A parent posted the question, How do I help my child transition from no homework in elementary school to lots of homework in middle school?
This was the answer I gave:
If you have a child who is not handling homework on her own, you will have to do the teaching.
GET CLEAR ON THE REQUIREMENTS
You might help your child develop a letter to each teacher that might go something like this:
Dear New Teacher,
This is Jane Doe. I am in your 4th period class. Because I am coming from an elementary school where we had no homework, it is all new to me! I was wondering if you could help me out by answering a few questions (I know you told us in class, but everything is so new, I have been a bit overwhelmed):
How do I head the paper correctly for your class?
Is homework in your class turned in the same place at the start of every class, or do I wait until you ask for it every day?
Where do you post the next day’s/week’s assignments?
How long do you expect me to work on homework for your class each night?
If I am confused or need help, when is the best time to ask you for that?
What percentage does homework count towards the grade in your class?
Are there any long term assignments I should already have on my calendar?
Is there anything else I should know about being successful with homework in your class?
Thanks so much for your help. I am looking forward to having a great year!
Once you have answers from each period teacher, it might help to have your child compile a cheat sheet that will be a reminder for each teacher’s expectations.
2. DO THE MATH ON HOW MUCH TIME THERE IS
If the total amount of time spent on homework suggested by teachers totals more than 2 hours, take your findings to the principal. Even two hours is too much to my way of thinking, so you can decide how much you want to argue. The best research on the efficacy of homework suggests around 10 minutes per grade (60 minutes for 6th graders, 70 minutes for 7th graders, etc.).
Now that your child is 100% clear on what her teachers are looking for, help her look at her overall after school schedule—activities, clubs, chores, ablutions, meals, and practice time if she plays an instrument.
Start by calculating how much time she has between school and bedtime, making sure that bedtime is early enough for her to get enough sleep. The basic definition of enough sleep, by the way, is how easily does your child wake up in the morning and does she feel sleepy at any point during the day. If the answer is no to waking up easily and/or yes to feeling sleepy during the day, she is not getting enough sleep. Figure out what time your child needs to go to sleep to get enough rest and calculate the time back to school from there.
Make protecting sleep a priority over getting homework done. By establishing this as a good habit now, you will be setting your child up for success through high school and college. Note that if children are to fall asleep easily, it is important to have at least 30 minutes of wind-down time which might include showers and brushing teeth and picking out clothes for tomorrow but which probably shouldn’t include intellectually stimulating homework.
3. PLUG IN THE NON-NEGOTIABLES
Create a schedule for each day of the week. Account for classes/practices that are set at a specific time each week. Be sure to include driving time and time spent accommodating siblings. If an older child has to be in the car while a younger child gets picked up, that will cut into available time for other things. Find out how much wiggle room you have on things like piano lessons. Maybe before the Thursday-at-four slot always worked, but with the addition of middle school homework, something else might make more sense.
4. TAKE YOUR CHILD’S STYLE INTO ACCOUNT WHEN MAKING A SCHEDULE
Different children have different needs. Most children cannot come straight home from school and plunge right into homework: Their brains are fried. Even if they have an activity right after school, when they actually step into the house, most children are going to need some downtime. If daily free choice reading is part of your child’s homework, some children can use this as their downtime, killing two birds with one stone. Others need something unstructured—a chance to drift around the house aimlessly, maybe share their day with you.
If your child can get off her electronics easily, this time right after school might be a good time to allow some screen time. Some children can’t handle this, and screen time has to be in the category of “When you are done with homework, you may have 30 minutes of screen time.”
Creative children are going to need bigger chunks of time to fully sink into what they are doing. It might not be possible to have this time every day, but be sure to schedule some extended time for this somewhere in the week. For some kids, absorbing themselves in a creative project is an enormous stress reliever that truly allows them to put aside the pressures middle school students face. Finding time for this might mean saying no to some other organized activity. Help your child make wise choices that serve to protect her overall energy.
5. HELP YOUR CHILD STRATEGIZE IN WHAT ORDER TO TACKLE THE WORK
Again, children are individual. For some the “do the easy stuff and check it off the list” approach is a good one. For some, it works better if they take on their hardest task first so that it is not hanging over them. Most kids cannot handle doing the work straight through in one block. In general, I find an approach of about half before dinner and half after dinner helps provide that balance. Use open ended questions and a process of trial and error to help your child discover what rhythm works best for her. Resist telling her how to set it up. Inevitably what works best for the parent is not what works best for the child. You can, however, share your own strategies for handling your work to give your child some ideas.
6. SHOW YOUR CHILD HOW TO CHUNK LONG TERM ASSIGNMENTS
As an English teacher, I would assign outside reading book reports. The week the book reports were due, I gave students 3 nights to produce the book report. That was enough time—but only if the reading and the thinking were done ahead of time.
There were roughly six weeks between book reports. I recommended to students that they take 3–4 weeks to read the book. Because it was free-reading book my students could choose something shorter, but they could also choose something longer—and many did. A popular title, for example, was Eragon by Christopher Paolini, a book of around 600 pages. Divide 600 pages by 20 school days, and that means kids should be doing 30 pages of reading a night or about 150 pages a week. Ideally, they wrote these goals in their homework planners. Two weeks before the book report was due, the student needed to be deciding what kind of book report they wanted to do (my kids had a lot of choice about choosing a written assignment, an artistic one or even a dramatic one). They needed to know in advance if they were going to need extra materials or time in order to execute their idea. By the Monday of the week the book report was due, students should only need to execute their plan.
Parents can help their children be realistic about choices they make. If you have a slow reader, I would steer her both towards a shorter book and whatever style book report was easiest for her. Alternatively, I would support her in approaching the teacher and asking for an exception. For example, I had a slow reader who wanted to read Eragon but knew it was not realistic for her to finish it in 6 weeks. I allowed her to do a report on the first half of the novel for one book report and on the second half of the novel for the second book report.
7. CONSIDER THE IMPACT HOMEWORK IS HAVING ON YOUR CHILD’S MENTAL HEALTH AND ON YOUR FAMILY AND BE THE LEADER OF YOUR FAMILY WHERE NECESSARY.
If you have gone through steps 1–6 and still find the amount of homework the school is asking of your child is causing serious stress or depression in your child—or is not leaving time for family activities and connection, then be an advocate for your child at school. Unless your child is applying for private high school, how he or she performs in middle school has little impact on her high school career and none at all on her college admissions. It might be appropriate for you to make an executive parental decision about your child’s school work. For example, let’s assume I had not worked out a compromise with my student about reading Eragon. She could have effectively structured her work in the same way by choosing to just not turn in Book Report I and get a 0 on it. You are the parent here, and there is more at stake than a child’s grades when it comes to the homework game.