When you get home in the afternoon, the last thing you want to do is nag your child to do their homework. Sadly, this is the reality for many parents, particularly in primary school where parental input is often necessary. But it doesn’t have to be that way! We spoke to Lauren Howden, a primary school teacher, education researcher and mom of two primary school children, for insight into what homework is for, plus great practical tips to stop homework battles before they start.
There’s just about as much disagreement amongst educators about homework as there is conflict between parents and their kids. In some countries and in some schools, there has been a swing away from piling on the homework, says Lauren. In primary school, the emphasis is moving away from endless worksheets, and towards reading and critical thinking.
“Homework can be valuable as long as it’s not onerous. There are usually two main purposes. It can prepare the child for a lesson and get them thinking about the topic, and it’s useful for consolidating what has been learnt in class. But if it’s not managed properly it can be useless and create stress and conflict.”
Lauren says that in the early school years particularly, the focus should be on literacy - reading for enjoyment as well as practice - and maths. “These are skills that should be practiced daily, for short periods.”
We parents know by now that routine is one of our most effective tools in getting children to do what needs to be done. Just like brushing their teeth every morning, children need to get into the habit of doing their homework every afternoon. Teachers say that settling them down in the same place at the same time every day is one of the basics of good homework habits.
It’s best to find a time when the child isn’t totally exhausted - not always easy, if your child has a hectic sports or extra-mural schedule. But remember, half an hour of good quality homework time with focus and attention is better than an hour of fiddling or complaining!
It’s really helpful to have a quiet spot set up for homework, with everything the child needs to hand. Not every family has such a spot, and it doesn’t have to be a special desk and chair. It can be a corner of the kitchen table, but it should be peaceful, without a lot of activity going on. That means no TV and preferably no little sibling playing racing cars!
Have the necessary stationery to hand, and Lauren suggests that providing basic homework equipment can be helpful. “Provide children with counters for maths - something simple like beads or pasta shapes - for concrete practice. This is useful even at Grade 3 or 4 level. I also like to give them some scrap paper for practicing and making mistakes.”
When there’s conflict over homework, parents tend to be very present - cajoling, threatening or encouraging - and if you’re not careful, it becomes an unhealthy habit.
“The way I look at it is that your job is to create the scaffolding for the child to do the homework,” says Lauren.
Your role as parent is to create a supportive environment and to encourage the child. Parental input can be very helpful in talking through the instructions so that the child knows what is expected and helping them assess the workload and prioritise their tasks. Praise them for getting it done well and efficiently. Don’t micromanage the process or take over aspects of it yourself.
“Be very careful of helicopter parenting,” she says. “We teachers are seeing a learnt helplessness in some children, where the parent has controlled and mediated the homework experience to such an extent that the child doesn’t learn to do anything for themselves. A child who never has to struggle and never learnt to motivate himself intrinsically won’t cope in the longer term.”
Lauren is not a great believer in outside motivation, like star charts or earning the right to use the iPad. “The extrinsic motivation works short term, but it tends to wear off after a few weeks. It’s better to motivate and encourage your child and try to create a pleasant time and environment.”
Homework gives children the opportunity to practice key skills and learn content, but they also learn self-discipline and planning and time-management and a host of other important study skills. Particularly when children are young, you can help in this regard. For instance, sit down with your child and discuss what homework schedule works best for them. Do they need a rest or some downtime after school, and then do homework? Or is it best to get it over and done with early? Having a sense of control and ownership of the process might make difficult homeworkers a little less combative, too.
A big or long-term project will usually require parental input and it is a great opportunity to teach some time-management and project management skills. It’s here that your knowledge of your child’s temperament comes in handy. If you know your child is a procrastinator, or a wild optimist, or an anxious perfectionist, take that into account when you help them plan the project. Talk about what is required, what materials they will need, and how long it might take, and come up with a plan. Anyone who has found themselves at 11pm at night putting the finishing touches to a Roman fortress made from ice cream sticks will know the value of starting sooner rather than later!
Some activities, like reading aloud or practicing a speech, need an audience. “If you are listening to your child’s reading put your phone away and really attend,” says Lauren.
She suggests that perhaps your most important role is to focus on critical thinking skills and create a culture of encouraging problem solving and asking questions. Talk about what the child is reading. Ask, “Can you put that in your own words?” or “What is the main idea?” or “Why do you think the wolf wants to come in?”
Be encouraging and positive and be careful what you say in front of the child. Complaining about the homework or criticising the teacher or the school isn’t helpful. Yes, you might have done maths differently, but now’s not the time to go on about how much better it was in your day or to teach them different methods or quick cheats. Let children work through it in the way they’ve been taught in class.
Don’t get over-invested in perfection. It’s important that children have to have opportunities to get things wrong and make mistakes. While it’s good to for the child to care about their work, it’s not all about getting everything right. Too much focus on that often contributes to the anxiety parents and children feel about homework, and to the conflict around it.
Some children work better together (others just muck about!). Lauren finds with her own daughter that a weekly combination homework session/playdate works well. Three girls come home from school together and they use a timer to manage play time vs work time. It’s fun and offers a bit of a change from the daily homework routine.
A change of scene can be good. If there’s a homework club at school or in aftercare, give it a try. Or perhaps granny would enjoy having the child one a week and take on the reading practice or homework supervision that day. Even an hour at a table at the local library might bring a different energy to the process.
A lot has changed since you were at school and it’s not always clear even to the parents what is required. What exactly is paired reading, you might be asking yourself! Don’t be afraid to ask the teacher, says Lauren. Depending on the school and the class size, the teacher might be willing to meet with a group of parents and explain what is being done in class and how parents can best support that.
You should also speak to the teacher if the homework load seems unreasonably heavy, taking an hour and a half or two hours. Lauren says, “Teachers don’t always communicate with each other as much as they could, and some are a bit worksheet-happy. If every teacher is giving 15 minutes of homework, it adds up. If you’re concerned, ask the teacher what her expectations are, and whether what your child is doing seems reasonable.”
Similarly, if it becomes clear during homework time that the child isn’t grasping what has been covered in class, communicate with teacher. “She might have some tricks up her sleeve or be able to do reinforcement activities or suggest some enrichment exercises or games you can play,” says Lauren. “There are also many resources that are useful for practicing or reinforcing skills. Some of them, like Khan Academy are free online. If the problem is more serious, you might have to seek remediation. But speak to the teacher first.”
Top Tip: Learning and teaching support materials for the entire curriculum from Grade R to Grade 12 are available online from the Department of Basic Education.
Your relationship with your child is more important than the homework. Many of us work long hours and have precious little time with our children - we don’t want to spend it fighting over homework. If things get really bad, it might be worth disengaging from the conflict for a while. If the child doesn’t do the homework, let them face the consequences at school.
If you are in major conflict, speak to the teacher and see if she can suggest a way forward. “I tell parents, if you really are battling, focus on the reading, that’s the most important thing. If you can’t do the worksheet this time, that’s OK,” says Lauren. “And don’t forget that it’s important for children to have time for play and creativity and even be a bit bored. Homework should leave time for that.”
Homework is part of life for most children, and can be helpful in reinforcing key skills, particularly reading and maths. Understanding what homework is about and hitting the right level of parental involvement will go a long way to keeping the process conflict-free.