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Personally, I’m not an advocate of homework in primary school. There are many reasons for this, and if you’re interested in this issue Alfie Kohn has written an excellent book called The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing. The book outlines current research that explains why homework doesn’t produce the educational benefits its supporters claim it does.

However, even with my philosophical opposition to homework we’ve sent our children to a school that does expect them to complete homework. From grade three, children are expected to complete on average 15 to 30 minutes of homework each evening. From personal experience, I know that homework can become a battleground between children and parents. Having learned the hard way, I can offer some suggestions on how you may like to manage homework in relation to your primary-school children.

Giving children responsibility

For a long time after our eldest child started doing homework, I was really the one wearing the responsibility for it being completed. I’d check at the start of the week what he had to do and then I’d check throughout the week that it was being done. He didn’t have to worry about remembering to do his homework because I did that for him. It reached the point where if I didn’t remind him it wouldn’t be completed.

It took me a while to realise the problem I’d created. For him to become more responsible about his homework, I needed to step back. I met with his teacher and explained that I’d no longer be checking that he’d completed his homework, and that it might take him some time to get into the practice of remembering it himself. I wanted him to understand that if his homework wasn’t done there would be direct consequences, such as having to complete it at lunchtime. It was an essential part of the learning process for him to understand the consequences of not doing his homework.

My son was incredibly happy about my decision to back off. He’d resented what I saw as ‘checking’, which he saw as nagging. There are still times when he doesn’t hand in his homework or he remembers it only the morning that it’s due. He’s had to endure the consequences of this and it’s a relief for me not to have to be the enforcer. I still take an active interest in his homework and I help him as needed, but I’ve learned not to take responsibility for or nag about it.

Deciding how much help to give

I believe it’s important to be available to assist my kids with their homework questions and requests. We’ve set expectations around this assistance. For example, they can’t expect me to stop immediately and help when I’m in the middle of cooking dinner or when I’m reading bedtime stories to the younger kids. If they need chunks of my time to help them, they have to organise a suitable time with me.

The best way I can help my kids with their homework is not to focus on the content, but on the logical process they should follow to successfully complete it. For example, when our eldest son was in grade six he had to write a speech to present to the class. Before he started, we sat together and documented the actions he should take:

• write a plan

• write the first draft

• write the second draft

• transfer the speech to hand cards

• practise the speech.

Because of his tendency to leave homework to the last minute, we allocated a date to each of these actions so he could spread the workload over the time he had available. Before he started his plan, we spoke about the key elements of a speech — that is, the beginning, middle and end. What he wrote, how he wrote it, and so on was all left to him. My support was restricted to the process he would follow. As he completes more homework tasks like this one, he becomes more familiar with the process and I can step further away.

Designating a homework area (or not!)

Our eldest son has always completed his homework in a variety of places. Sometimes he’d do it at his desk in his room, sometimes on the floor, occasionally at the dining table and other times in our study. This used to drive me crazy. The first tip you read on getting kids to do their homework is almost always to have a designated area for them to complete it. So, with this in mind, I frequently used to ask him to move back to his desk, which would annoy him.

Then, when he was in grade six, I read an article from The New York Times — ‘Forget what you know about good study habits’ — and it made me change my view on having a designated homework area. The article discussed key research findings that showed how changing your study location can actually help improve retention. By making my son move when he was in the middle of his homework, I was interrupting his workflow. My demand also affected his mood towards his homework and it was becoming another source of conflict.

Now I let him complete his homework wherever he wants and he’s much happier. Moreover, there’s been no decrease in the quality of his homework.

I did find, however, that essential study items such as rulers, pencils, sharpeners and glue would end up strewn across the house. To eliminate this we created a homework corner. This is where we keep all the necessary homework items, including the dictionary and thesaurus. We have a tiered filing tray and each child has their own draw for storing their works in progress and stationery. Regardless of where they complete their homework, they have to return their items to the homework corner.

Where kids feel comfortable completing their homework is driven by their personality. My second son operates very differently from his older brother. He always sits at the dining table and finds it frustrating if I’m using the table and he can’t work there. Finding a homework space that suits each child is more important for us than having fixed rules for where homework should be completed.

Making time for homework

When our second son began receiving homework in grade three, the first thing he did was work out how he’d complete it around his after-school activities. He wanted a timetable to follow so he’d know what he had to do each night. I printed out a blank table onto which he could write his homework plan. He fills it in and uses it to manage his homework.

It’s worth noting that my eldest son never did anything like this in his entire time at primary school. This level of homework planning doesn’t necessarily work for all kids, but if you think it would suit your child, then have a look at table 1.

Table 1: grade three homework schedule

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Satisfying those empty tummies

Thirst and hunger can be massive distractions so I make sure my children have had afternoon tea before they start their homework. How quickly the kids get into their homework after school is determined by their individual temperaments. One of my children needs some down time before getting into his homework. Another likes to get into his straight away and have it completed as soon as possible. Allowing each child the flexibility to work in a way that suits them stops many arguments over homework.

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