How to Avoid the Homework War

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If I were queen of the education world, all homework would be reading related, relevant, and reasonable. But alas, I have no crown.

Instead of mandating what I believe to be appropriate homework policies, I hope to empower you, the parent, to take back your evenings, weekends, and vacations. If you’re a parent that too often enters the battlefield, then you need a plan.  There is no simple fix, but there are steps that can be taken to relieve pressure and restore balance.  As you may already know, the negative effects of our over-burdened school system are filtering down to our nation’s children.

“Anxiety, boredom, fatigue and emotional exhaustion are all side-effects of bringing schoolwork home, according to a review of 75 years of study into the issue.” -Mark Townsend

Solving the homework challenge requires strategic planning.  The plan I outline below is to be completed in three phases.  The first phase is to simply track and calculate your current homework practice over a two-week time period.  Once you have your baseline, you may then move to phase two.  Over the next couple weeks, begin setting reasonable time limits using a timer.  It is important that you determine how much homework your child can complete independently.  It may be hard to stick to time limits, but this information is vital to effectively make positive changes in the long run.  And finally, in phase three, you’ll request a meeting with your child’s teacher.  The information you gather before your meeting with the teacher will help provide clarity and weight to your request for change.

But before I begin describing a plan for change, I would like to explain your role in supporting your child’s homework.  Your job as a parent is primarily to support your child by answering the occasional question.  It is not your job to manage homework time for your child.

The truth is that if your spending more than 10% of your child’s homework sessions helping, nagging, hovering, or worse case scenario, actually taking over and completing the homework, adds a new layer of complications to your battle.  Remember, you are the parent, not the teacher.

If you are helping too much, you’ll need to take a step back and remember the primary objective of homework.  The goal is to teach independence and responsibility.  Over-managing your child’s homework will send a message that they aren’t capable of learning without your help.  And if you find that they truly need your help, then more appropriate expectations need to be negotiated between you and the teacher.

Below are 3 steps to help you begin to make positive changes toward ending the homework war in your home.

 Step 1:
For the first couple of weeks, track your family’s current baseline average of time spent on homework each night.

Both the National Education Association and the National Parent Teacher Association recommend homework four days a week with the following time limits.

  • Kindergarten through grade 2: no more than ten to twenty minutes per night
  • Grades 3 through 6: thirty to sixty minutes per night
  • High school: ninety minutes or less per night

Add the time spent on homework during the week, remembering to include weekend time.  Determine how your child’s time compares to the recommendations.

Step 2:
For parents with children in 2nd grade or above, your next step is to analyze how much support you are providing your child and, if necessary, begin to transition to more independent homework sessions.  If your child is in kindergarten or first grade, then skip to step 3.

For the next two weeks, set a timer for the amount of time you believe it should take your child to complete their homework independently.  For example, if your child is in fourth grade, then he or she should be spending no more than an hour per day, preferably 45 minutes.

Next, explain to your child that you believe he or she is capable of completing their work without your help. Further, explain that you will set a time limit, and when the timer goes off, no more time will be allowed for homework that night.

It will be important for you to encourage independence during this process.  You need a realistic picture of your child’s ability to complete assignments without your help.  Tell your child that he or she will be allowed two requests for help. The time for your assistance should not exceed 5 minutes per request.  This will be especially challenging if your child is used to your help.  But remember, the last thing you want your child to experience is what is called learned helplessness: the inability to complete work without adult support.  Your ultimate goal as a parent is to allow your children to grow and learn to become an independent citizen.

When the timer goes off, end the homework session.  If your child has not completed their homework, then you’ll need to determine the next step.  Your first choice is to write a note to the teacher explaining that this is what your child completed in the amount of time given.  In this note, explain the negative effects homework is having on your family and your need to make changes.  You don’t need to give a detailed account to the teacher yet.  Simply state that the amount of time is negatively affecting your family life.  In addition, ask that no negative consequences be given to your child until you and the teacher can set up a time to discuss homework.

If you are okay with the consequences your child’s teacher will impose, there is an alternative: not writing a note and allowing your child to be accountable to his or her teacher for not completing the assigned homework.

A note of caution here, in my opinion one of the most damaging consequences teachers impose on children is the loss of recess.  The brain works best when it’s given breaks from work and thinking.  Children need time to run, play, socialize, and be kids.  If they’re required to work through their recess, it will negatively impact learning.  If your teacher’s consequence for incomplete homework includes loss of recess, respectfully request the teacher not to impose this punishment or any consequence that will cause embarrassment.

Stick with this process for at least a couple weeks.  If your child is unable to complete homework several nights during this process, then write another note to the teacher explaining that homework may continue to be incomplete until you’re able to set up a meeting with the teacher.  It is important to maintain open communication during this phase.

Step 3:
Once you are armed with information, the next step is to request an appointment to meet with your child’s teacher.  Write a note or email the teacher explaining that homework has become a challenge for your family and that you would like to schedule a meeting to discuss possible solutions.  Your objective is to schedule a face-to-face meeting to discuss your child’s homework needs where you can negotiate a win-win homework environment in which the needs of your child come first.

It’s important to note that any contact you have with teachers should be approached in a positive, solution-seeking manner.  Most teachers are willing to listen to parents as long as they feel respected and valued.  Unfortunately, in this day and age teachers often feel under attack.  Starting off any conversation or note with a compliment on something the teacher does well will go a long ways in achieving a good working relationship.

The only way to end the homework war is to establish and maintain appropriate and healthy expectations for parents, teachers, and students.  It can be challenging to question such an accepted part of American culture, but it will be well worth your effort.  The greatest gift you can give your child is the ability to establish boundaries in a healthy way. It’s imperative that children like school and believe in their ability to succeed.  Excessive homework can undermine that belief. The sooner you can resolve this struggle in your home the better.

In my last post in this four part series on homework, “How To Negotiate Homework With a Teacher”, I will provide suggestions on discussion points you can use during your meeting.  I will also explain ways to help you evaluate possible reasons why your child is not completing assignments within a reasonable time.

Does your child like school?  Is excessive homework negatively affecting your child’s attitude toward school?