for a children’s resident treatment facility, director of a psychiatric day-treatment program for the chronically mentally ill, and head of a rural mental-health center. He wrote “The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers.”

By Kenneth Goldberg

Recently, a story has been making the news cycle about an 8-year-old Tucson girl who felt humiliated when she received the “Catastrophe Award” for giving the most homework excuses.

Her mother was outraged and complained to the school. The principal defended the teacher’s behavior suggesting she was just trying to end the year on a playful, light note.

Tens of thousands of people commented on an ABC news blog reporting this event; most lean strongly for the teacher and against the mother, blaming her for not making sure her child’s homework gets done. There’s a lesson in this story.

I do not criticize the mother or the teacher. Mothers are there to protect and care for their children. This mother has every right to speak out when she sees her child get hurt. As for the teacher, teachers should, at times, be playful with their students and giving out end-of-the-year awards can certainly cap the year with fun. Perhaps, this teacher goofed and inadvertently hurt this child’s feelings. It happens.

I remember when I was in fifth grade and my teacher decided to dismiss the class by arbitrary characteristics. The kids with red shirts got dismissed first. The ones with names beginning with vowels got to leave next. It was a lot of fun until I was among six boys left, at which point my teacher said that everyone who was wearing a belt was free to leave. Oops! I forgot my belt that day. So he ended the game by saying, “Anyone who is an optimist is dismissed.” Quite embarrassing, but meant in good fun.

Parents vary in their circumstances and their homes. Children vary in their temperaments and their skills. Children go off to school and learn together, despite this heterogeneity. Children don’t work at the same pace, and they don’t leave school to go home to identical homes.

For the most part, parents send children to school with the expectation that they’ll listen to their teachers and do what is asked of them. Regardless, there are some children who cannot finish their homework despite the fact that they can function well in school. Their difficulties are not severe enough to call for special education, but they have difficulties that affect them more at home than at school.

Keep in mind that the school day starts and stops by a clock. The homework session has no end. If a child is a slow worker in class, she might be the last one done. But if she is sent home and required to keep working until all the work is done, it’s inevitable that she will not succeed. That child will not learn the skills that homework is meant to teach or reinforce. Rather, that child develops methods with which to avoid. The child who “won” the award for her excuses is probably doing what the system has unintentionally taught her to do.

This simple fact will not make sense to many people — unless they happen to have a homework-trapped child in their home. As a parent of three children, I can say with confidence that I would have been scratching my head wondering what was wrong with this mother if I had only had my first two children. As long as your children can get the homework done, you don’t see the problem. With my oldest two children, I might have won the “father of the year” award. Not with my third child — if homework achievement was the criteria.

It is important for us to understand that homework traverses the boundaries between home and school and that it should only be given with the tacit permission of the parents. I have no doubt that the vast majority of parents support what the teachers require.

Parents do not send their children to school planning to challenge the system. They are eager for their children to learn and they want to help out if they can. They expect their children will comply. Often, it works. Sometimes, it does not.

Too often, we look at homework noncompliance as a problem of motivation when the fact is that these children simply cannot do the work (or at least do all of the work). These children need homework relief, and, above all, they need for their parents to call the shots.

So teachers, go ahead and assign, and take some liberty in making school fun. If you step on some toes, offer an apology and go on. But also, honor the boundaries between home and school. If a child is making a lot of excuses, ask the parents for help, and look to them for direction about what to do. If that parent says her child cannot do the work, or can do only half of the work, or can only work for half an hour and then has to be excused, accept the fact that the class is your zone, the home belongs to the parent, and, in the home, the parents should have the final say.

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