Confession: I always feel sorry for my children when they enter first grade. First grade means desks, report cards, and that dreaded word: homework. As a parent, I could do happily without it.
But I begrudgingly recognize that homework, besides reinforcing the lessons learned in school, also benefits the children in teaching time management, responsibility, and many other executive function skills. Not to mention that children’s achievements in school hinge on good homework habits.
I’ve found that for young elementary schoolers, parental attitudes and training will set the stage for their success for years to come. Here are the tips and tricks that have worked for my family and me:
1. Timing is everything
To establish good habits, you want to have a fixed and inviolable time for your child’s homework. Starting it too soon after coming home doesn’t give them any transition time. Most kids need to have a snack and unwind for a little bit.
But start it too late, and your child won’t be able to concentrate. I don’t have scientific evidence to back this up, but in my experience, even a child who can be up until all hours playing on his tablet can’t focus on schoolwork past 6 or 7 p.m.
You want to find that sweet spot for timing, and then STICK TO IT NO MATTER WHAT! In my house this means that the kids come home, have a snack, and then do their homework before dinner. There is no going out to play, no screen time, and no distractions until it’s done.
2. Be available and attentive
A huge part of your child’s ability to establish a set homework time, a habit that will only become increasingly more crucial, is your commitment. Her homework time is your homework time! Be home; be available; be attentive. This means no appointments, no phone calls, and no screens. Put away your phone, iPad, or laptop.
For the youngest children, your guidance in finishing a task, double checking work, putting away materials, and moving on to the next task is invaluable training in crucial life skills. Your help in answering questions and explaining instructions will keep your child from getting stuck and seeing homework as an insurmountable burden.
If I can’t be there for my children’s homework time, I enlist another family member to be on duty, or I hire help.
3. Don’t do your children’s homework
This is the tricky part. You want to walk the fine line between being there for them and doing the work for them. You may even want your child to struggle a little bit on his own. My line, delivered with a smile, is always, “Sorry, but I already passed second grade.”
This gets even harder as the kids get older. I’ve attended school fairs where my children’s work stood out as amateur compared to the projects that were obviously done by the other students’ parents. Stay strong! No one ever learned anything by having the work done for them.
So how do you make yourself available, but not too available?
My trick is to do a task that occupies my hands, but not my brain. While my children are doing homework, I can set the table, chop a salad, fold laundry, or nurse the baby. I am in the same room and totally present to answer questions and give guidance, but occupied enough to give the kids space to complete work on their own whenever possible. (Sadly, though, drinking in spelling quizzes literally with their mother’s milk did not produce good spellers in my younger children like I thought it would.)
Successful homework habits mean a shift in schedule and attitude for the whole family. It’s hard, but I’ve found the payoff comes in lower stress and less time spent on homework in the short-term, and academic and life success in the long-term.
Esther is a teacher, writer and speaker with more than 20 years of experience educating all ages from preschool through adult. Esther is also the proud, but tired, mother of nine wonderful children and grandmother of two. In her spare time (!!) she likes to cook, read and is the CEO of a local non-profit food pantry.
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