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How to Handle Holiday Homework

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Updated on Dec 21, 2011

Your child might argue that the only bad thing about winter vacation is holiday homework. Is it really fair to assign work during the holidays? Some teachers, such as ninth grade history teacher Keith McSweeney, say no. “For me, it’s a matter of principle. I think the holidays are a time for students to be with their families and get a break from school,” McSweeney says. “I don’t think it would serve my students well to expect that they spend time studying while they’re on vacation.”

But, many other elementary and high school teachers believe homework is the only way to ensure retention of concepts over the long break from school. Whether holiday homework is helpful or hurtful, for many kids it’s par for the course. The key do dealing with this reality is not waiting to the last minute, says Harris Cooper, Ph.D., renowned homework expert and Professor of Psychology and Neuroscience at Duke University. “I would suggest that parents encourage their children to complete their assignments early—ideally, before the relatives arrive,” Cooper says.

Cooper suggests that homework over the holidays be treated like homework at any other time of year: students should determine how much time it will take, and divide it into manageable chunks. “Learning is more effective if it’s done in small doses,” Cooper says.

Best Practices

There are three keys to completing homework effectively: 
  • Have a consistent place in the home to work on assignments.
  • Take frequent, short breaks.
  • Keep the distractions to a minimum.

It’s also important for parents to recognize that every child approaches studying and homework differently. Some children are most effective if they sit down and complete their homework immediately after school; others work best if they have an opportunity to run around outside for a half an hour before they begin. Some children need small rewards for completing their homework; others will do their homework without incentives. Children also are interested in different subjects and have their own individual sets of strengths and weaknesses. Some children excel in at-home science projects; others cry over their writing assignments.

“It’s unrealistic to expect that children are going to be enthusiastic about every subject they study in school,” says Charles Smith, Ph.D., Professor and Extension Specialist in the School of Family Studies and Human Services at Kansas State University. “A big part of the learning process is understanding that there are some things we simply have to do, whether we like it or not.” And that applies to homework—even during the holidays. 

Parental Involvement

Smith suggests that parents can help their children by entering into a dialogue with teachers. “If you know you’re going to be out of town for ten days, you can talk to the teachers ahead of time and see if they have any advice about how you might help your child complete the homework. Good teachers will work with you to make the homework manageable,” he says. 

Often, homework assigned over winter break is thematically linked to the holidays. When this occurs, children and parents should take advantage of the opportunity to work together on the homework. Children might benefit from talking to parents or grandparents about their holiday traditions and experiences, or families could work together to experiment with holiday-related science or math projects.p>

Most importantly, Smith says, parents need to recognize their role in helping children set ground rules for doing homework, such when it’s done, where it’s done, and when breaks will be taken. Smith emphasizes that breaks between homework assignments should not be watching television. “Breaks should be active. Playing a fifteen-minute game of football is a good idea; even playing a video game is a good idea. Lying on the couch watching TV isn’t.”

There’s still time before the holidays begin. Consider having your children check in with their teachers now. It’s always helpful to be prepared.

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