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Five tips to get kids to focus on homework

Wouldn’t it be great if homework time looked this cheerful and easy at your house? Maybe it can be. (BigStock)

When my daughter began the routines of first grade and its attendant homework assignments last fall, my husband and I girded ourselves for this new thing to work into our scrambled evenings. Assigned on Monday, due back on Friday, supposed to be completed by doing 10 minutes a night. Reasonable enough, right?

We celebrated her efforts and her commitment to homework, for, after all, she’s being raised in the era of “NurtureShock.” But as the weeks went on, I was feeling increasingly inept at steering her back on track when she started doodling or lying down on her chair. When sitting still was the last thing she wanted to do after a day cooped up inside. When her little sister was noisily, happily, inviting her to build a fort.

There had to be a better way than this tug-of-war that frustrated everyone. So I talked with a few teachers, study-skills educators and a school counselor, and I asked them how to get an elementary school-age kid to focus on her homework (and maybe her piano practice, too). Here’s what they said:

1) Talk to the teacher. Huh? My daughter was getting her homework done, so why bug the teacher, I thought. However, if things are always turned in on time and correct, the teacher won’t know how long it really takes and how challenging it is for kids, says Amy McCready, the founder of Ask teachers: How long should homework take? (And let them know how long it’s taking your child.) What is the goal of homework? Is it “completion, learning, grading, a hoop to jump through?” asks Mark Wallace, who teaches third through fifth graders at Highlands Elementary in Edina, Minn. Is it okay for parents to check homework so that kids can fix any mistakes before turning it in, or do teachers want to see those mistakes so they can get an accurate sense of how well kids are understanding the lesson? If your above-grade-level kid breezes through five math problems, does she really need to do all of them? Finally, be clear with the teacher that in your house …

2) … Your kid’s homework is her responsibility, not the parents’ responsibility. This one took me a little bit to buy into. It’s a big leap of faith to let kids choose how to manage their time, and to allow them to face the consequences if they don’t. The corollary is establishing the new ground rules for how you help up front so you can support them while letting them work independently. McCready coached me through making this change: “Sit down ahead of time and talk about the assignment: ‘How do you think you’ll go about answering these questions?’ Then you can say, ‘Sounds like you’re on the right track,’” leave them to work uninterrupted and then check their work when they’re done. McCready also recommends being clear about your boundaries, for example, “I am available to help you after dinner from 6:30 to 8 p.m.. After that, the help desk is closed,” and reminding them that help desk hours and bedtime don’t get extended just because they didn’t get their work done yet. If getting started is the biggest hurdle, “start out by giving them a choice,” suggests Susan Kruger, the president of SOAR Learning, a study skills company based in Lake Orion, Mich. “‘Would you like to do it now or in 10 minutes from now?’… It puts them in a position of feeling they have some say, and that goes a long way of getting cooperation with homework.”

3) Set a timer … and take a break. Time management is hard, especially for kids who are just learning to tell time. Many of the experts I spoke with encouraged using timers. McCready likes ones that help kids visualize how much time is left, such as Timetimer. You can use timers for the scenario Kruger describes. “When you work in small increments — uninterrupted focused time, with breaks in between — you’re able to get more done,” says Zac Stowell, a fifth grade teacher at Northgate Elementary in Seattle. Breaks might include a snack, but ones with physical activity are good, too: a set of jumping jacks, a walk up the street, running up and down the stairs. And if the break is dragging on too long, Stowell says, “you let them know, ‘The more we extend it, the less time we have to do other fun stuff.’”

4) It’s okay to fail. Homework anxiety affects kids and parents, and so does this mantra. “Early elementary school, that’s a really safe time to fail,” says Wallace. If kids don’t get their homework done, he says, “I’d like them to walk in and say, ‘Here’s my plan for finishing it, and here’s my plan for next week.’” There may be all kinds of things you’d like kids to improve upon when you’re looking at their homework, from not bringing it home all crumpled to using capital letters, punctuation and proper spelling, he says. “I always tell parents, ‘Pick one thing that you’re going to go after that night.’” When kids feel overwhelmed by criticism, they tend to shut down, just like adults. To boost their spirits when they get into the “I’ll never get it/I’m no good/It’s too hard” doldrums, point out all the things they used to find hard that are now easy, such as tying their shoes, says Gerry Rice, a Suzuki violin and viola teacher in Haddonfield, N.J.

5) Get help. If homework is still a struggle or taking longer than the teacher expects, get an outside perspective and find out what’s going on. “You can get a neighbor kid who’s four or more years older who can sit down with them to do homework” or swap kids with a neighbor, Kruger says. In other cases, she says, consider a tutor or other professional to uncover what’s behind some learning challenges. Kids are all different, and so are their optimal learning styles and study environments, and parents can help by shaping homework settings to meet their needs. As you’re feeling your way, remember, “we want our students to make mistakes,” Kruger says. “It’s the only way they’re going to be able to innovate and adapt to the world and the way the world changes.”

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