These days, when David Parks’ eight-year-old son, Jordan, gets homework, he does it without complaint. That wasn’t the case last year, when Jordan went through a period of a few months when homework caused major tantrums. “We’d get the homework out, he’d struggle with it, then have a meltdown, affecting everyone and everything in our house,” says Parks, a dad of two in Halifax. The situation has since improved, thanks in part to a tutor.
Homework is a common source of stress for both kids and parents, says Dr. Alexa Bagnell, associate chief of child and adolescent psychiatry at the IWK Health Centre in Halifax. “Often you’re relying on young kids to remember what they’re supposed to do, which leads to last-minute surprises about what needs to be done.” The good news? Getting a handle on homework in the lower grades can help set your kids up for future academic success.
Occasional tantrums may be a result of your child being tired, feeling hungry, needing some downtime to play or being stressed about other stuff. “Everyone has off-nights, but if there’s a lot of negative self-talk, such as ‘I’m stupid,’ and dreading homework, then it starts a pattern of hating doing it, making the situation worse,” says Dr. Bagnell. Denise Johnson, director of instruction for the Vancouver School Board, says that if your child is struggling with homework, then it is definitely worth checking in with her teacher to see whether she is grasping the work in class. “Homework should be about practice, not learning new skills,” explains Johnson.
If tears and tantrums are a regular issue, Dr. Bagnell suggests working with your child’s teacher to come up with realistic strategies to help reduce homework stress. For example, this may include decreasing or even temporarily eliminating homework, she says.
If your current strategies aren’t working, it may be time to shake up your homework routine. “Learning can be hard work at times, but it can also be a lot of fun,” says Johnson. For example, she suggests using math, literacy and word games to help reinforce the learning concepts and create an entertaining, shared family-learning time.
A rewards system is another way to get your child enthused about doing homework. “Sticker charts work really well,” says Dr. Bagnell, adding that rewards should be based on effort and attitude rather than getting it all right. “It is really important that you don’t pick their work apart.” Use the stickers to earn privileges, such as special activities.
In the early grades, teaching kids to be organized is a big part of what homework is about. Andrea Timmermans, a mom of three from Sherwood Park, Alta., says that the most difficult thing about homework (typically 15 minutes of reading and then reviewing spelling words) is remembering to remind her six-year-old daughter, Rachel, to do it. “I keep her homework in sight on the counter next to her lunch kit and have to check the calendar every day to make sure I haven’t missed anything,” she says, noting that Rachel’s teacher has a website that parents can check, which has proven to be a great tool.
Dr. Bagnell suggests setting a regular time to get homework done, whether right after school or once your child has had time to decompress. “Work with their rhythms,” she advises. In the Parks household, homework is often done in the morning before school. “That’s when Jordan is at his most focused,” explains his dad. “He is too tired to want to do it after school.”
As different as home and school are, they are both learning settings, and Johnson says that the ultimate goal is to blend the two so that they complement each other. “Homework is an opportunity to review and reinforce at home what students are learning in their school environment,” she says. “The more parents and caregivers can connect the big ideas or concepts from school to a child’s larger world environment, the more opportunities the child will have to make connections, practise and reinforce their learning.”
Lola Augustine Brown feels lucky that teachers don’t set homework for Grade 1 students at her daughter’s school.