“I’m about to strangle my eldest daughter over the daily homework drama! Does anyone have tips for getting a highly distractible child to focus on her homework? She doesn’t seem to have problems staying focused in class. It’s taking her three times as long to get it done than it should because she spends so much time whining, crying and dramatically running to her room and slamming the door. Hoping to avoid murder, but I’m not totally ruling it out. Help!”
I received 61 messages in response! Another friend, similarly frustrated, took up the topic on her Facebook page as well and got the same overwhelming response. Clearly, I struck a nerve! Before we dig into the meat of the homework issue and the comments I received, though, I’d like to walk you through a typical weekday afternoon at our house.
Biggie and Smalls get off the bus around 3:15 pm, slightly over eight hours after having been picked up in the morning. That’s a long day for a kid. Amazingly, they almost always arrive in a good mood, happy to be home and excited to tell me about their day. For Smalls, this good mood tends to stick. With Biggie, though, it’s a whole other story. It’s time for afternoon drama at MommyEnnui’s house!
The girls sit down, have a snack, give me any paperwork in the “keep at home” section of their folders and then give me an overview of the homework they have for the day. Smalls is only in kindergarten so her daily homework is fairly predictable and minimal. This, of course, pisses Biggie off. No matter how often I say, “She’s just in kindergarten. You didn’t have much homework in kindergarten either,” the disparity in their workload strikes Biggie as fundamentally unfair. As a typical first-born child, she is an vocal crusader for fairness and justice.
Biggie’s homework varies. She usually has a few sheets of math, “Double sided!” she’ll point out. On top of that, she’ll have a page or two of grammar or reading comprehension. Occasionally, her teacher will assign a larger project for which her class is given a week or more to complete. Every single time I ask Biggie how much homework she has that day, she responds with some dramatic exaggeration and then starts whining about how she’ll never be able to get it all done. I try to help her break it down into smaller chunks because I know, just like me, she gets overwhelmed and discouraged when she has a load of work to do and tries to take it all in at once. Unfortunately, this is rarely successful in getting her out of her funk.
Our kitchen table is homework central. I either join the girls at the table or putter around the kitchen while they work. Smalls needs a little gentle prodding to stay on task and get her homework done, but it’s generally painless. However, Biggie, having just started her homework and before ever asking me for help, will invariably get up, yell, “I can’t do this!” and run into her room to sulk. As this is merely part of her afternoon ritual, I give her a few minutes to work through it and calm down. She eventually slinks back or I lure her out of her room to sit down with me and walk through the problems that she’s stuck on. She almost always understands the concepts of what she’s supposed to be learning. But, after a long day at school, she’s simply too exhausted to pay attention to details such as “carrying the one” (or regrouping as it’s now called) and showing her work seems, to her, to be just more busy work.
After she is done with a sheet of work, I’ll check it for her and, if she has any problems incorrect, I point them out and have her try again, giving guidance if she needs it. If she’s feeling particularly ornery that day, she’ll tell me I’m the one who is wrong and that her answer is correct. I usually resist the urge to yell, “I’m a 44 year-old lawyer! I know how to subtract!!!” Sometimes I’m not so strong.
It doesn’t help that Biggie tends to be fidgety and easily distracted. The child is rarely ever sitting on both butt cheeks at once! She’s constantly up and out of her seat, telling me an unrelated story, arguing with Smalls, reading my computer screen if I’m working on something, playing with whatever random thing is on the table and on and on. More than once, she’s gotten up to go to the bathroom only for me to find her still there fifteen minutes later, deep in a chapter book. This is when I start getting really frustrated. I don’t like homework any more than she does, so I’d like to get it over with as soon as possible. The constant dilly-dallying makes me crazy.
When Smalls finishes her one worksheet and gets to leave the table to go play, the Biggie drama gets cranked up a few notches. Her daily mantras include, “You don’t understand!,” “It’s not fair!” and “I hate homework!” Every so often when I’m trying to explain something to her, she’ll refuse to listen, instead sputtering, “I…I…I just…I…can’t…I’m just so stressed!” at which time she’ll run back into her bedroom, slam the door and hide under her blankets. Meryl Streep’s got nothing on Biggie. Some of the most moving dramatic performances of the last decade have taken place at my kitchen table.
The thing that kills me the most is that this is the child whose teacher described as “perfect” recently in a meeting with her speech teacher (well, perfect except for not being able to pronounce her Rs correctly, to be precise). Her grades are very good and I say this only to make the point that she knows the material and is a naturally bright, motivated kid. And, while Ad Man and I are proud of her, we’re both far more interested in her developing curiosity and a love of learning than we are in letter grades. She’s not getting pressure from us and she is engaged and well-behaved at school. So why does she freak out at home and have daily meltdowns over homework?
Does any of this sound familiar to you? As evidenced by my recent flaming-hot Facebook post, many of my friends with kids can relate. Just knowing that I’m not the only one dealing with serious homework drama did make me feel a bit better, but that still doesn’t solve the problem or keep me from seriously needing a stiff drink at 3:20 pm every day.
I’ve tried a number of things to help Biggie stay focused and avoid frustration. Last year, I tried letting the girls have 30 minutes of television time before starting in on homework, but that just lead to arguing and pleading for more TV. This year, we’ve made a bright-line rule: no TV at all during the week. This has actually worked very well and the girls no longer even ask about TV or screen time on school days.
We’ve also tried having Biggie do her homework in different locations. She has a desk in her bedroom and it sometimes helps to have her do her work in there with the door closed to minimize distractions. Other times, I’ll check in on her after 20 or 30 minutes and she’s reading something unrelated to homework or yelling out the window to her best friend next door. When the weather is nice, the girls will sometimes do homework on our back deck or on a blanket in the front yard just for a change of pace. Occasionally, this works beautifully, other times, not so much. We’ve tried playing calming music, we’ve tried energetic music and we’ve tried silence. Different things work on certain days, but nothing works every day.
When we’ve had a particularly rough day, I’ve also tried putting the decision whether to do homework completely in her hands. I’ve said, “I know you don’t want to do your homework and I can’t make you do it. It’s your decision. If you really don’t want to do it, you can put it away and talk to Mrs. H about it in the morning.” So far, every time I’ve done this, she has voluntarily come back to finish her work by the end of the evening. This is one tactic that I know I should explore further, but she’s still only eight years old, so I don’t think I can relinquish all decisions regarding homework to her.
My friends, a few of whom are teachers themselves, responded to my Facebook post with a number of other tips. Some have suggested getting her an exercise ball to sit on or giving her another object to fidget with while she’s doing her homework. This has been shown to help antsy and distractible kids focus on the task at hand. So, Biggie is now the proud owner of a lime green exercise ball. The jury is still out on it, but I’ll post an update and let you know how it goes. Others recommended sending her to an after-school program or hiring a homework helper so I don’t have to deal with the BS. As wonderful as that sounds, as long as I’m still a stay-at-home mom, I think I’ll resist the temptation to outsource this portion of my parenting duties.
One friend recommended a shock collar, but made sure to include a “just kidding!” in her message just in case the stress had caused me to completely lose touch with reality. I appreciated her note of caution.
The overwhelming response I got, however, was that homework sucks. It stresses kids out, takes away from play and family time and kids get far too much of it. In fact, homework has become a bit of a controversial subject over the past few years. Numerous schools in our neighborhood held screenings, or at least sent their teachers to a screening, of the documentary Race to Nowhere a few years ago.
Homework was a hot topic at the screening I attended. The film reported on a 2006 study on the effects of homework by Harris Cooper which showed no correlation between homework and learning in elementary school and only a small correlation in middle and high schools. Instead, too much homework was correlated with increases in rates of depression, lack of engagement with school, weight gain and sleep deprivation. (And that’s just for the parents! Har, har.) So, why are our schools still requiring ridiculous amounts of homework for kids as young as five years old?
I, for one, would love to know the answer to that question and I know I’m not alone. If homework is useless, why am I spending my afternoons nagging, cajoling, arguing with, and sometimes even bribing, my daughter to finish her homework when we could both be using that time in far more productive ways?
I’d really like to hear your thoughts on this topic. Do you think our kids are getting too much homework? Not enough? Do you also spend afternoons locked in a battle with your strong-willed child trying to get him or her to do homework? For those of you who have helpful tips for getting through the afternoon grind with less drama, I beg you to share them with me! If we don’t make some changes in our house soon, I may have to resort to that shock collar and you wouldn’t want that on your conscience, would you?