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Study Habits and Homework

HWMany of the issues concerning success in school revolve around developing good study habits and expectations regarding homework. Parents can certainly play a major role in providing the encouragement, environment, and materials necessary for successful studying to take place.

Some general things adults can do, include:

  • Establish a routine for meals, bedtime and study/homework
  • Provide books, supplies, and a special place for studying
  • Encourage the child to “ready” himself for studying (refocus attention and relax)
  • Offer to study with the child periodically (call out spelling words or do flash cards)

An established study routine is very important, especially for younger school age children. If a child knows, for example, that he is expected to do homework immediately after supper prior to watching television, he will be better able to adjust and ready himself than if he is allowed to do homework any time he pleases.

Connected to the idea of a study routine is the concept of a homework chart. This type of visual system tends to work very well, especially with children ages 9-12. The chart might look something like this:

Day Reading Math Science Spelling

All children need their own place at home to do homework. The space does not need to be big or fancy, but it needs to be personal so that they feel it is their “study place.”

Remember, learning styles differ from child to child, so the study place should allow for these differences. Parents can take a walk through the house with their child to find that special corner that is just right.

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Does Homework Really Work?

After decades spent trying to assess the value of homework, researchers still argue over the simplest findings


You know the drill. It’s 10:15 p.m., and the cardboard-and-toothpick Golden Gate Bridge is collapsing. The pages of polynomials have been abandoned. The paper on the Battle of Waterloo seems to have frozen in time with Napoleon lingering eternally over his breakfast at Le Caillou. Then come the tears and tantrums — while we parents wonder, Does the gain merit all this pain?

However the drama unfolds night after night, year after year, most parents hold on to the hope that homework (after soccer games, dinner, flute practice, and, oh yes, that childhood pastime of yore known as playing) advances their children academically.

But what does homework really do for kids? Is the forest’s worth of book reports and math and spelling sheets the average American student completes in her 12 years of primary schooling making a difference? Or is it just busywork?

Homework Haterz

Whether or not homework helps, or even hurts, depends on who you ask. If you ask my 12-year-old son, Sam, he’ll say, “Homework doesn’t help anything. It makes kids stressed-out and tired and makes them hate school more.”

Nothing more than common kid bellyaching?

Maybe, but in the fractious field of homework studies, it’s worth noting that Sam’s sentiments nicely synopsize one side of the ivory tower debate. Books like The End of Homework, The Homework Mythand The Case Against Homework and the film Race to Nowhere make the case that homework, by taking away precious family time and putting kids under unneeded pressure, is an ineffective way to help children become better learners and thinkers.

One Canadian couple recently took their homework apostasy all the way to the Supreme Court of Canada. After arguing that there was no evidence that it improved academic performance, they won aruling that exempted their two children from all homework.

So what’s the real relationship between homework and academic achievement?

From the Homework Laboratories

The good news: In an effort to answer this question, researchers have been doing their homework on homework, conducting hundreds of studies over the past several decades. The bad news? Despite scores of studies, definitive conclusions remain a matter of some debate.

“A few studies can always be found to buttress whatever position is desired, while the counter-evidence is ignored,” writes the nation’s top homework scholar, Harris Cooper, in his 2006 homework meta-study at Duke University’s Department of Psychology and Neuroscience.

How Much is too Much?

If you’re not ready to make a national case out of your child’s nightly worksheets, it’s worth knowing that she may be complaining for good reason. For better or worse, homework is on the rise in the United States. A survey done through the University of Michigan found that by the 2002-’03 school year, students ages 6 to 17 were doing twice as much homework as in 1981-’82. The homework ante has been upped as school administrators respond to increasing pressure for their students to perform better on state-mandated tests.

So how can you know if your child is doing the right amount? Who came up with that 10-minutes-per-grade rule that’s become the accepted norm? (And if that is the magic number, why is my neighbor’s 8-year-old daughter doing two-plus hours a night?)

The oft-bandied rule on homework quantity — 10 minutes a night per grade (starting from between 10 to 20 minutes in first grade) — is ubiquitous. Indeed, go to the National Education Association’s website or the national Parent Teacher Association’s website, and 10 minutes per grade is the recommended amount for first through 12th grade.

But where did it come from? “The source [of that figure] was a teacher who walked up to me after a workshop I did about 25 years ago,” says Cooper. “I’d put up a chart showing middle school kids who reported doing an hour to an hour and a half were doing just as well as high schoolers doing two hours a night. The teacher said, ‘That sounds like the 10-minute rule.’” He adds with a laugh, “I stole the idea.”

If you think your child is doing too much homework, Cooper recommends talking with her teacher. “Often there is a miscommunication about the goals of homework assignments,” he says. “What appears to be problematic for kids, why they are doing an assignment, can be cleared up with a conversation.” Also, Cooper suggests taking a careful look at how your child is doing her assignments. It may seem like they’re taking two hours, but maybe she’s wandering off frequently to get a snack or listening to her iPod.

Less is Often More

If your child is dutifully doing her work but still burning the midnight oil, it’s worth intervening to make sure she gets enough sleep. Recent studies suggest that proper sleep may be far more essential to brain and body development.

In fact, for elementary school-age children, there is no measureable academic advantage to homework. For middle-schoolers, there is a direct correlation between homework and achievement if assignments last between one to two hours per night. After two hours, however, achievement doesn’t improve. For high schoolers, two hours appears optimal. As with middle-schoolers, give teens more than two hours a night, and academic success flatlines.

Not all Homework is Created Equal

Just as revealing, it appears that grade level has a direct impact on homework’s effectiveness.

In a previous meta-study conducted in 1989, Cooper’s team at Duke University found that grade level heavily influences how much homework helps with academic advancement (as measured by standardized and class test scores.) It appears middle- and high schoolers have much to gain academically by doing their homework. The average high school student doing homework outperformed 69% of the students in a class with no homework. Homework in middle school was half as effective. In elementary school, there is no measurable correlation between homework and achievement.

Despite all the research, homework remains something of a mystery. Until Cooper and other researchers discover the best homework practices at every stage of a student’s development, parents will need to use their own best judgment.

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Homework Case Study #1: The Refuser

What happens when your child goes on a schoolwork strike? One expert weighs in

child with learning difficulties

Some kids struggle with homework because it’s too difficult. Others worry too much about whether their answers are perfect. For Sarah Wallach, a 16-year-old sophomore at a small parochial school in New York, the problem is more straightforward: She thinks homework is a waste of time.

“What’s the point of homework? I go to school — that’s when I do my learning. After school I don’t feel like doing it,” Sarah says. “I don’t see why it should matter. If I have a question about something we learned, I can ask the next day in class.”

Her teachers don’t see it that way, however. Sarah is failing the classes that assign homework, and her mother is at her wit’s end.

“She just doesn’t feel it’s important, so she either forgets it or puts it off and doesn’t do it,” Wendy Wallach says. “I’ve tried everything from rewards to taking her computer and TV and phone away. I have her in a special class that offers one-on-one help. I’ve gotten mad, I’ve cried — nothing seems to improve the situation.”

Even more confounding, her mother says, is that nothing suggests a deeper problem is present: Sarah doesn’t exhibit behavioral problems at school, she doesn’t drink or do drugs, she isn’t depressed, and tests don’t indicate any learning disabilities.

“There’s no reason she shouldn’t be doing her work, that we can see. Absent the homework thing, she’s a good teenager,” Wallach explains.

For her part, Sarah says a lack of free time is an issue. She has a long school day, followed by an extremely long commute home — though she concedes her disdain for homework preceded the commute. When she gets home, she says she’d rather watch TV, rest, hang out on Facebook, snack, and so on. When she does tackle her homework, it tends to take a lot of time, she gets overwhelmed, and the next day she falls asleep in her classes.

Regarding those classes, Sarah isn’t particularly enthusiastic — except for astronomy. She loves her astronomy class and is endlessly fascinated by solar systems. Coincidentally, she says, her astronomy teacher assigns no homework. Asked whether she might consider a career in the field, and therefore be compelled to do better in school, she demurs:

“You have to do math to be a real astronomer. I don’t do math.”

So might her grades limit other job prospects down the road? Sarah says she’s already got it figured out.

“I’ve wanted to be a model for a long time. I also want to work with children. Grades don’t count for either of those. Grades don’t matter in the real world,” she says. And should the modeling work dry up? “When I’m older, I’m probably hoping to marry rich!”

Enter Carol Josel, a longtime learning specialist and the author of Getting School-Wise: A Student Guidebook (ScarecrowEducation, 2002) and Other-Wise and School-Wise: A Parent Guidebook (ScarecrowEducation, 2003). Josel takes aim at Sarah’s premise that homework is pointless.

“Some homework is just busywork, but most of it is important practice,” says Josel. “The school day just isn’t long enough. There’s not enough time for kids to practice whatever they learn that day. To me, homework is essential.”

So how to impart that attitude to someone so defiant about homework? Josel says it’s important to look for underlying issues, even if they don’t seem apparent at first.

“With the astronomy, I would want her to see that she’s selling herself short on the one thing she really likes by saying she can’t do math,” Josel says. “Somewhere in her head, I think she must understand her idea about modeling is not a reality. I think she’s putting major walls up.”

Knocking down those walls can be relatively simple.

“Baby steps. If she’s getting overwhelmed, she needs to chunk [her assignments] one subject at a time. Start each night with the hardest work, so it’s only the easier work that’s left when she’s tired,” Josel says. “The mom needs to set up a study schedule for her. Tell her, ‘Look, give me just one hour — then you can watch TV.'”

“If there’s work that’s beyond her, go to the teacher for extra help,” she adds. “No teacher in his or her right mind will fail a student who’s trying to do the homework.”

Meanwhile, astronomy could be a hook for cultivating a more abiding interest in her schoolwork, Josel says. Her mom could take her to planetariums and talk to her about science, she advises. And it wouldn’t hurt to appeal to Sarah’s strong sense of logic:

“I might say to her, ‘Sure, some homework is ridiculous. But you can prove your teachers wrong by doing it. They’ve already given you a label. Show them they’ve got you wrong.'”

Josel says none of these kinds of problems is easily solved. But there’s good news: Success is contagious.

“Usually with kids, if you get one decent grade, it feels good and it builds on itself,” she says. “Even if [Sarah] says she doesn’t mind bad grades, nobody likes failure. It needs to be explained to her that failing at an early age becomes a habit. Models can fail too.”

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5 Tips to Teach Kids to Keep Track of Their Time

timeKids who manage their own time do better in school.

Managing time is an important skill kids need to be successful in school—and at home. (After all, they need to get their homework done on time!) Experts have found that kids who know how to manage their own time—who have what’s known as “self-discipline” — are more successful in life, whether it’s in college or a career. In fact, kids who have self-discipline have an even better chance at school success than kids with a high IQ!

But most kids need help learning how to manage their time. The good news is that time management is a skill that can be taught and learned. Here are a five ways to help your child learn time-management skills:

Create a family timeline
Use a long strip of paper to create a timeline for the entire family. Allow each child to write down an important experience of every year of his or her life, like “Started kindergarten,” “Lost my first tooth,” “Get our pet cat.” This exercise will help kids get a clear sense of time over the years.

Make an “On time” sheet
On a sheet of paper, write down a basic timeline of your child’s school day:
7:00 a.m. – Wake up
7:30 a.m. – Be dressed and downstairs for breakfast
8:00 a.m. – Leave for school
3:00 p.m. – School’s out!
6:00 p.m. – Homework is finished
7:00 p.m. – Dinner
8:00 p.m. – Bedtime
Post the sheet on the refrigerator or your child’s bedroom wall – anywhere your child will easily see it. This will give kids a sense of their day, and also helps them be more aware of time. (And since their schedule is all written down, you might have fewer arguments about when it’s time to get to school, do their homework, sit down to dinner, and go to bed!)

Cut down on screen time
Television is one of the biggest time-sucks for kids (and, admit it, for adults too). Decide with your child how many hours of television she’ll watch per week. Read the TV guide aloud with her and discuss which programs she can watch, have her circle the shows, and then keep the marked-up guide next to the television. If she’s watching too much TV, have her cut back the first week, then more the following week. This makes her more aware of how much time is spent in front of the tube, teaches her to take responsibility for screen time, and might even open up her schedule for other fun activities.

Use a chore chart
This is an especially good exercise for kids who need to learn to manage their own after-school time. Have your child create a chart and fill in all of his responsibilities, like setting the table at 5:30 p.m. or doing homework at 7:30 p.m. (Or download and print out our Chore chart). Then have him check off each task when he’s done.

Use a homework chart
Have your child make a homework chart and list assignments for Monday through Friday. (Or download and print out our Homework chart.) After she’s finished each assignment, she can put a check mark next to it. This teaches children how to keep track of deadlines and duties.

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Bright ideas from our readers: Homework help

GreatSchools’ readers share their ideas for avoiding battles on the homefront over homework.

Is homework a struggle at your house? You’re not alone. Many parents have been there and wrote to share their advice about what helped end the homework battles with their kids.


Establish a Routine

Many parents say setting a regular time and routine for homework is crucial.

Making homework a habit:

One parent of a fifth-grader writes: “We pick up our son from school and immediately sit down at the kitchen island to open the backpack, eat a snack and immediately start the homework.

“Our son has been doing this routine since he was in the first grade. As such, on rare occasion when a friend comes home with us after school, the friend has said, ‘Bobby, what do you want to do?’ My son responds, ‘Well, we can do anything but not until we get our homework done.’ If ever a routine has established a pattern, this is it.

“One day we were talking about colleges and we said that sometimes you can choose which days to attend classes in college, like Monday, Wednesday and Friday, and when you want to take class, like in the morning or afternoon, or evening. His comment was, ‘If I did my homework right after class, then I am free to do whatever I want?’

“Let’s hope this thinking pattern for homework is for a lifetime.”

Five simple rules:

“Consistency is the key. Stick with a homework routine,” another parent writes in sharing rules that worked for her:

  1. Establish a daily routine.
  2. Structure after-school activities to allow for homework at a set time every day.
  3. Stick to the routine so your child will know what is expected.
  4. Stay organized and keep homework area free from clutter, noise and distractions, such as television, games and radio.
  5. Praise your child when the homework is complete and allow free time after homework time is over.

Vary the Scene

Other parents said changing the scene helped their children focus, particularly as kids get older.

Study in a cafe:

An Illinois mother of a sixth-grade boy and eighth-grade girl writes: “When homework becomes a dreaded chore, I find new places to go and do homework, for instance, Starbucks, the library, a cafe. It’s interesting to find that when you offer up a new place to study, homework appears where they said there was none.”

Make the library your home base:

“One thing I have done is to take them to the library to do their homework,” writes a Colorado mother of three boys, 12, 16 and 20. “There are no distractions from home, and they can focus just on the task at hand. Plus, there are all the available resources we need there. It is especially helpful to get a study room when we can. That way, we can talk and study things without disturbing anyone. The library we go to has white boards in the study rooms, which we have used occasionally just for something different (doing spelling words on it instead of writing them on paper, for example). This seemed to also break up the monotony of the homework ordeal. An added bonus is that our library has a coffee shop inside with Italian sodas, etc. This can be used as an incentive!”


Break projects into manageable chunks:

“If there is a project due, we separate it into how much time we have and then do a little each day,” one mom writes. “We do the same for a book report. I count the number of pages and divide it by the number of days they have to read it and give them two days to write it. We do a ‘sloppy copy’ and we do a final draft. …”

Build in breaks:

A California mom of a kindergartner writes: “Have short time frames planned out. Kids get restless without breaks. Maybe 15 minutes of work, then a three-minute break.

“Remove any distraction – TV, snacks, cell calls, don’t let them think they are missing out on anything by doing homework.

“Reward them if they are focused on any given day.

“Talk about homework as if it is a natural part of your schedule. “Don’t say, ‘You have to do homework first.’ It becomes too much of a task. Say, ‘OK, it’s homework time. Let’s get started.’ Always start (at the) same time every day. In that way, they feel it’s just what you do, there are no options!”


A trick to stay focused:

“I let my 7-year old daughter chew gum while she does her homework,” says a Washington, D.C., mom. “She says it keeps her ‘focused.'”


Star system:

“I have a 10-year-old that sits right down the minute she gets home and does all her homework. Unfortunately, the same is not true of our 7-year-old,” a mom writes. “We tried nagging, taking away privileges to no avail. Homework was a chore and stressful for all of us. Until we devised the star system. He has 30 minutes to finish his homework (they are given about 10-15 minutes worth of homework). Neatness and correct spelling count. If he beats the clock, he gets a star. He must get all five stars that week for the reward to take place. Once he has five stars he can pick anything he wants to do, and the whole family has to come along. Our weekends are now occupied with bowling, mountain biking, eating at his favorite hamburger place and the homework woes are behind us.”

Use healthy activity as a reward:

“Homework has been a breeze with one of mine but with the other it has been an unbelievable uphill battle, especially this year,” writes a single mother of three daughters, two of them school age.

“Our town just built an indoor pool and since it is winter in Vermont, swimming at this time of year is considered ‘awesome’ by all three of the kids. So, we set up a reward program: Every night that they can show me that they have completed their homework while at the after-school program or did as much as the people there could help them with, then we will grab a quick sandwich at home and swim for about two hours before the pool closes. Either one whose homework was not done due to lack of genuine effort has to come and just sit on the pool deck to do their homework while the sisters and I swim. This has worked like a charm!

“Find a good, wholesome activity that your kid really likes and that you know you can commit to every night if your kid lives up to their end of the bargain, then make it contingent upon their completion of homework (or for older kids, hard work on it for a set amount of time). If they can’t do the activity because they did not do their part, they have no one to blame but themselves, right?”


Beat the clock:

Our son has yet to get real homework, but he does math and reading practice work,” an Oregon mother of a six-year-old writes. “There are many times that he tries to complain and get out of it. A good tool is using stop watches for math. Boys like being challenged and to beat their previous time. …

“We also try to divide some of the homework (on weekends), half in the morning, the other half at night (reading is good at night and for 30 minutes). It also helps if mom/dad or sibling is sitting too, doing their homework or busy work at the same time to show that he/she is not the only one who has to do something.”

Be Available

Many readers emphasized the importance of being available to help, even though it can be a challenge for a busy parent to carve out time every day to do so.

Make the kitchen table a homework center:

A Connecticut mother of two, ages 9 and 13, says talking to her children about homework is valuable for them – and for her. “I give my kids a snack with a drink while doing their homework. Also I sit at the table, discuss it with them. They like to share their homework with me and I also have learned from them …When they have a test coming up in school we play a game out of their studying to make sure they know the material for the test…”

Do your own “homework” at the same time:

“I find that it is helpful to let my daughter have her snack after school, watch a little television and unwind from the long day before I have her start her homework,” writes a single Arizona mom of a 7-year-old. “I also take time from my busy schedule to sit with her and either read or do my bills so that she understands it is quiet time. She doesn’t feel so bad if she’s not the only one concentrating on something. Believe me, not all days are so easy!”

Helping a child with ADD:

“My tips are certainly not new, but they have been very instrumental in helping my son with ADD do his homework,” writes a mother who describes herself as a “military mom on the move.” “We have learned that giving short breaks help along with allowing the child to pick what subject they want to tackle first. Giving your child options lets them feel more in control of their surroundings, which in turn creates a better work environment. This would be great for all kids, not just children who have a hard time focusing. I also recommend setting time aside for your child, in case they need help. I make sure I sit in the same room with my child and can get to him quickly when he gets frustrated or needs help.

“I also have a child who needs no help with homework. Don’t take this for granted. Always ask what they are doing, if it is difficult and if they like a certain subject or not. This may help eliminate surprises when it is time for progress reports/ reports cards to be sent home.”