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Have You Done Your Homework?

I hear alot about how hard it is as a parent to keep up with all the necessities and expectations.  Many peopleoften feel they can't keep up with all the demands imposed on them, on top of their own priorities. 


One issue I see alot of, and that I think needs to be changed, is the issue of parents being involved in their kids' homework.  There seem to be a number of reasons for this.  Among those that I've heard are: "My child doesn't understand the material or the instructions," and  "The assignment requires that parents participate."


Now, I'm not a teacher, and I am aware that we are in stiff competition with countries like Japan, but homework should not be at a level that is beyond a child's current ability.  There are lessons that homework is supposed to teach, and other lessons that homework should not be trying to teach.  


I don't think homework should cover new material, for example.  That's what the classroom is for, where teachers can adapt the material to each child's individual learning style and respond in the moment, thereby making learning something that is associated with nurturing and success, rather than isolation and frustration.   The classroom is the arena for Vygotsky's "scaffolding," the art of structuring lessons that are just beyond, but within reach, of a child's current ability.  In this way, with a supportive and attentive teacher or aide, children can reach out and take risks more securely, and thus develop a love of learning. 


Homework should be a review of the day's material, and just enough to reinforce the lesson.   With few exceptions, homework should be minimal.  A worksheet with 6 math problems on it will do the job just as well as one with 20 problems. You don't need to rub their nose in it for children to master the task.  Parents' involvement should amount to no more than occasional help and perhaps a quick review and a signature.  In this way, homework teaches the child valuable lessons not taught in school; initiative, problem solving, time management, self-sufficiency, and accountability.  It also exercises the neurons responsible for short term memory.   Assigning homework that leaves a child continually dependent on an adult causes a child to feel frustrated with themselves and/or the parent or the assignment, and promotes a sense of inadequacy, while assigning homework that is within a child's scope of ability promotes a child's confidence in their ability and increases tolerance for frustration.  


Parents' involvement should be limited to an occasional assist, initiated by the child, and as much as possible, the challenge handed back to the child. That means instructions should be on the child's level of development not the adult's.  I've seen instructions that require an adult's ability to organize and plan that are far beyond that of a second grader.  Again, homework should be within the full capability of most children.  Almost all children will need some help at some point, but this should be minimal.  Homework should be just hard enough to be lightly challenging for the average child, but not stretch a child's abilities beyond what they can comfortably achieve.   Allow the child to deal with some level of frustration, but not so much that it's overwhelming.   Checking of homework should involve observing that the assignments were done, not that the child has done it correctly.  Then, if the worksheets correspond to the homework list and they appear to be completed, any mistakes or shortcomings in the assignment should be addressed by the teacher.  


The child, not their parents, should be responsible for their own success.  I say this with the assumption that this presumes parents are fulfilling their responsibilities to make sure their child has what they need to attend and participate in school; secure home environment, proper nutrition and basic needs and ensuring that their child gets to school.   But that is where I think parents' responsibility for their child's success should end, with few exceptions.  


 Homework is an excellent opportunity to foster many of the "soft skills" that are essential for success; initiative, confidence in one's own ability to solve problems, and being accountable.  These skills are more essential to success, both in career and personal life, than what major one chooses in college, or what GPA they graduate with.  


The other reason to not send children home with homework for their parents is that, in a subtle way, it undermines adult authority and shifts the sense of responsibility for the homework off the child and on to the parent.  It conveys the message that the parent is on an equal level with the child, which is not accurate.  It blurs the distinction between adults and children.  I will be happy to write a separate blog about this issue, but an extensive discussion of this is beyond the scope of this blog.  Suffice it to say that certain boundaries need to be in place for children to learn certain interpersonal and emotion regulation and impulse control skills, and that these are more important than a high GPA or perfect completion of homework assignments.  


I think the role of parents in their child's schooling should be in ensuring their child is attending and doing homework, and behaving appropriately.  Parents are responsible for influences on the home front, while teachers are responsible for influences in the classroom.  The interface between parents and teachers should be in verifying a child's record of attendance, classroom participation, discipline and homework completion, so that the child is held consistently accountable.  Applications of this include signing off on homework assignment completion, communication between parents and teachers on issues o learning and behavior, and cooperation between parents and teachers.  For teachers, this means communicating with parents in a nonjudgmental way, about any learning or behavior problems, and discussing with the parent for a mutually involved approach. For parents, it means  being supportive of teachers' concerns, and reinforcing a teacher's requirements at home.  For example, if a teacher brings to your attention a problem with your child's behavior, or not turning in assignments, don't be "that parent" who deflects blame for your child's problem on everything but your child.  You need to follow through and perhaps issue consequences for your child's misbehavior or failure to comply with rules.  It might mean withdrawal of privileges until a child is caught up, or stopped the problem behavior.  This is how children learn respect for legitimate authority, learn impulse control, and learn how to be accountable, and this is how to free your teacher up so that they can focus on learning, not on discipline.   


I would ask teachers to consider what I have written here.  Keep the size and quantity of homework assignments to a minimum, and the content on reviewing material already taught as opposed to new material, and leave parents out of the assignment.  Many of the reasons for problems in our educational system have little to do with money or classroom size, and more about our collective view of the role of parents, children and educators and the blurring of boundaries between them.

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