Whose homework is it anyway?

Children need to maintain an organised schedule so that they can feel a sense of control over their world. Little or no control is what results in the “leaving for school shouting matches” and in the “car tears and sore tummies”. Adults tend to get grumpy if they are feeling overwhelmed and not on top of things, so why should it be any different for your child?

One of the most important areas school-goers need a sense of control over is homework. This is something that generally happens outside of the school (so outside of professional teacher guidance), and is often an area where the proverbial wheels come off, all due to assumption: teachers assume that parents know how to create conducive homework/study environments at home and parents assume that teachers have taught the children how to do this on their own. But therein lies the rub – why would either be the case?

The objective of homework is generally to complete any activities not finished in class, do projects and once these are complete, study for tests and exams. Homework is not intended to re-teach work already covered at school.

To do this successfully, a few things need to be in place:

1. Your child needs to understand that the homework falls under his/her area of ownership, not yours.
If you create the habit of sitting next to them, doing every part of it together, they will let you – it’s far easier than doing the work themselves. You have also created a habit that will be hard to break. Of course they can ask you questions if they are stuck, but doing everything together (some parents go as far as to make their child’s study notes for them) is building an unhealthy co-dependency: an assumption that they cannot learn new things or complete tasks without you. If you have a child that will not do a stitch of homework without you, create a strategy with his/her teachers where they know you are ‘weaning’ your child of this dependency. It will take time, and probably many fights, but the results will be worth it.

2. Your child needs to learn the difference between being task orientated, and time orientated.
We often tell our children that if they work or study for a set period of time, they can then take a break. This teaches a limited attention span and results in incomplete tasks. Rather, tell your child that they can have a break when a specific activity or section of work has been completed. This way they learn to concentrate for the length of time it takes to complete a specific task and results in a sense of achievement because tasks have been completed in their entirety and not left hanging.

3. Your child needs an environment conducive to getting the job done.
Here are some pointers from our study skills course regarding the study environment. Your child needs to be able to answer ‘YES’ to the questions below:
* Can I study whenever I need to? Children trying to study or do homework at the dining room/kitchen table (or any other public place) cannot do this. Books need to be cleared away so that meals can happen, often leading to losing stationery, leaving books at home etc.
* Is my study place free from interruptions and distractions? Again, the dining room/kitchen table is a public space and not conducive to interruption free homework/study time.
* Does my study place contain all the books and notes I need? Studying in several rooms of the house means that the tools needed are strewn across all of these places, resulting in constant interruption to fetch books, dictionaries, rulers, erasers, calculators etc.
* Does my study place have a large enough desk/table? The desk needs to be big enough to have the necessary equipment for the task on it.
* Does my study place have enough storage space? A centralised study space needs a bookshelf/shelves so that tools for other subjects can be stored when not in use.
* Does my study space have a comfortable chair? Too soft, they’ll fall asleep; too hard, they won’t be able to sit as long as the need to complete the task. Take the Goldilocks approach and make sure the chair is just right.
* Does my study space have enough light? A desk lamp is the key – overhead lights brighten the room, but cast shadows over the work.
* Does my study space have a comfortable temperature? Again, think Goldilocks. Too hot or too cold means that they can’t concentrate on the task because they are getting sleepy from the heat or focusing on trying to stay warm.

Many parents have their children studying or completing homework in public places so they can keep their eye on them, and because the children become distracted in their bedrooms. There are a few tips here too:
* No cellphones in the room. Not switched off or on silent. No cellphone in the room. They’ll probably tell you that they need it for the dictionary app – give them a dictionary.
* No TV’s in their bedroom. It is horrifying to see how many children have TV’s in their room and will actually try to convince you that it’s ok to have it on with the volume down while studying. Or that they need it to drown out other noise in the house. The brain just doesn’t work that way and they need to learn to be completely focused on the task at hand.
* No studying on the bed. We get into or onto our beds for one reason – to sleep. That’s the association the brain makes: bed = sleep. Productive studying cannot happen in/on the bed.

Children must learn to work independently and without constant supervision. Those who have always completed homework in a public space and who now must work alone in their bedrooms or in a study, will struggle with this at first. The initial motivational challenge they must master refers back to becoming task-based instead of time-based. They must complete a task, or section of work, before coming to ask you for help or to check it for them. If they haven’t completed the agreed upon section, you don’t step in. Once they have attempted it on their own, and even if there are mistakes, they have completed the agreed upon task and can now recruit you for help or checking.

Making children work in their bedrooms or in a study will still require monitoring so make sure they keep their doors open and pop your head in from time to time to make sure that they are getting the job done.

Like all matters educational, the above points are a process and it would be unrealistic to apply everything you have read here overnight, and like waving a magic wand, suddenly have an organised, confident child who is completely in control of their homework and studies; someone who is completely happy to work independently and does so effectively.

The strategy should be to work consistently towards these goals. They are ultimately life skills, after all, and apply as much to adults in the workplace as to school goers aiming for the best possible Matric results.

– Jacqueline Aitchison

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