After seven hours in the classroom, who wants to sit down and do homework? Certainly not most 6- to 8-year-olds. They would rather play with their friends, participate in an after-school activity, or simply unwind in front of the TV. Because let's face it: Homework may help your child learn, but it's still a major chore.
"Kids this age are getting used to the idea of having to do assignments on their own," says Cathryn Tobin, MD, author of The Parent's Problem Solver: Smart Solutions for Everyday Discipline and Behavior Problems. "And many of them are more concerned with socializing than with schoolwork."
So don't be too surprised if your child complains about her workload: According to a survey by Public Agenda, a nonprofit research organization, almost half of parents said they have serious arguments with their children about homework. But it doesn't need to be a source of stress. These strategies will make studying a lot easier on you both.
- Start with a snack and exercise. You can't expect your child to focus when he has an empty stomach. Robin Lanahan, of Portland, Oregon, keeps turkey jerky, protein bars, bottled water, and trail mix in the car for her son, Owen, 7. "He's always starving when I pick him up from school, so the first thing I do is give him something to eat," she says. Lanahan then lets Owen run around the playground for a while. "By the time we walk in the door, he's ready to do his homework."
- Establish a routine. Ask your child to suggest a regular time when she'd like to do her schoolwork (such as when you're making dinner). Have a backup plan in place for days when she has a piano lesson or soccer practice. If your child has a playdate, suggest that the kids take a break to do their homework together. And your child may want to do his reading assignment on the ride home from school, since this makes good use of "dead time."
- Help him get organized. Set up a well-lit work area that includes a desk, sharpened pencils and erasers, a children's dictionary, and color-coded folders for different subjects. And let your child do homework at the kitchen table if he wants to. Just make sure he works independently rather than taking advantage of this location to ask you endless questions.
- Put her in charge. The most important purpose of homework is to teach your child responsibility for completing an assignment. If she forgets to bring home her spelling words, have her call a friend to get them. While it's fine to offer gentle reminders ("Remember that you have math and reading assignments on Wednesdays"), don't nag your child to get her work done. Let her deal with the consequences if she doesn't.
- Free up his schedule. If your child has too many extracurricular activities, he'll have trouble finding time for homework. He'll also miss out on downtime, which is important for sparking creative thinking. To keep Owen from feeling overscheduled, Lanahan limits him to just one extracurricular activity that takes place no more than twice a week. "On the other days, he comes home, does his homework, then plays outside with his friends," she says.
- Don't break it up. Once your child begins her homework, encourage her to complete it before getting on the computer or playing "one quick video game." Rather than refreshing a child's focus, frequent or lengthy breaks can distract her and make it easy for her to procrastinate.
- Be a role model. When her son, Ari, 7, is working on his math homework, Julie Hoffman, of Baton Rouge, makes a point of sorting her mail and paying bills. "I want him to see me working alongside him and to know that what he's doing will have a practical application in his life," she says.
- Stay positive. Praise your child's good work, and don't overreact to his errors. When he asks you to test him on his spelling words, say "great" each time he gets one right. If he makes a mistake, say "almost," spell it correctly, and have him try again.
- Give her guidance, not answers. It's fine to assist your child with her homework, but never do an assignment for her. "This robs a child of her pride of ownership of the task and creates a pattern that is hard to break," says Cathy Vatterott, PhD, associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis. "Homework is her job, not yours."
The National Education Association and the PTA recommend a maximum of 10 minutes of homework per grade level per night. But according to a University of Michigan study, many kids this age are doing up to three times that amount. If your child seems stressed out by her workload, your first step is to attach a note to the assignment, indicating how much time your child spent on the work and why you think she had trouble ("It was too complex"). If you don't hear back, schedule a face-to-face conference with the teacher. This will help you understand her approach to assignments and is often the best way to work out a compromise. Your last resort is to lobby the PTA. Rallying other parents to the cause may force the principal to take action.
Copyright © 2006 Meredith Corporation. Originally published in the October 2006 issue of Parents magazine.