The Homework Trap, Dr. Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.

The Homework Trap

by Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.

  • Do you fight with your child night after night to get the homework done? Have you talked with his teachers, but nothing seems to change?
  • Are you at your wit’s end?
  • Do you still have hair, or have you pulled it out?

Perhaps, you are in the homework trap.

Here’s what may be happening with your child.

The problem starts in elementary school. The notes come home, and the parents get “the call.” They meet with the teachers as everyone tries to get on the “same page.” Before long, the cast of characters grows. By middle school, there are several teachers fretting over what these children do not do. The nurse and disciplinarian may get involved. The parents feel pressured to oversee the work, and criticized as if they’re doing something wrong. These parents would do anything to help their children, yet nothing reaps results. Soon, they realize that the efforts they are making are doing more harm than good.

A key misconception is the “myth of motivation.” We think these children are lazy, as if they differ from other children. These children don’t complete their work because of what I call “under the radar” learning problems. Minor difference in learning capabilities have major implications for work that’s sent home, much more than they have for work done in class. The issue is pace. No one questions that the slow running child really wants to win the race. Yet, somehow we think that slow working children don’t really want to learn.

People don’t usually spend lots of time engaging in tasks where they don’t do well. Yet, homework trapped children are forced to keep struggling for hours on end with little reward. These children would be far better off if they only had to work for a fixed amount of time than to face the demand to get every worksheet done. The child, who is forced to work without boundaries, will predictably learn how to avoid.

Excessive homework pressures teach children to lie, forget, argue, and procrastinate. Curiously, this eventually brings in the child study team, not to address learning problems, but because the child is “bad.” With that, the child may get placed in a different class or sent to another school where, voila, homework is no longer required. It’s an odd turn of events that these homework trapped children, who could have succeeded with homework relief, only get that relief after they’ve acted out.

I offer three very simple, but crucial adjustments for homework trapped children (which I frankly think should be policy for all).

They are:

1. Time bound homework. Just like school starts and stops by the clock, define homework as a fixed period of time. See what the child can do in a reasonable amount of time and work with that child on using the time well.
2. Reduced penalties. Zeros factored in at twenty-five percent of the grade is too harsh of a penalty to encourage good behavior. Lesser consequences are far more effective in mobilizing the child. They also allow the parent some space to approach the issue calmly.
3. Respect lines of authority. Teachers are in charge of their classrooms. Parents should tread lightly on telling them what to do. Parents are the people who are in charge of their homes. Teachers should not tell them how to organize their homes. In the end, when decisions are made about behaviors in the home (i.e. homework), the parent needs to be the one who has the final say.

I know there is controversy about how much homework children should get. It’s an important debate but not the one I’m concerned with today. I’ll leave that to teachers, the experts in education, to make recommendations about what makes sense. But in developing their models, it is critical for teachers to understand that homework takes place on borrowed ground. Homework should require the parents’ tacit permission to allow it in their homes. While most parents give it without much thought, they also need to know they can withdraw that permission, without consequence to their child’s education.

Dr. Kenneth Goldberg is a clinical psychologist with 35 years of professional experience. In his book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers, Dr. Goldberg provides new insights into persistent homework problems, with unique ideas for what parents and teachers can do. This article is adapted from one that appeared in Answer Sheet, the Washington Post education blog, on April 6, 2012.

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