Certain key practices will make life easier for everyone in the family when it comes to study time and study organization. However, some of them may require an adjustment for other members of the family.
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Turn off the TV set. Make a house rule, depending on the location of the set, that when it is study time, it is “no TV” time. A television set that is on will draw youngsters like bees to honey.
What about the radio or other audio devices? Should it be on or off? Contrary to what many specialists say, some youngsters do seem to function all right with the radio turned on to a favorite music station. (Depending on the layout of your house or apartment, maybe an investment in earphones would be worthy of consideration.)
Certain rules should be set about the family phone during study hours. The more people in the household, the more restrictions on long and unnecessary phone calls are needed. A timer, placed next to the phone, can help to control the length of calls so that the telephone will be available if it becomes necessary to call a schoolmate to confirm an assignment or discuss particularly difficult homework.
Designate specific areas for homework and studying. Possibilities include the child’s room or the kitchen or dining room table. Eliminate as much distraction as possible. Since many young people will study in their own rooms, function becomes more important than beauty. Most desks for young people really don’t have sufficient space to spread out materials. A table that allows for all necessary supplies such as pencils, pens, paper, books, and other essentials works extremely well. Consider placing a bulletin board in your child’s room. Your local hardware store sells wallboard that might not look too pretty and isn’t framed, but a 4 x 3’section is inexpensive and perfect on which to post pertinent school items. You might want to paint or cover it with burlap to improve its appearance or let your child take on this project. Encourage the use of a small book or pad for writing down assignments so that there is no confusion about when certain assignments must be turned in to the teacher. Keeping general supplies on hand is important. Check with your child about his needs. In fact, make it his responsibility to be well supplied with paper, pencils, note pads, notebook paper, et cetera.
Regularity is a key factor in academic success. Try to organize the household so that supper is served at a standard time, and once it and family discussions are over, it’s time to crack the books. If the student doesn’t have other commitments and gets home reasonably early from school, some homework can be done before supper.
Consider you child’s developmental level when setting the amount of time for homework. While high school students can focus for over an hour, first-graders are unlikely to last more than 15 minutes on a single task. Allow your child to take breaks, perhaps as a reward for finishing a section of the work.
Organize study and homework projects. Get a large calendar, one that allows space for jotting down things in the daily boxes. Rip it apart so that you (and the child) can sequentially mount the school months for the current semester. For example, you can tear off September, October, November, December, and January and mount them from left to right across one wall. Have the child use a bold color writing instrument (felt tip pen) to mark exam dates in one color, reports that are coming due in a different color, et cetera. This will serve as a reminder so that things aren’t set aside until the last dangerous moment.
Teach your child that studying is more than just doing homework assignments. One of the most misunderstood aspects of schoolwork is the difference between studying and doing homework assignments. Encourage your child to do things like:
- take notes as he’s reading a chapter
- learn to skim material
- learn to study tables and charts
- learn to summarize what he has read in his own words
- learn to make his own flashcards for quick review of dates, formulas, spelling words, et cetera
Note-taking is a critical skill and should be developed. Many students don’t know how to take notes in those classes that require them. Some feel they have to write down every word the teacher says. Others have wisely realized the value of an outline form of note-taking. Well prepared teachers present their material in a format that lends itself to outline form note taking.
Should notes ever be rewritten? In some cases, they should be, particularly if a lot of material was covered, and the youngster had to write quickly but lacks speed and organization. Rewriting notes takes time, but it can be an excellent review of the subject matter. However, rewriting notes isn’t worth the time unless they are used for review and recall of important information.
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A home dictionary is essential, but if it is kept on a shelf to gather dust, it won’t do anyone any good. Keep it in an accessible place and let your child see you refer to it from time to time. If the family dictionary is kept in the living room and the child studies in his room, get him an inexpensive dictionary for his exclusive use. Good dictionary, encyclopedia and organizational skills depend on the ability to alphabetize. See if your child’s teacher practices alphabetizing in class. Try alphabetizing spelling words, family members’ names or a few favorite toys at home as a way of practicing.
Help your child to feel confident for tests. Taking tests can be a traumatic experience for some students. Explain to your child that burning the midnight oil (cramming) the night before a test is not productive. Better to get a good night’s sleep. Students also need reminding that when taking a test, they should thoroughly and carefully read the directions before they haphazardly start to mark their test papers. They should be advised to skip over questions for which they don’t know the answers. They can always return to those if there’s time. Good advice for any student before taking a test: take a deep breath, relax, and dive in. Always bring an extra pencil just in case.
During a homework session, watch for signs of frustration. No learning can take place and little can be accomplished if the child is angry or upset over an assignment that is too long or too difficult. At such times the parent may have to step in and simply halt the homework for that night, offering to write a note to the teacher explaining the situation and perhaps requesting a conference to discuss the quality and length of homework assignments.
Should parents help with homework? Yes-if it is clearly productive to do so, such as calling out spelling words or checking a math problem that won’t prove. No-if it is something the child can clearly handle himself and learn from the process. And help and support should always be calmly and cheerfully given. Grudging help is worse than no help at all! Read directions, or check over math problems after your child has completed the work. Remember to make positive comments – you don’t want your child to associate homework with fights at home. Model research skills by involving your child in planning a family trip. Help your child locate your destination on a map or atlas. Use traditional encyclopedia or a CD-ROM to find information about the place you will visit; try the Internet or books in the library.
How best to handle report cards? To save shocks and upsets, gently discuss from time to time “how things are going at school- with your child. Something casual, such as “How did the math test go?” “How did you do on the history report?” “How’s your science project coming along? Need any help?” are questions that aren’t “third degree” but indicate interest. Find out if it is a policy at your child’s school to send out “warning notices” when work isn’t going well. Generally, such notices require the parent’s signature to verify that the parent has, indeed, been alerted. This is the time to contact the teacher of the course, along with your child, to learn what the difficulty may be. If such notices aren’t sent, then grades on projects and reports and from tests may be the sole source of information short of what your child wishes to share. Be tuned in to statements such as “He’s an awful teacher,” “She goes too fast,” etc. This may be the child’s way of indicating frustration in understanding content or lack of study time with the subject. However, be cautious in contacting teachers without your child’s approval or interest. It may disrupt good feelings between you and make you seem to be interfering and spying.
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Step 1: Ya Gotta Have a Plan
Sit down with your kids and lay out expectations now, when the school year is starting, rather than waiting until problems arise. “Two or three goals is plenty, and you'll get better results if your child helps decide them,” says Alexandra Mayzler, director of New York City—based Thinking Caps Tutoring and author of Tutor in a Book: Better Grades as Easy as 1-2-3.
Ask: What were your child's stumbling blocks last year? Maybe homework time was running into bedtime, so agree on an earlier start time. Did your child resist reading? Work on ways to make it fun—maybe set up a reading tent under your dining room table. Review your child's homework goals again in October, and perhaps once more in January, says Mayzler. Adjust your plan as you go, letting your child take as much ownership of the process as possible.
Step 2: Get in the Groove
“All the research says the single best way to improve your child's homework performance—and bring more peace to your home—is to insist on a daily schedule or routine,” says Ann Dolin, who is also the author of Homework Made Simple: Tips, Tools, and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework. In some homes, that means doing it right after school; for others, it can mean waiting until after dinner if your child is the type who needs to expend some energy before he dives back into the books.
Dolin recommends giving all kids at least 30 minutes to have a snack and unwind, with one caveat: “That half-hour break really shouldn't involve anything with a screen—television, e-mail, or video games—or you may have trouble getting kids off,” she adds.
Giving kids a half-hour break between after-school activities and homework is a smart idea, too. “Sports or after-school care isn't really a break. Kids need to let down a little at home before launching into homework,” she says. If your child goes to a babysitter or aftercare program, make a deal that while he's there he'll work on one assignment—something easy he can do even with distractions—every day before he gets home so he has less work later.
The key is to be consistent about the routine. Take a few weeks before homework gets heavy to try different approaches and see what works best, then stick to it.
What about weekends? Everyone deserves a break on Fridays, of course. But pick a regular time during the weekend for homework. After some experimenting, D'nece Webster of Portland, OR, found that her son Alex, 7, is at his best on Sunday mornings. “He can finish in thirty minutes what might take him two hours on a weekend afternoon,” says Webster.
Step 3: Know When to Get Your Child Extra Help
If your kid is truly stuck on a homework assignment, don't make the common mistake of trying to reteach the information. Your goal is not to become your child's study buddy. Plus, your approach might be too different from the teacher's. “Imagine being a kid learning long division for the first time. You don't understand what your teacher is saying, and your parents teach you another method. When you get back to school, you're bound to be even more confused,” says mom and former teacher Laura Laing of Baltimore.
Instead, send an e-mail or note to the teacher asking her to please explain the material to your child again. If your child is a fourth-grader or older, have him write the note or talk to the teacher. It's important that he learns how to speak up for himself. The teacher will likely have office hours earmarked for those who need help. Also ask her about specific websites (many school textbooks now have practice sites kids can use in conjunction with the material in the book) or check out an online tutoring site like growingstars.com or tutor.com, which also has apps for the iPad, iPhone, and iPod Touch.
Step 4: Pick the Right Spot
Some kids do best with a desk set up in their bedroom so they can work independently; others want to be smack in the middle of the kitchen while you cook dinner. Mayzler recommends letting kids choose their preferred study spot. If your child focuses better lounging on a couch or the floor, “I say let them do it,” she notes. Wherever your child does homework, keep it distraction-free—no TV, video games, or loud siblings playing nearby. “It's ideal if you can set a quiet family work time, when younger kids color or do other ‘homework-like’ tasks and you do paperwork or reading of your own,” Mayzler adds.
Step 5: Try Not to Be So Freaking Helpful!
Of course, it's okay—and actually necessary—to sit with 5-or 6-year-olds while they do homework. However, your goal should be to help less over time and move physically farther from where your child works. Laura Laing and her partner, Gina Foringer, make a point of staying out of the room where their daughter, Zoe, 11, does homework. That way, Zoe is encouraged to think through her work on her own before asking a parent for help. Even when Zoe asks a question, Laing often responds with more questions instead of answers. “I'll ask ‘What do you think?’ or ‘How do you think you can come to the answer?’” says Laing. Zoe often works out her own solution by talking it through with her mom.
When it comes to proofing a homework assignment, less is definitely better. Check a few answers to ensure that your child understands what's she's doing, but don't go over the entire page. After all, your child's teacher needs an accurate measure of whether she really understands the work.
Step 6: Make 'Em Pay
Although you may feel guilty at first, it's smart to have a one-strike rule when it comes to forgetting homework. If your child leaves her assignment (or lunch, gym clothes, or other items, for that matter) at home and calls, begging you to bring it to school, bail her out, say, only once each grading period. For many kids, just one missed recess (or whatever the teacher's policy is for not turning in homework) usually improves their memory, says Cathy Vatterott, Ph.D., associate professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of Rethinking Homework. But chronically disorganized kids may need more hand-holding. “Help your child figure out what part of his ‘return homework’ chain is broken,” says Vatterott. “Does he routinely leave homework on the dining room table? Does he forget some assignments because they're in a different folder?” Create a “Homework Checklist” on the computer and post it near his usual study space.
Step 7: Push Back on Busywork
Vatterott and other educators are now advocating for changes in the way homework is assigned and used in the United States (requiring teachers to prove the usefulness of assignments, discouraging teachers from grading homework, and more). She encourages parents to do so, too. “Good homework helps kids cement what they've learned, but it isn't busywork, isn't given in extreme amounts, and definitely doesn't require parents to become substitute teachers at home,” Vatterott says. A few caveats:
Mom and Dad shouldn't do homework
If work comes home with “directions for parents,” Vatterott suggests letting the teacher and possibly the principal know that you, unfortunately, aren't in class this year (some gentle humor helps!), so you won't be building a replica of a human cell or a California mission, or whatever is required. A project can be a fun way for parents and kids to bond, but if you feel like it's taking up too much of your time, it probably is.
Watch for overload
If your third-grader is spending an hour and a half on just her math homework, for instance, that's way too much. “Keep track of her time for several days, then talk to the teacher,” suggests Dolin. Sometimes teachers honestly underestimate how long an assignment will take. If your child routinely works long hours because she's struggling, also talk to the teacher. But if she seems to be slaving over homework because she's a perfectionist, you may need to discuss a reasonable amount of time to devote to an assignment and then clock her.