The great homework debate continues

The school year is barely a month in and already my daughter is drowning in homework, and we’re embroiled in almost daily struggles over it. She is in third grade. On good days, when she is cooperative, focused, has eaten a healthy snack and is doing homework that includes a lot of math, which she loves and rips through, it takes her about an hour to finish. On bad days, it can be over 90 minutes. There’s no time left for anything else; needless to say, we’re either helping her or goading her to keep working. I’ve talked to friends whose kids are in other schools (both public and private), and it’s pretty much the same story.

It’s ruining our family time and I doubt she’s absorbing much beyond frustration and a growing hatred of homework. What do you suggest? — School Mom in El Cerrito

Dear School Mom: You don’t quite come out and say it, but I read between the lines — and agree wholeheartedly — that’s an egregious amount of homework. To be honest, I am not a fan of homework in elementary school at all. I am sure some teachers will jump at me (I welcome responses!), but I don’t believe it adds much to real learning and it does quite a bit of damage. It’s robbing young children of the free, unstructured playtime they still need, strains parent-child relations, and it sours kids on learning by diminishing the joys of self-driven discovery and mastery.

Frankly, it makes no sense to me that kids are in school for six or seven hours, nearly a full workday, and they can’t finish the day’s tasks in that amount of time. Of course, so many of us have the same struggle at work, taking work home nearly every day, but it’s not a good thing! Not for adults and certainly not for children.

In reality, I know many teachers actually agree with me but feel pressured to assign homework to meet parents’ expectations, not the children’s needs. There is also a notion that you should prepare kids for the harder schedules and pressures of middle and high school by starting them early in the overworked track. I think it would be better to do the exact opposite.

Now, this is probably not helpful in navigating the actual situation you are in, as I doubt showing this column to the teacher will convince her (him?) to cancel homework. Nevertheless, I would start with a meeting with the teacher, focusing on the goals of the homework. Once the teacher provides a very clear set of goals (beyond just drilling class material), you can look at those goals and together work out a strategy to accomplish them — or at least come close — without 90 minutes of torture.

I suspect that a 15-minute review of the core lessons covered each day (could the teacher email/post those on a school website/blog?) would be much more effective in reinforcing the lessons than much longer drilling. You can also discuss with the teacher more creative ways to reinforce the lessons, such as making up treasure hunts, mysteries, putting on skits, etc.

Next, work with your daughter on setting up a regular homework schedule and let her know she needs to show you she is working attentively for 15 minutes, regardless of how much she actually finishes. Give her a 30-minute break that includes a snack, open-ended conversation about her day (especially fun things) and free play, but no screen time. Then, have her do another 15 minutes of homework under the same terms. That’s enough.

Before she starts, ask her to estimate how much she can do of each assignment. It’s a useful skill and a win-win situation. If she overestimates what she can finish, compliment her ambition and hard work, even if she doesn’t meet her own expectations. If she does more than she had estimated, praise her for that and add a small “bonus,” such as extra time for a favorite activity or a sticker or point toward a small prize. If she seems to purposefully underestimate what she can complete in order to earn the bonus, let a few days go by and nudge her to raise her expectations.

Rachel Biale, MSW, is a Berkeley-based parenting consultant who has been working with parents of very young children for more than 25 years. Send questions through her Facebook page, Parenting Counseling by Rachel Biale, or via rachelbiale@gmail.com.

Rachel Biale