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The Right Way to Help with Homework

Homework-Balancing Strategies
The following strategies for long-term assignments will help you balance your role in the homework equation. For students in grades three and above, try the following:

  • Assign jobs. Ask the teacher to divide project tasks into "parent actions and child actions," says Wineburg. For example, parents might be responsible for library runs or saving egg crates and Olivia for reading, typing, and drawing. Specific directions from the teacher equalize the homework equation when you can point to the assignment sheet and say, "Sorry, sweetie, typing is not one of my jobs."

  • Use examples. When she hasn't a clue what to make out of recyclables, give her examples she can identify with. This is especially important for third graders who "don't think in the abstract," says Robert Pianta, Professor of Education at the University of Virginia's Curry School of Education, in Charlottesville, Virginia. Link plastic soda bottle rings around her wrist and ask her to identify her favorite type of jewelry. Hold up an empty gallon can of olive oil and ask, "Doesn't this look like daddy's head?" Or make a snaky line of soup cans on the floor and ask her what reptile it resembles. Don't spoon-feed ideas like mashed peas. Instead, give her visual and sensory examples to help her make her own creative links between what she knows and what could be.

  • Keep the target in sight. Pianta suggests three easy questions to coax Olivia through long-term assignments. Use them especially for students in grades three through six. What is the target we're trying to hit here? What are the steps to get to the target? When do we need to do them? "This trains them in important tasks of targeting, evaluating, discussing and scheduling," he says. If she can't put ideas in words, have her draw them. Avoid saying, "Why don't you try this?" says Wineburg. Repeat target questions whenever she loses her way. Or you lose yours.

  • Know how long it should take. When homework assignments are correctly gauged to Olivia's age and developing skills, they should take a corresponding amount of time to complete. If she's too slow or too fast for a third grader – taking forty minutes instead of twenty or completing an assignment in under ten minutes – talk to her teacher about adjusting her nightly assignments to better fit her abilities. According to the US Department of Education, most teachers agree on the following age-matched nightly homework periods:

    First through third grade: 20 minutes
    Fourth through sixth grade: 20-40 minutes
    Seventh grade and above: 2-2 1/2 hours per night

  • See how the teacher does it. Though this online book is written for teachers, Helping Your Students with Homework by Nancy Paulu provides some excellent "behind the scenes" tips on how parents or tutors can help with homework without doing all the work. Log on at www.ed.gov/pubs/HelpingStudents/title.html.

  • Fit the space to the kid. Often overlooked but crucial to effective work production is the space where Olivia completes her assignments for school. The better suited to her size, age, and needs the area is, the more comfortable and productive she will be. Consider her furniture first of all. If she likes working at the kitchen table, use a footstool and booster seat to give her the ideal ninety-degree angle for her back and knees. Better yet, get a table and chair scaled for her size. Then consider her lighting. Ceiling light provides wide-space illumination for large projects, but smaller lights placed on either side of her worktable are essential for close work and allow her to focus without strain on her eyes. Arrange supplies in easy-to-find locations close to her work area.

  • Consider noise factors. Though some kids can work effectively with the TV, vacuum cleaner, and a baby brother all blaring at once, most kids concentrate better on assignments when the noise volume is low. During homework periods, turn down, turn off, or remove the noisemakers to another room.

  • Set study hours. Show Olivia that academic work is an important priority in your house by establishing a study hour each night. Forty-five to sixty minutes would be a comfortable period for a third grader. Set it to accommodate her energy and hunger levels and after-school activity schedule. In addition to her twenty-minute homework time, add time for reading books, listening to books on tape, or reading aloud to her. Practice keyboarding or Internet search skills. Play games with multiplication facts or practice cursive writing. Setting a study time each night, even for kindergarten students, ingrains good study habits at an early age.

  • Promote independence. During study hour, don't do all her academic activities together. Make like a teacher and give her an assignment with a time limit. If she's struggling with cursive writing, for example, after ascertaining that she knows how to make a small a properly, ask her to make twenty-five of them. Tell her you'll check back in five minutes. Then evaluate her work by making small stars or circling her best attempts. When she's ready, move on to the next letter, then on to short words. Extend the assignment time gradually each night. Or set a regular schedule for her study hour, one that she can maintain even when she's under the care of a babysitter. She might do her twenty-minute homework assignment first, then spend twenty minutes practicing handwriting. The last twenty minutes can be spent silently reading her new library book. Breaking work time into small parcels optimizes concentration, and a variety of tasks helps sustain interest in schoolwork. Putting a clock, with hands, not digital, on the wall in her bedroom encourages self-management and reinforces time-telling skills.

  • Ask first. Don't assume that Olivia needs, wants, or welcomes your help on every assignment. Even when you see her struggling, ask first if she wants assistance or if she's got this one under control. There's nothing more personally fulfilling, even to an eight-year-old, than successfully completing some "hard work" all by herself. Giving her the benefit of the doubt demonstrates your faith in her ability.

  • Assess her work. Use some simple household activities to get a handle on how Olivia processes information, reads, writes, spells, and comprehends. Then share it with her teacher at your next conference. For example, note how she listens to directions and follows them in sequence. Can she locate the orange juice, get a glass from the cabinet, pour it without spilling it, and serve it to her brother, and then do the same thing for herself? By third grade, three-step directions should be getting easier to do. If you leave her a note reminding her to put her library book in her backpack tomorrow, can she read the note and successfully complete the task? Can she leave you a legible and well-spelled note all by herself? To check comprehension ability, observe her telephone manners. Can she properly answer the phone, identify herself, listen accurately, understand a message, and convey it to you, whether you are at home or not? Even seemingly simple chores are teeming with skills, so use them to learn volumes, every day, about how your child learns.

    If one year in third grade wasn't enough when you were eight years old, then pull up a chair and do Olivia's homework for her. Or do only those adult jobs that balance the homework equation, like designating a special project area where long-term assignments can develop undisturbed. Steadily pitch a target question or two. And when you feel the homework balance shifting in the wrong direction, use your eyes and your common sense. Step back and ask yourself an honest question. Could a typical eight-year-old turn paper towel tubes and gallon spring water bottles into a three-person igloo with a wraparound porch?

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From Teacher Says by Evelyn Porreca Vuko. Copyright © 2004. Used by arrangement with Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

If you'd like to buy this book, visit amazon.com or click on the book cover.


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