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Health Net

National Library
of Medicine

Capital Area Psychological Services, P.A.


James L. Hilke, Ph.D.

Homework!!  Fewer words have the power to convey the intensity of feelings of frustration, anger, or even hatred, than this one:  homework.  Parents of school aged children around the country know that, when the children arrive home from school, the parents will be faced with hours of pleading, crying, demanding, and yelling as they strive to help their children complete yet another night’s set of assignments.  Few elements connected with a child’s schooling receive as much comments from parents as does homework, and its very need for existence is still debated.

Whether or not homework is a necessity, however, is beyond the point, for, for many parents, it is an excruciating challenge each night, and the issue of homework must be addressed.  The purpose of this paper is to attempt to bring some order into that chaotic time that we call “homework time” and to point to some directions that might afford some relief to parents.

Common Homework Problems

There are several problems related to homework that are fairly common for many children.  These include not bringing home the appropriate materials (books, handouts, etc.), not knowing what the assignment is for the evening, taking too long to complete the assignment, doing the assignment too rapidly, completing the assignment but then losing it or not handing it in, etc.  While each of these may be common, this does not mean that they are easily corrected.  In fact, what is often all too obvious to parents is that the child does not seem to be cooperative in working towards a solution.  Instead, often the opposite is true.  The child seems to want the problems to continue.  At least this would seem to be the case, given his resistance towards finding a solution.  This does not seem logical, but the child’s behavior here must be seen as a reflection of his perception of the impossibility of ever correcting the situation.  In other words, the child sees the problems as almost insurmountable and, as a result, is not willing to invest in attempting a solution.  Far from being oppositional, this type of response is a common one for people in general, adults as well as children.  If no solution is possible, only a fool tries to create one.  Thus, one of the first tasks for the parent is to work to convince his child that the situation can be made better if the difficulties are analyzed and solutions tried.  Luckily for parents, success breeds success, and once some problems are resolved, more cooperation is likely.  It is very important for parents to realize, however, that the resistance to change that their child presents is not simple oppositional behavior on his part.  Nor is it a “characterological defect”:  laziness, lack of motivation, or whatever.  Instead, it is a normal reaction to what looks like an impossible task, and the parent must not let the child’s behavior produce simple anger on the parent’s part to the extent that the parent gives up and fails to bring a reasoned, calm approach to the situation.

Learning Theory

Before moving to what can be done to improve homework performance, some discussion must be had about what we do now and why it is ineffective.  Thus, a word has to be said about the learning theory that holds up many behaviors of both teachers and parents with regard to homework as well as other areas of a child’s life.  The basic theory in its simplest form is to say that receiving a negative consequence will make a child change his behavior.  Having something negative happen to him will force him to do the right thing; he will “learn” to act correctly.  This theory works in many areas of our lives.  If a child touches the proverbial hot stove and is burned, it is unlikely he will touch the stove again; he will have learned to do the correct action, i.e., not touch the stove.  Translated into the arena of homework, the practice of this theory goes something like this:  if a child receives a negative consequence (a failing grade; a parent yelling at him; a teacher being displeased; other students thinking poorly of him), he will do the right thing (complete his homework and turn it in on time) in order to avoid the negative consequence.  The difficulty with this thinking is that, as many parents know, it does not work.  Often, giving a failing grade, yelling, etc., are insufficient means to bring about more acceptable behavior, i.e., completing the homework.

A second step in our proposed learning theory states that, if the negative consequence is not sufficient to bring about change, make the consequence more severe.  Parents use this theory frequently.  If a child does something wrong, is kept from TV or video games for a week, and then immediately does the bad action again, the punishment is increased.  He may be kept from TV for two weeks, or the previous punishment may be substituted for something considered as more severe, not playing outside for a week, for example.  The point is that, if one punishment does not work, substitute it with something harder.  Or, to translate a high school football cheer, “Hit him again; hit him again; harder; harder.”  Of course, this step in our theory can be repeated again and again, each time making the punishment more severe.  Experience and reflection teaches us, though, that this theory often does not work, and, if a child’s behavior is to change by what we do, we must do something other than simply increasing the size of the punishment.  Again translated into the arena of homework, this means that simply increasing the consequence (keeping the student in from recess, yelling louder, not allowing him to go on a field trip, failing him for the academic quarter) does not bring about the desired result:  he still does not do his homework.  Just like with other examples, it is not enough to do more of the same; something different must be done.

This learning theory is subtle in that many people, both parents and teachers, follow it without reflecting on whether or not it makes sense for the particular situation.  Certainly no one will object to the goal of making Johnny do his homework; the question is whether or not the way we try to bring this about is effective or not.  If, for your child, the theory works, wonderful!  Unfortunately, for many parents, it does not.

Steps in a Solution

So, what is to be done?  Like every issue in life, the first part in solving a problem is to understand the problem, and this means that the specifics of homework must be analyzed.  Johnny not doing or handing in his homework may seem like an easily understood idea, but, in fact, it tells us only a middle or ending step in the process and may give us little insight into the problems that Johnny has in completing homework.  There are many distinct, individual steps in homework completion, and the parent must first discern the earliest point at which Johnny has trouble.  A problem at one specific point may or may not prevent completion of homework, but each specific problem makes the entire homework process more trying.  Here, then, in short, are the major steps of homework:

Steps in the homework process

1.  having an assignment book in class to copy down the homework and being able to find it (having it in the locker or lost in the desk does not count);

2.  copying down the homework correctly in the assignment book;

3.  bringing the assignment book home;

4.  bringing the correct books home;

5.  doing the homework:
a.  within a reasonable amount of time;
b.  with a reasonable amount of parent input/assistance;
c.  with reasonable neatness/accuracy/correctness;

6.  organizing completed homework so that it can be found to take to school;

7.  taking the homework to school;

8.  locating the homework at school at the appropriate time;

9.  handing in the homework at the appropriate time.

Homework is a complicated process.  Each step noted above is a point at which the homework process can break down, creating frustration for both the child and the parent, and parents need to know that it does, indeed, create frustration for the child, despite his best efforts to let us know that he does not care, that it is not important, that the teacher says he did not have to do it, etc., etc., etc.  A side point to keep in mind is that children will always prefer to have us believe that they do not want to do something as opposed to letting us know that they are not able to do it.  Children always prefer to be viewed as obstinate or oppositional as opposed to being viewed as incompetent.  Thus, “I won’t” is a common saying or behavior of children, whereas “I can’t” is rarely heard.  Overall, it is best to treat a child’s failure to do a homework step as a sign of his not being able to do it, for whatever reason, rather than a sign of simple oppositional behavior.  To consider Johnny’s failure as a sign of his simply not wanting to do it is to, in the end, engage in a battle of wills that leaves few positive feelings and many negative ones.  Instead, to consider his behavior as a sign of his not being able to do this step results in a search for solutions.

A homework strategy that is to be effective demands that specific points in the homework process be identified as problems and that actions be taken to improve those situations.  A frequent suggestion by teachers to improve homework completion involves the teacher and parent signing the child’s assignment book, thus insuring that (a) homework has been taken down correctly (teacher’s initial signature), (b) the parent knows the correct assignment and verifies that the homework has been done (parent signature), and (c) the homework has been handed in (teacher’s second signature).  As many parents know, this plan is fraught with danger, from the child not bringing the assignment book to the teacher to be signed, to not bringing home the assignment book, to simply not turning in the assignment at the appropriate time, as well as many others.  When this plan breaks down, it allows the parent to know that homework is not being handed in, but it does nothing further to improve the child’s compliance with the homework demands.  In addition, this plan demands much teacher cooperation.  Finally, parents encounter many teachers who believe that the homework is solely the child’s responsibility and that he should do the homework and all its elements completely on his own.  These beliefs make the parent’s work all the more difficult, for the teacher’s cooperation will be more difficult to obtain.

The child is responsible for completing his assignments, but when a child has difficulty doing this, the parent must analyze the situation and determine the best means to take to aid the child.  This means identifying the specific areas of difficulty and targeting those areas.

Listed below are suggestions for various problems in homework completion  They are divided into three major areas:  (1) getting the proper materials and assignment home, (2) doing the assignment, and (3) getting the completed back to school.  Suggestions with an asterisk

Basic Homework Strategy

1.  have student copy homework

2.  student brings assignment book to teacher; teacher signs assg. book verifying it is correct

3.  student brings assg  book home for parent to see and verify that homework is completed; parent signs assg  book upon completion of homework

4.  student hands in homework and teacher signs assg. book verifying homework has been handed in.

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