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Tips for Avoiding the Homework Trap

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Updated on Jun 24, 2013

As a parent, it’s likely that you’ve browsed the Internet looking for ways to help your kid get into a comfortable, consistent homework routine. You’ll find responses encouraging you to organize the space, reduce the distractions, prioritize the assignments, and reward your child’s good efforts. Advice forums will tell you repeatedly to stay on your child and make sure the work gets done, which on paper sounds like good advice. But what if it doesn’t work?

Countless parents follow this advice, meet with the teachers, employ private tutors, and take their children to counselors—yet, year after year, the homework situation keeps getting worse. In elementary school, take-home work may not seem as bad since you only have one teacher involved. Even when all of his homework isn’t completed (hey, it happens), your little learner still hands in some of the assignments.

By middle school, your child’s facing a mountain of homework from up to five different teachers, each with their own expectations. He’s bringing home good grades though, so you find yourself relaxing, and feeling you’re back on track (for a couple of weeks).

Before long, you realize that your kid has done all of his work for some of his teachers—and none of his work for the others. He was feeling proud of what he had completed, so from his point of view, everyone’s coming down on him in unreasonable ways. This feeling of defeat chips away at his motivation, until eventually, like a house of cards, his performance deteriorates in all of his classes. By high school, he feels lost, and if he loses access to after school activities, his interest in school is essentially gone.

The Homework Trap

So as a parent, how do you help your kid remain interested in education? The first step is to understand why your child fell into a “homework trap.”

  • “Under the radar” learning problems. Your kid may be suffering from a learning issue that’s gone unnoticed. He may not absorb all the teacher has said, or his handwriting may be poor. Whatever the case, he works more slowly than other students. At school, it’s less evident because the school day starts and stops by the clock. At home it’s brutal because there’s no bell to tell your child when his “homework day” is done. Without an end point, he can’t function at all. If you overlook these learning issues that manifest in his work pace, you’ll have little chance of getting him on track.
  • Hard-line discipline. Penalties for incomplete take-home assignments are far too severe. Zeros factored in as up to 25 percent of the grade essentially remove any possibility for change. When consequences that don’t work are used repeatedly, they actually further perpetuate the problem. Instead of extinguishing undesirable behaviors such as laziness or poor time management, strict punishments reinforce them. Severe grade penalties are highly unsuccessful as a method for getting homework-trapped children to do their work—however, they’re quite effective in sending parents into a frenzied state.
  • Clear direction. Homework blurs the natural lines of authority between the home and the school. Children need clarity: teachers in charge in class and parents in charge at home. Homework traverses those boundaries, innocuously if your kid doesn’t have a serious problem, but dangerously if he does. Homework is a major area of family life where, when problems arise, moms and dads lack the prerogative to decide what to do.
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