Reading Time: 6 minutes
Seven-year-old Katie walks though the door, grabs a tight hug from mum and, with added exclamation and grown-up charm, reports on her day. “Mum, I have homework. I have to read a whole book and know all the words on all eight pages for tomorrow!” Katie is ready to start her homework immediately.
Ryan, who is in the same class at school, has a similar assignment but his first greeting to his mum is different. “Mum, I am so thirsty. Can I go and play?” Passing a glass of water to her panting child, who has been running from the bus stop, his caring mother asks, “How was school? Do you have any homework?” Ryan stops. He looks up at his mum, then down at the dusty school bag and hesitantly laments, “Yeah, I have to read a book. But can I do that later?” With energy he adds, “I want to go back out to play now. OK?”
Kevin’s reaction to the homework question is different yet again. Kevin empties his backpack, places his lunchbox containers in the kitchen sink, empties the water bottle and gently slides a slender book onto the counter. His mother notes, “Kevin, I have never seen this book before. Are we supposed to read it?” Somewhat surprised at the sight of the book, Kevin looks at his mum. His hesitant words are, “Yeah, I guess so.” In a quiet voice he asks, “Can I just go and play with my DS?”
“Knowing what to say to young children about homework is not easy.”
These three children are in the same class at school with the same teacher. Yet each has brought home a different feeling about the school day and the assignment that is due tomorrow. If you were the parent of Katie, Ryan or Kevin, what would you say next? “Yes, go play”? Or, “No, homework comes first”? Knowing what to say to young children about homework is not easy.
Part of the difficulty comes from the fact that not all adults value homework in the same way. Some of us will see a school book and want to get right to the assigned reading. We know that completing the task today means one item fewer on the checklist for tomorrow morning.
For other parents, homework is a window that opens a conversation about what happened during the school day. These parents want to know more of what their child has been thinking and doing while away from home. They want to share the child’s view of her world and think homework will help them get there.
Other parents might look upon this homework assignment as an assessment of the child’s progress at school. They think to themselves: “If my child is being graded on this homework, I had better help. I need to be certain that my child does this assignment, and does it well.”
There’s some truth to each reaction. Taking a longer view of the role of homework over the years of schooling – beyond any one night’s work – we might be pleased at the variety of assignments offered and the many ways that parents can use them as talking points with their children.
If your child is in the early days of pre-school, she may present you with a colourful painting on well-rolled and not-yet-crumpled butcher paper. This “take-home painting” is a first step towards homework awareness. Adults who want to know more about what the child is thinking can appreciate the painting with their child. Ask how she chose the colours or what she was thinking about while she painted. Listen with care to the flow of words. Nod as the story unfolds. When given the full attention of a caring adult, a young child might have lots to say about what happened before the red and yellow paint got anywhere near the paper.
“Adults who want to know more about what the child is thinking can appreciate the painting with their child.”
A week later, looking at her latest painting, a father stares at many overlapping blue and green swirls. He asks six questions on how the green mixes with the blue. But, there is no comment from his daughter. The curious dad tilts his head and looks again deep into the swirls. Katie says, “Daddy, I just liked the colours. That’s all; there is no story; I just liked the colours.” She understands the question, and understands your interest. Appreciate the candid comment. Children study us as much as we might study them.
As the months pass, your child’s paintings are posted on the door of the refrigerator, along the walls of the hall and sent to grandparents who live far away. Over the many layers of butcher paper and other projects she’s brought into your home, you will notice the increased skill development in hand-eye coordination. And your child will see the way you react to the painting, the project, the book or the request of the week.
Days at school are a combination of challenges and adventures for kids. Let them unwind their stories in the safety of your company. While you watch their growth, you might not be asked to help with specific assignments every day. But if you have shown that you are ready to listen, and if you are not too pushy about exactly how the assignment should be completed, then your children will talk to you about their homework and about their day at school.
Top tips for helping with homework:
- Kids love routines. In your own home establish a time and place for homework. If you allow an hour for play, then stick to the time plan: after one hour, call your child to the homework place. The steadiness of the set time and the physical place help your child to know that homework time is an integral part of the family routine.
- Be available. Monitor your own time so that you can be available as the key resource person for your child during homework time. As you both settle into the set place and time, be enthusiastic but not overwhelming. Sit near your child but do not look over her shoulder every moment. This is a time for you to do your own reading, puzzles or paperwork. By sitting still and being involved in something that uses your mind, you provide a role model of a serious student. Keep your eyes on your own work, but be near enough to your child to be ready for a question. Do not talk on the telephone or text, or your child will know immediately that she and her homework are not as important as the person on the other end of your phone. If you want enthusiasm from kids on homework, you have to walk the talk of serious intent.
- When your Katie or Ryan looks bewildered or asks for help, then look up, move closer and be ready to hear what he or she has to say. Look at your child and not the printed page, listen to her analysis of the issue and then ask what she has accomplished. When a child gets to talk out a question, sometimes the verbalisation itself may help her sort her own tangled thoughts. What she needs most is not a solution from you, but someone to listen as she thinks through her own next steps.
- If the confusion persists, it is time for the parent to ask: “May I read your book?” or, “Can I take a look at the assignment?” Asking permission shows respect for the homework and for whatever parts of the assignment the child has already completed. Children will offer more information to parents about school and about homework when they know that the parent respects the integrity of their efforts.
- Sometimes the help that is needed from parents is simply a verbal nudge to keep going. “Look, you have read four pages, only two more to go,” or, “You have done really well on those two questions; I will stay here while you finish the last three.” Encourage what is positive; qualify what yet has to be done; announce that the end is in sight.
- When there are obvious errors in following directions, parents do need to offer constructive critique. Together with your child, take time to read the instructions aloud. Ask your child if she thinks there is a difference in what is being asked and what she has done so far. Most often, the child will see for herself that she has misunderstood. Help her to sort out how to best save what is good about her work and how she might re-do the balance of what is asked.
- If there is an obvious misunderstanding of the assignment, or if you sense that your child truly is not ready for this level of work, it is probably wise to close the books for the evening. Send a note to the teacher the next day. A telephone chat or an exchange of emails might resolve the concern.
- If homework assignments have been particularly frustrating for your child, think about ways to highlight her success in getting homework done. You might prepare a large checklist or calendar. Post this on the refrigerator door or over the child’s desk. Each day, when the homework is finished, your child gets to add one more gold star or a sticker to the checklist or the calendar. It’s fun to keep track of successes.
- Finally , know that in the primary grades the role of homework is often a basis for parent-child conversations on what is going on at school. Look forward to those conversations as they describe your child’s view of the school day and how her interests and potential skills are emerging.
Rosann Santora Kao, PhD, is a counsellor at Hong Kong International School.