This was written by Kenneth Goldberg, a clinical psychologist with 35 years of professional experience working with children, adolescents and adults. Now in private practice, he served previouslsy as clinical director for a children’s resident treatment facility, director of a psychiatric day-treatment program for the chronically mentally ill, and head of a rural mental-health center. He wrote “The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers.”
By Kenneth Goldberg
Recently, a story has been making the news cycle about an 8-year-old Tucson girl who felt humiliated when she received the “Catastrophe Award” for giving the most homework excuses.
Her mother was outraged and complained to the school. The principal defended the teacher’s behavior suggesting she was just trying to end the year on a playful, light note.
Tens of thousands of people commented on an ABC news blog reporting this event; most lean strongly for the teacher and against the mother, blaming her for not making sure her child’s homework gets done. There’s a lesson in this story.
I do not criticize the mother or the teacher. Mothers are there to protect and care for their children. This mother has every right to speak out when she sees her child get hurt. As for the teacher, teachers should, at times, be playful with their students and giving out end-of-the-year awards can certainly cap the year with fun. Perhaps, this teacher goofed and inadvertently hurt this child’s feelings. It happens.
I remember when I was in fifth grade and my teacher decided to dismiss the class by arbitrary characteristics. The kids with red shirts got dismissed first. The ones with names beginning with vowels got to leave next. It was a lot of fun until I was among six boys left, at which point my teacher said that everyone who was wearing a belt was free to leave. Oops! I forgot my belt that day. So he ended the game by saying, “Anyone who is an optimist is dismissed.” Quite embarrassing, but meant in good fun.
Parents vary in their circumstances and their homes. Children vary in their temperaments and their skills. Children go off to school and learn together, despite this heterogeneity. Children don’t work at the same pace, and they don’t leave school to go home to identical homes.
For the most part, parents send children to school with the expectation that they’ll listen to their teachers and do what is asked of them. Regardless, there are some children who cannot finish their homework despite the fact that they can function well in school. Their difficulties are not severe enough to call for special education, but they have difficulties that affect them more at home than at school.
Keep in mind that the school day starts and stops by a clock. The homework session has no end. If a child is a slow worker in class, she might be the last one done. But if she is sent home and required to keep working until all the work is done, it’s inevitable that she will not succeed. That child will not learn the skills that homework is meant to teach or reinforce. Rather, that child develops methods with which to avoid. The child who “won” the award for her excuses is probably doing what the system has unintentionally taught her to do.
This simple fact will not make sense to many people — unless they happen to have a homework-trapped child in their home. As a parent of three children, I can say with confidence that I would have been scratching my head wondering what was wrong with this mother if I had only had my first two children. As long as your children can get the homework done, you don’t see the problem. With my oldest two children, I might have won the “father of the year” award. Not with my third child — if homework achievement was the criteria.
It is important for us to understand that homework traverses the boundaries between home and school and that it should only be given with the tacit permission of the parents. I have no doubt that the vast majority of parents support what the teachers require.
Parents do not send their children to school planning to challenge the system. They are eager for their children to learn and they want to help out if they can. They expect their children will comply. Often, it works. Sometimes, it does not.
Too often, we look at homework noncompliance as a problem of motivation when the fact is that these children simply cannot do the work (or at least do all of the work). These children need homework relief, and, above all, they need for their parents to call the shots.
So teachers, go ahead and assign, and take some liberty in making school fun. If you step on some toes, offer an apology and go on. But also, honor the boundaries between home and school. If a child is making a lot of excuses, ask the parents for help, and look to them for direction about what to do. If that parent says her child cannot do the work, or can do only half of the work, or can only work for half an hour and then has to be excused, accept the fact that the class is your zone, the home belongs to the parent, and, in the home, the parents should have the final say.
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- Put the hardest homework at the top of your list. Why? Well, this allows you to kick it up a notch! You can start, move on, and then continue re-thinking it (starting gives it a place in the "depths" of your mind -- an inventive part of your mind) and then going back to it, to do more, so you won't get too bogged down, but it will have priority for the subconscious mind to work on it! See, you don't have to get stuck in that problem -- that might take all of your time:
Do a quick effort; make it a worthwhile try, then go onward to less demanding homework. Later, going back -- and seeing how you can improve the first one with fresh bits and pieces.
Open "secret back-channels" -- just starting, even if you have to come back to finish, gets your creativity to kick in (this gets dark recesses of your mind to really work for you!). Creative juices can be inspiring, refreshing, helpful!
Break it down. Make piecework; quickly overview the topic: scan!
~ Read headings, intro, maps, charts, pictures, captions, bold or italic lettering, footnotes, and chapter summaries to get ideas and perspectives/angles for ideas to start yourself thinking.
~ Begin your answer to each problem and essay question, by doing parts! How? Make a first sentence or step, do any logical, little bits and bites (go step-by-step).
~ Add a second thought/step and another -- each flowing from the previous one. Going one phrase or sentence at a time makes it possible to write or do something.
~ Skip some lines, to leave room to fill in later -- if you need to move on to another area.
To re-kick-start an answer: Read what you have already written/or have done to check it, and see what flows from there', to lead your thinking to your next thought/step, and so on.
- Take advantage of any holidays or vacations that may be coming near as a motivator. On a Thursday, remind yourself that it is almost the weekend, and the moment this homework assignment is done you'll be one moment closer. Remember that Thanksgiving, winter break, or summer break is nearing, and the moment your homework is done you can enjoy it to its fullest.
- Think of it this way: if you procrastinate, you're spending time worrying about the task in addition to the time you actually do it. If you just take action and complete it as soon as you think of it, then you'll have more time to relax.
Work smarter, not harder. A fried brain absorbs little information. Break up your homework time into chunks. Take regular breaks. Set a timer; take a five to ten minute break for each hour you study. Get up, stretch, and move around. Drink water and eat a little fruit: water will refresh your system, and half an apple provides a better effect than a sugary energy drink.
Think of the consequences. What will happen, if you don't do your homework? Will you get a bad grade? Will your teacher be disappointed in you? If none of these things seem to apply to you, remember that homework is to help you learn, which everyone ultimately wants. In the real world, knowledge helps you master the rules of the game.
Think of the benefits. What will happen, if you do your homework? You'll probably get a good grade. Your teacher will appreciate your efforts. You have learned a great deal, and you'd be paving your way for a better life simply by putting your pencil to paper! Putting yourself in a positive state will reap in the benefits and ultimately surge you with the energy and hope to focus back on your work, and even enjoy what you're doing!
Find a place with less distraction. Set up your special study place. No friends, television, or other potential distractions should be present. Your homework place should also have a hard surface, like a table, to write on. If you need to do some of your homework on a computer, as many high school students do, make sure to avoid chat programs, unrelated websites, etc. If you have difficulty keeping focused, or awake, consider doing your homework at the library, at a table with some amount of foot traffic passing by it. The quiet atmosphere will help you focus, the surrounding mild activity will help keep you from falling asleep, and if you get stuck, there are those helpful librarians and references.
- Don't go on a cleaning binge as a way to procrastinate. Focus only on where you'll be working, and leave it at that.
Find a homework partner. Make sure this person isn't one of your crazy friends who'll distract you. Find someone to sit with who is quiet and focused. This will help you feel comfortable working, because someone else is working along with you. Just be sure not to end up talking more than working.
Create your own learning method. Everybody learns at their own pace and uses different methods to help memorize the material. Some find walking helpful, while others like to listen to music while they study. Whatever it is, experiment until you find something that seems to work well for you.
Listen to some quiet music (optional). Listening to music and studying does not work for everyone. If you are going to listen to music, try to listen to classical music or instrumental songs. Or if classical isn't for you, just pick quiet songs that you don't know, and start working, so you don't get caught up in the words.
Exercise briefly during each study break. It will help relieve tension, clear your mind, help you focus and make you feel awake. For example, walk around, stretch, do jumping jacks, or jog in place.
Make a routine. A routine will get you into doing homework as a habit. Schedule times and days so you are totally organized as to what you're doing this week, the next, and even the week afterwards. Surprises will occur, but at the very least, you know what you're doing!
- Put your phone, computer, and anything else that might distract you far from your reach. Then stay in a quiet room where you know you won't get distracted. Keep a timer for every 30 minutes to an hour, so you know how long you've been working and can still keep track of time.
Prioritize. Divide your homework according to your ability in the subject. If you're not so good, do it first. If it's an easy assignment, take a break and do it in 15 minutes or so, then get working again! If it's a long-term project, do it last. Not that it's not as important, but you need to save your time for the things with near-due-dates.
Get some success: you might prefer to get one or two easy tasks over-with at the start of a homework session, saving the hard stuff for last. Diving right into the hard stuff can be discouraging, and studies show that many people learn well when they start with easier material and work up to the harder stuff. Getting a few easy tasks done quickly can remind you of how good it feels to be productive. Some people, however are more motivated to dig into the hardest stuff first. It will make the rest seem like a breeze. Find out what works best for you.
Use simpler problems to find the steps to do harder solutions. Most problems can be broken down into simpler problems. That's a key to try on most math and science work and exams.
So what are you waiting for, get to your homework!!