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To Homework or Not to Homework…

…that is the question!

For so many of my mom-friends, homework is the dreaded part of the school year and often causes quite a bit of stress. Many of them spend hours making sure their kids get all of their homework done. It causes much turmoil and strains relationships as they get a lot of pushback from their kids. The same goes for somehow motivating their kids to get good grades. And enough sleep. And to get up on time. And yet, nothing improves. These kids continue to push back.

I would love to share what has worked wonders for me in regard to homework in reducing stress, preserving relationships with my kids, reflecting and exhibiting trust in them and allowing them to be self-motivated, self-guided and self-starters. As with many other aspects of our lives, I looked ahead to what the end goal is and started from that vantage point and trajectory. I had a choice: did I want to spend hours beside multiple children each night making sure they were doing their homework, or did I want them to honor these commitments themselves without my constant nagging and input?

I chose the latter course, and that is what I have gotten. My stressed-out friends somehow (consciously or not) chose the first option and that is what they do. At their request, I have shared with many of these frazzled friends what I did to choose the latter course, and for those who have followed, although it may have taken patience and perseverance in some cases for their kids to adjust to this new way of doing things, eventually their kids adapted well to the change with very positive results.

My overall perspective is that the most important subject kids can learn is reading. Why? When they are well-read, they automatically learn spelling, vocabulary and grammar. They are empowered to learn any subject that interests them. So I encourage them to read. Most of my children have not enjoyed reading until their teen years, but I read to them and with them, and I continually read in front of them. My kids will often see me reading, studying, and sharing what I'm learning. Beyond this, it is most important that they learn to be self-motivated in their learning, self-guided and self-starters. These skills are much more important to me than learning any other single subject in school.

So with that perspective in mind, here are the 4 simple things I did:

1. Set expectations by reflecting trust. I show and tell my kids often that we are a family of people who love to learn. With my words, my tone, my attitude, my body language and my facial expressions, I try to exude "you've got this!" We love to learn and we make sure we understand what we are learning. Assignments and homework have a purpose: to help us practice what we are learning. Once we understand something, we are able to explain it and easily do several problems without a hiccup. If we don't understand something, we ask questions of our teacher. We stay after school and get help. We let our parents know we are struggling. And we work together with our teacher until we understand it. I let them know that as their parent, I am always available to help when they get confused, and advocate for them. That it is their responsibility to learn, to ask questions, to stay after school to get help when necessary, and it is their teacher's responsibility to teach them. I am here to facilitate that.

I let my kids know that it is not my job to be a homework referee. In fact, when my kids were all in elementary school, I went so far as to have an ink stamp made of my signature so that my kids could use it to "sign off" their own reading and homework assignments once they completed them (at one time I was apparently expected to sign for homework 35+ different times in one night. I didn't sign up for that!). Knowing that I won't take on the job, my kids understand that this is their job. And I trust them to do it! This empowers them to be self-motivated and self-starting. As I said before, these two skills are much more important for them to learn than any other single subject at school.

2. Create a good relationship with your kids' teachers. I reach out to my kids' teachers at the beginning of the year with a simple email introducing myself and my child- their strengths and challenges, and thanking them for all they do. I let them know I would like to know if they see any red flags. I let them know my expectations of my child. I ask to get to know them and what they expect. I let them know I am there to support them. And I kindly let them know about what I expect.

3. No busy-work policy. When necessary, I let my kids and their teachers know that I expect that homework will serve a purpose and that I do not support homework just for the sake of homework. If homework becomes burdensome or excessive and my kids can prove to me that they grasp a subject, I will reach out to their teacher. I encourage them to complete as much work as they can at school, and to appreciate the practice the homework gives them. But when it is truly too much, I will advocate for them. This motivates my kids to listen in class and quickly understand the material because they know I am advocating for less to zero homework, leaving them time for other things they love. And oh how this puts me, their teacher and them all on the same team, and this is a game-changer.

Both the National PTA and National Education Association suggest that kids shouldn’t be doing more than 10 minutes of homework per night per grade level. Particularly with the A/B schedule my kids have, they spend 80 minutes in each class, which is plenty of time for a teacher to introduce a subject and allow them to practice and complete assignments. When kids are asked to do homework, they are surrendering something else important, such as time with friends, hobbies, play, and creative time. So it can become very frustrating very quickly if they are making that time investment and it doesn’t pay off in terms of better understanding, better grades or better test scores.

Some teachers do assign homework beyond what is needed for your child to understand, practice and grasp the subject and it becomes nothing more than busy-work for them. A teacher certainly cannot monitor what works well for every child in their classroom, and in my experience, they are happy for the communication and relationship we have. When this occurs, I kindly let these teachers know what is happening with that particular child. Knowing that I am confident my child understand the subject, the teacher and I reach an understanding. Sometimes is has been that I will sign it off, or that they complete every-other problem, or we work out something similar. I have addressed this busy-work issue several times with each of my children over the years, and never have I had a teacher contradict me on this policy. On the contrary, in my experience the teachers have been accommodating and helpful in doing what is best for my child. Were there to be an issue, I know I have options as a parent and I would certainly explore these from switching teachers to dropping the class and doing it online or some other way. My overall goal is to kindle in my children a love of learning, and busy-work incites the opposite and serves no one.

4. Allow freedom for how, where and when. Flexibility as to where, how and when to fit homework into their schedule is something my kids know best about themselves. I honor that as long as they understand the subjects and keep their grades up.

When my kids who struggle in different ways have gotten behind in class or failed to do their homework, I ask them what is causing it. Sometimes they don't know at first. I ask them how I can help. Together we come up with a solution. It takes creativity and a willingness to think outside the box. No two kids are the same. I really allow them to take responsibility for their choices and the outcomes. And this training starts young, before school "counts," so that they can develop the habits and other coping mechanisms they need individually for education to work for them.

Now, before you say "this will never work with MY kids...," I empathize with parents of children who struggle with learning disabilities, or other disorders or health issues. Mental and emotional and physical or learning disabilities and disorders throw in a lot of challenges. It can be more difficult for these kids to stay on task or to have the same expectations as other kids. Still, the same reflection of trust and empowerment is vitally important for these kids to be successful both in academics and in life! (Think Anne Sullivan Macy & Helen Keller!) I have a couple of kids who struggle in some of these areas as well. And although this hands-off approach has taken more patience and perseverance with them, it has paid off in the long run. After all, I am training them ultimately to do these types of things on their own: get themselves out of bed (I have never had to wake my kids up to go to school either and yes, I have many friends who are still waking their high school kids!), get themselves to a job, learn about things they are interested in, and love to learn throughout their lives.

One of my kids was not getting themselves up and was missing the bus daily, despite knowing my expectations. After inquiring about it, we decided they were honestly too tired to get up and get to the bus on time, no matter how hard they tried. They were as upset and concerned about it as I was. At the time, they were going through puberty and experiencing some depression and anxiety. We decided together to drop their first period class on A-days. This allowed them to sleep in a little longer every-other day, and on B-days they were able to get themselves up on time and to the bus. Every day had just been too much! They were young enough that not having a first class period every other day wasn't going to affect their long-term education. By the next semester, they had developed new habits, adjusted to a new schedule and didn't want to miss the first class period anymore. From then on, they got up on their own and made the bus every day.

As I have exercised these principles with my kids, I have had no need to figure out a carrot vs. stick structure or hand out positive or negative reinforcement under duress. I haven't had to come up with a points system that cashes in for rewards or spend hours nagging and fighting about homework or grades. And I have 5 kids, each with very different learning styles, personalities, attention spans and interests.

It may take patience and perseverance as you come to reflect trust in your kids with this responsibility. Starting young is key because nothing in school actually "counts" until high school, and by then they have formed wonderful, self-motivating and empowering habits! I invite you to experiment and exercise these tools with your kids!

Many moms have been battling the homework issue ever since modern public education was first introduced in the US and UK in the 1800s. But I have found the battle to be unnecessary! We can instead put our focus and energy into reflecting what we want to see increase, ensuring we’re making an effort to set them up for lifelong success- which means teaching them the empowerment of self-motivation, self-guidance and self- starting.

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