Help with Homework!
by Stacy Turke, OTR/L, On the Road with @stacyturkeOTR
We’ve been back to school for just over a month, and we couldn’t be happier! The first couple weeks have just flown by, for the adults and the students. We’ve shared all the stories of our summers, from family weddings (not that I know ANYTHING about that!) to summer camps to professional development experiences. The joys of seeing our friends again carried us through those first weeks of establishing new classroom routines and building our new classroom communities, while we assessed and prepared to monitor the progress of our young charges to make sure they are learning what we are teaching. And at home, we have also re-established our “school day” routines with our own families, to include healthy, nutritious breakfasts following a full nights’ sleep, peaceful homework sessions during which time we intently focus solely on our kids and their academic needs as they serenely sit around the kitchen table, and meanwhile seamlessly cooking balanced meals and completing laundry and other housework tasks. Yep, all is well with the world again.
Did you enjoy that brief fantasy as much as I did? (Am I hearing maniacal laughing from you, dear reader???)
For most of us…dare I say nearly ALL of us…the reality is that the beginning of the school year is fraught with stress and anxiety, and many folks head into the last week or so of summer with a growing dread. I’m one of them! It’s not that I don’t love my job; I do, and I feel blessed and privileged to work alongside so many amazing staff and parents in the business of helping students grow into independence. But I do dread the transition from the calmer, slower pace of summer to the frenetic marathon-sprint of the school year. And though my own kids are now grown and out of public school, I remember so clearly how much I struggled after work just to get through the volumes of paper that came home in the first couple weeks in their backpacks: forms to be filled out, events to be added to the calendar, invitations to volunteer, along with syllabi and supply lists and…well, if you’ve got or had kids in school, you know! And that was elementary school. Once middle and high school hit, we also had athletic and music meetings and events to attend (no one prepares you for the amount of time it takes to be the parent of a high school athlete or marching band member…!), expensive calculators to buy, tutors and private lessons to arrange…you name it, it had to be done in the first couple of weeks. It’s exhausting.
And if those are the realities for we adults, the truth for our kids is the same if not more so. The beginning of the school year does bring fun for kids. It IS fun to catch up with friends again, chat on the bus, play together on the playground, munch sandwiches and whole-grain chicken nuggets together in the cafeteria. But for most kids, there is also the stress of learning new classroom routines that are different from what was learned last year, returning to an earlier bedtime on school nights from what might have been a more relaxed bedtime during vacations, the challenges of endless assessments and progress monitoring with their teachers, having to sit and focus and pay attention and follow a seemingly endless list of rules while learning entirely new concepts and content…and perhaps most of all, completing homework AFTER surviving all of that. Every day. It’s relentless, and it’s no wonder that many parents over the years ask the same questions:
How on earth can we make this homework process easier for all of us?
Why does homework have to be such a struggle?
While your School Occupational Therapist can’t remove all of the struggle of homework, we can recommend some things you can do at home to reduce as much of the frustration as possible, while enhancing your child’s ability to independently and confidently complete the work assigned by their teacher(s), and to actually turn it in as well. Take advantage of your kid’s needs for routines and structure as you develop new Homework Habits. It may take a little rearranging and re-thinking and more than a little teeth gnashing. But it can happen that you and your family can tackle the responsibilities of the students in your world while maintaining some emotional balance and family joy at the same time. Keep reading…hopefully something below will speak directly to you and your children.
- Establish a homework “time.” Since all kids are different, and have their own unique needs, there’s no universal right time of the day for homework. It’s going to depend on your kids’ needs. It might be right away after school or your child may need a break from school before jumping in right away. But the important thing is to try to set aside a certain time each school day for homework. I have two daughters and their homework needs were very different when they were in school. One of my daughters needed to come home from school, unload her backpack, and get to work right away. In fact it was likely that she got started during her afterschool care program when she was in elementary school. She would snack while working and she was internally driven to work until her homework was finished. A blessing on one hand…and a challenge if something occurred that had to change that routine, such as a sports practice or music lesson. My other daughter needed to come home, plop down on the couch to watch some mindless TV, or head outside to shoot some hoops, before the stress of the day had worn off enough to be able to focus on and tackle the homework in her folder. The message here is to use what you know about your child to help each one to make the decision about when is the right time to do homework, and then do what you can to make that happen every day.
- Establish a homework “place.” Same as above, no universal right “place,” though setting up a place for homework can be really useful. It can be as elaborate as an actual student desk, in a quiet location somewhere in your house, and it can be as simple as a clutter-free spot on the dining room table. No matter where it is, your kids should be able to count on that location being available daily for homework. My kids typically worked on the kitchen table, within earshot of a parent who could offer guidance while preparing dinner and next to the family computer should they need to do some research. They didn’t need total silence all the time, but some kids do. Honor what your child needs, recognizing that if you have more than one child, you may have more than one homework style. And that’s okay.
- Regardless of where this “place” is, you should make sure that the table and chair fits your child. His or her feet should firmly rest on the floor and the table height should be approximately at elbow height. For younger kids, you may need to use a stool, plastic shoe box, or something similar so that their feet are firmly supported. We school OTs refer to the proper position as “90-90-90.” When your child (and you, for that matter!) sits at a desk, ready to work, his or her hips, knees, and ankles should be bent at 90 degree angles for maximum seating posture. And ideally, the desk or table height should allow a 90-degree bend at the elbows as well. This recommendation is made because this position gives your child (and you) the right support for good work endurance while reducing strain and stress on the joints, back, and neck.
- And yet…some kids work really well on homework while lying on the floor on their tummy, propped on their elbows, with their work on a clip board. Some children benefit from a Standing Desk. This doesn’t have to be a specially purchased desk. It can just be a table tall enough to be at your child’s elbow height with a small stool to put one foot on at a time so your child can position his or her low back out of extension. Some children work well while using a Yoga Ball Chair. I’ll be writing a future post that will address alternative classroom seating and arrangements for maximizing learning. So stay tuned because those same strategies used in the classroom can be used at home and vice versa.
- A simple homework supply kit can go a long way toward making homework completion more appealing for your child. What you put in the kit will depend on your child’s grade and interests, though essentially your child will need writing tools (i.e., crayons, pencils, markers, etc.), scissors, a calculator, a ruler, paper, glue sticks, and a good eraser, among other materials. Don’t be afraid to use your kids’ interests when putting this together. I found great “Frozen” and “Marvel” writing tools in the “back to school” clearance section of my local national chain store just a week ago and my students are loving them. Some children benefit from using a slant board which you can make from a 2-3″ binder. This can reduce strain and improve endurance for homework and improve visual processing.
- Most teachers have established processes for organizing homework to be completed and to be turned in. But you may need to monitor your child’s use of these organization systems to help them learn to use them at home. A simple folder system worked for my kids. Inside their “homework folder” or “Friday folder” (or whatever your teacher calls it) were labels marking the left side as “To Do” and the right side as “To Turn In.” If your child’s teacher doesn’t have a system like this, work with your child to establish one that will work for him or her. It can feel frustrating to help your child work through a tough homework assignment only to find out it was never turned in to the teacher for credit.
- Depending on the amount of work your child has to complete, you may want to build in breaks! Your children are working very hard at school and many would argue that they are working harder now than we did when we were in school. Young brains and bodies need movement and exercise and after the long day at school, sitting for an additional, extended period of time might be almost impossible. Build in fun physical activities, if possible, which will help your child reboot and refocus. Are you using Brain Breaks that can be found online? If you have internet access at home, ask your child about the movement breaks their teachers are using or ask your child’s teacher for a list of those most loved by the kids in class. Of course, playing is a great break and many kids just don’t get enough of it. So use a timer if that helps and let your kids play during a break from homework.
- Don’t be afraid to talk to your child’s teacher if the amount of homework is simply too much for your child. National guidelines for homework suggest that 10 minutes per grade, per night is the optimal level of homework, teaching children to gradually extend the amount of work they can complete (sometimes referred to by School OTs as “work endurance”) as they age. Using this guideline, 1st graders can be expected to work for 10 minutes on homework each school day and a 4th grader should be able to tolerate 40 minutes. But since kids all learn at individual rates, an assignment that takes one child 5 minutes to complete may take another child 20 minutes. Your child’s teacher is assigning homework so that your child has an opportunity to practice what he or she is learning at school; teachers are NOT assigning homework to personally torture your child or your family! If your child struggles with the content or with the volume of work set up a meeting with your teacher to discuss the processes you have in place and to ask for help in either reducing the amount of work or the stress related to the work. I have heard many teachers tell parents to set a timer for (X) amount of time, and if the child is diligently working but unable to finish in that time, whatever is finished will be graded. Perhaps your child’s teacher will be comfortable establishing a similar expectation for your child as well.
- It probably goes without saying…but getting enough sleep, nutritious food, and water throughout the day goes a long way toward helping your child get the most out of each day. If you are like most parents I know, you are already hard on yourself about these items because the reality of our everyday lives is such that we get more take-out food for dinner than we’d like and our families are super busy with after school activities which means few of us get enough sleep. But do your best to allow for good sleep and good food as often as possible. Have nutritious snacks available for before or during homework and keep a steady supply of water at the ready to keep your kids alert and focused. It really will help.
- And finally, do your best to remember that your children are kids, not little machines, who can be moody and chatty and grouchy and elated and sleepy and active, all within a 5 minute period. And this is perfectly typical. Be patient with them, love and enjoy them, while helping them learn to help themselves through their homework stresses and all other aspects of daily life. Our goals for our kids include helping them grow up to tackle the day-to-day activities of their lives independently and with confidence. It’s not going to happen all at once, but it will happen one step at a time. Enjoy them on the journey.
Stacy Turke, OTR/L: “On the Road with @stacyturke OTR blog.” Stacy has been a school OT for 30 years with the same school district in Michigan in what she describes as “my dream job.” Her career has ranged from working in a “center-based” school to working in public and private schools throughout the county, including those in the rural, suburban, and urban areas. She has experience working with students with a wide range of educational needs, to include cognitive impairments, Autism Spectrum Disorder, physical challenges, sensory processing needs, and many other learning challenges. She expresses her enthusiasm when she says “This career has been fulfilling, always presenting new and interesting challenges, and is NEVER boring!” You can connect with Stacy on Pinterest at https://www.pinterest.com/stacyturke/ and on Twitter at @stacyturke.Disclaimer: The information shared on the Go-To-For-OT Blog or affiliated Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest sites, and shared on social or public media or as links on other sites is for general informational purposes only and should not be relied upon as a substitute for sound professional medical advice or evaluation and care from your physician/medical team or any other qualified health care providers. Therefore, the authors and administrator of these posts take no responsibility for any liability, loss, or risk taken by individuals as a result of applying the ideas or resources. Photos that include a link to Pixabay are the property of the contributors of Pixabay and their use should include the link provided to the photographer’s source. Photos that include a link to an originating site are the property of that site and their use should include the link provided.