Tuesday, January 31, 2012

On Winning the Battle but Losing the War

Recently, I've seen some interesting comments about individual parents taking bold stands setting limits for their children with their teachers.  Alfie Kohn published a sample letter for parents to send to teachers.  Yesterday, a contributor to Sara Bennett's Stop Homework Facebook page discussed the position she took with her child's school. Everyday, there are cases of individual parents fighting and winning these battles with the school.  I did that several times with my homework trapped child. The problem is that you can win the battle but lose the war.  Your child will attend thirteen years of public school from K through 12 and have about 40 teachers over that span. Those teachers will differ in personality and beliefs, and will vary greatly in how they respond to the positions you take.  I can think of one parent I advised, in my clinical practice, to take a rational stand with her son.  She did.  The teacher was amenable, and her child' life improved.  The next year, the same battle but this time with a different response, and her feelings of helplessness prevail.  This is why, in part, I'm less inclined to take on the educational questions as some of my colleagues have.  I want teachers to figure out their theories of teaching, and not feel pressured by me, a parent and a psychologist, to think it through for them. In the end, I know that education will improve if teachers rethink, reduce, and possibly eliminate, homework from their craft.  But I'd rather let them figure that out, but set a common understanding of the parameters in which they work.  Teachers -- you are in charge of your class.  Parents -- you are in charge of your home. We will work together for the sake of our children. We know that parents want children to learn as much as teachers want them to learn, and that parents are willing to defer to teachers on educational matters, just as we defer to doctors regarding health, accountants regarding our taxes, mechanics to fix our cars.  But we do that as educated consumers and we retain the final say about what we're going to do.  The issue for me is not what is the right amount of homework, but making it clear that parents are the final decision-makers for matters in the home. Once the lines of authority are established and commonly accepted, this changes the context in which teachers can develop their educational theories.  Give homework -- okay.  Don't give homework -- fine.  Whatever makes sense from an educational point of view. But in all cases understand that homework takes place on another person's turf.  We don't need angry letters about what homework we'll allow as parents. We don't need finely crafted ones either.  We simply need the power to say this is what's going to happen in our homes. In the end, the majority of parents accept the teacher's judgment on homework assignments, and those who do not would readily alter their positions if the assignments made sense and if the time required seemed reasonable to them.  So I applaud the efforts that others have worked to arm parents with tools to take on the school.  I've done it myself.  But, from my experience, it can be a never-ending battle, one with periodic successes, but one which must be refought year after year.  This is why it is so important for parents of homework trapped children to come together, without shame for the difficulties their children have, and advocate for the position that they are in charge of the home. There is research to suggest that there are just as many parents clamoring for more homework as there are asking for less, and that the average parent is okay with what is going on.  We need to move that dialogue from an effort to find consensus among parents about how much homework is to be done, to a consensus over the fact that the parent is in charge of the home. Let teachers figure out what they think makes sense (hopefully through serious inservice training and research review), knowing that their power is limited on matters outside of their class.

Monday, January 30, 2012

Comment on Middle School Students

In a Facebook conversation, a reader raised the question about what happens to homework trapped children in middle school. This is a lifespan issue that moves from elementary school through middle school, to high school, and into adult life. The child who is ill equipped to handle elementary school homework in a reasonable amount of time, is completely unprepared for middle school where he has four or five teachers, all giving assignments which converge into one space, the home. What these children do is they start out doing all the work for some of their teachers and none of the work for the others. Rather than get recognized and rewarded for what they did, they get criticized for the class they are failing. Then, like a house of cards, the begin to fail in successive classes, one by one. One of the worst myths about these kids is that they are unmotivated. In fact, if you watch these kids carefully, they are highly motivated at the beginning of each year. In September, they come back to school convinced that this will be a better year. They come to school with their notebooks and pencils and backpacks, sure they will do well. With four or five teachers, they have no trouble doing all the work for one or two teachers. They're happy and tell their parents they are aceing school this year. Then, they feel ashamed as the criticisms start to come in. They hide the fact that they failed to do some assignments and before long, they are treated as if they are lying and unmotivated. What gets missed is that they are highly motivated at the beginning of the year. But they can't handle the assignments. And now, it's no longer ten minutes of work that takes them twenty minutes to do, but, say they are in seventh grade, 70 minutes of work which would take them over two hours to do. It can't be done. They get misundestood. Parents are pushed by the school into ganging up on their own kids. And the kids shut down.

Sunday, January 29, 2012

Dinner with Mom

Maryka and I had dinner with my mother last night.  She is a retired social worker who happened to have been a school teacher before becoming a social worker. She shared with us a story about what she would do with her class at the end of the day before they were dismissed.  She gave them interesting math challenge problems to do.  She went on to say that it was an inner city school and her class was difficult to control.  The kids would get unruly during lessons where they had to read. But in general, the kids were better at math than they were at reading, except when it came to word problems. So at the end of the day, to keep order, she gave them math problems to do. The kids enjoyed the problems and did not act out.  I found this interesting since it goes so well with my concept that homework problems are not behavioral problems, but learning problems in disguise. It is not that kids are bad and don't do their homework. It's that kids can't do their homework (for one reason or another), get pressured, and then act out.  Over time, acting out becomes a way to deal with homework pressure, and then becomes an automatic response whenever homework is expected.  It's extremely important when a child has persistent homework problems to look at the issue as an educational, not a behavioral problem.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

On being homework trapped?

I've been using the concept, homework-trap, quite freely. Perhaps, I haven't made it clear the difference between having ordinary homework problems and being truly homework trapped. Reading Etta Kralovec's review of my book reminded me that there are differences between kids and that my concept applies to about 10 to 25 percent of all kids. There is a general homework debate. And there are kids who have occasional homework problems. These are not the homework trapped kids. The difference lies in the enduring and persistent nature of the problem, and the way in which it accumulates from one year to the next, and, the way in which parent-teacher efforts to solve the problem only makes matters worse. There are lots of kids with occasional homework problems. There are kids who have had a bad year at school. There are kids who have trouble in one or two classes -- perhaps they don't like the subject or they class with the teacher. Possibly, there are things going on in their lives at that particular point in time which make it hard for them to focus on school. These are not homework trapped kids. The kids I'm discussing are in a downhill slide which starts in elementary school, proceeds into middle school, where they lack the skills to manage multiple demands from several different teachers, and eventually intrudes into high school life -- often taking them away from the vital activities we want our high school children to enjoy. The implications for adulthood can be severe, as teens are prone to risk-taking behaviors, and homework-trapped kids gravitate toward less school-oriented peers. So, if you just had a fight with your kid, who usually does his work, because he had a bad night, don't go out and buy my book. But if you are having persistent problems, day after day, then you and your child may be homework-trapped.

Must see letter

Alfie Kohn, a leading critic of homework policy, just tweeted a model letter for parents to use to have their children opt out of homework. I think this is a very interesting approach and one which could certainly be of use for the parent of a homework-trapped student.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Book Reviews

I was just honored to receive two, pre-publication reviews of my book, "The Homework Trap," one by Etta Kralovec and one by Sara Bennett. Ever since Sputnik, our country has been on a mission to improve its educational system so that we can better compete with other countries around the world. With that movement, in stages, we kept increasing our children's homework load. Dr. Kralovec was a pioneer of the anti-homework movement, speaking out in 2001 in her co-authored book, "The End of Homework." Her book stood alone among books that were available to the public, challenging this homework madness. In 2007, Ms. Bennett, a parent, released her volume, further questioning what we were doing to our kids. I had the privilege of meeting Dr. Kralovec and Ms. Bennett in 2007, when Dr. Kralovec invited me to participate on a homework panel she organized at the annual conference of the American Educational Research Association. Their reviews are posted on my website.

Status of the book

I thought this might be a good time, with the launching of my new The Homework Trap Facebook page, to bring people up to date on the status of the book. The book is complete and has been fully copy edited. I received the mock-up from the publisher. A mock-up is an initial layout of the book, the first chapter or two, so that I could review how the book would present visually. We made some minor adjustments regarding the actual size of the book (there are several standard book sizes), but outside of that, the layout came out very well. The book is now back in the publisher's hands to complete the entire layout. I'll do a final review for editing and last minute changes, but, frankly, I don't expect there to be any or many. Once that is done, the book will be ready for production, once the cover is done. You've probably seen the front cover. The only issues for the cover now involve finishing the spine, once we know exactly how large it will be, and adding the pre-publication blurbs. I posted one, from Sara Bennett, on my website . I just received a review from Etta Kralovec, which I'll try to post tonight when I get time. I'm waiting for a couple of other back cover blurbs, but once that's done, the book should be ready to go. I think it will be on Amazon.com before the end of the February, and available on the Kindle a week or two later. So that's where things stand. I appreciate everyone who has expressed an interest in the book, and certainly welcome your efforts to share what I'm doing, with people you know. I believe that no less than 10% and up to 25% of all kids have serious homework problems. I read somewhere that nearly 50% of families have had all-out screaming matches over homework, at least once, but I don't consider that a good measure of being homework-trapped. Anyone who has had kids knows that situations come up where parents and children clash. The issue with being homework-trapped is not the occasional battle, not the occasional missed assignment, not parental concerns that society is giving children too much to do (I would refer you back to Sara Bennett, Etta Kralovec, and others for that), but for those family which get intractably caught in a negatively spiraling situation where homework dominates the home, and parent-teacher efforts to get the child going only seem to make matters worse.

Monday, January 23, 2012

Article on Homework

Here's the link to an article on homework in the Harvard Graduate School of Education Magazine on homework. The issue is different from what I address in my book, but it reviews what others have been saying about homework policy in general. My focus is on the individual child who is drowning under the weight of homework, and failing or at risk of failing, whereas this article, and what has been said in general to date, applies to kids who may be succeeding at school, but suffering in other ways from having too much homework.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

January 17 Reflections

I'm in my office, now, just finishing up, and it seems like every day, I run into at least one person for whom homework has dominated that person's life in a negative way. Sometimes I talk with these people after they've grown up, and sometimes I see them as children, and talk with their parents. I hear stories of nightly battles to get the work done with the parents thinking there is something seriously flawed about the child, and I pose the question: What do you think would happen if you limited your child's homework to a half hour each night? The half hour is over and the requirement is done. These parents are shocked to hear this notion (although they feel powerless to put it in place), yet almost always recognize what a difference it would make for family life, if they had the power to make that decision. Imagine, homework in a container. It doesn't dominate life. It gets done. It gets somewhat done. Maybe there are days it doesn't get done at all. But it comes to an end, and life can go on.

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Table of Contents

A couple of days ago, I posted the Table of Contents for my book, The Homework Trap, on my website. Here, I'll give a further explanation about the book and why it is organized in these particular chapters. The Homework Trap addresses a problem that affects anywhere from 10 to 25 percent of all kids. These kids flounder in such significant ways that homework is doing them much more harm than good. At this time, there is an active debate over homework policy. There are several excellent books on the market that question homework's value for kids in general. For the most part, I support the positions of those authors. Yet, regardless of what society, as a whole, decides do about homework, these particular kids are being seriously harmed. If you are the parent of one of these kids, you cannot wait for educational philosophy to change or for your school to figure things out.

The first chapter of The Homework Trap is called "The Core of the Problem." Here, I explain why, for these children, difficulties with homework is a lifespan problem, one which affects the child at every grade, into adulthood, and is worsened, not helped, by joint parent-teacher efforts. The second chapter, The Myth of Motivation, addresses a fundamental misconception that homework non compliant children are lazy or unmotivated, and that they could do the work if they just tried harder. It is critical to understand that these children cannot do their work, at least not enough of it to get out of the homework trap. The next three chapters, Behavioral Factors, Modeling and Maturation, and The Systems Effect, apply concepts from psychology to explain why standard approaches don't work. After all, I'm a psychologist, not an educator.

The sixth chapter is The Learning Problems. Here, I highlight two major reasons why otherwise bright children cannot handle their homework. The seventh chapter, What to Do, offers strategies that the parent can use at home, can propose to the school, and can share with other parents who are in similar binds. Chapter 8 summarizes the book.

The Homework Trap is a reasonably short book. It does not address everything you wanted to know about homework, but were afraid to ask. Rather, it enlightens parents and teachers about why certain children chronically fail to do their work. It's not that their behavior interferes with learning. Rather, they start out motivated, cannot handle the assignments, feel frustrated, and only then become problematic in their behavior.

Please feel free to Comment on this entry.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Community Service for High School Students

There’s an interesting article in the Washington Post in which Alfie Kohn, a leading critic of modern homework policy, and the author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, comments on proposals to mandate community service for high school children. I would like to add one thought to his interesting comments. Regardless of the merits and drawbacks of such policies, there is still the notion of time. How much do we as a society, and parents in particular, want the school to tell our children how they should spend their time. I’m an advocate of time based homework requirements. The prevailing standard for homework is ten minutes per grade per night. Although I often think that might be too much, let’s stay with that number for now. So where does the community service time come? From the 90 to 120 minutes we already expect our high school students to work after school? I doubt it. I think those who advocate such requirements don’t typically think about the source of that time. If we truly think it’s important for kids to engage in community service (and I do believe we should introduce our children to social justice issues), then when should it occur? It is certainly a different matter for young people to participate in community service with their parents, with their religious organizations, and as activities they choose to do on their own. But when it comes to the school, we need boundaries. If community projects are good for children, is it instead of their other assignments? Or in addition to them?

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Philadelphia Inquirer article.

On January 3, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an excellent article on homework, highlighting the debate and identifying what many schools are doing to make homework more meaningful and more manageable. I applaud this article along with the efforts of so many involved. Yet, I want to highlight one detail, where it is noted that the Lower Merion School District has decided that children should do ten minutes per grade per night. This is the Harris Cooper standard. Harris Cooper is considered the foremost homework researcher and its a standard he's advocated at different times. Personally, I think it's a bit too much, yet not a bad standard, particularly if educators work to develop more meaningful forms of homework to give. But what's ten minutes? Ten minutes by the clock? The teacher's estimate? What the average child can do in ten minutes? Unless we agree to define homework time by the clock, lower penalties for work not done, and vest parents with authority (after all, who else certifies what the child did), we'll still have kids intractibly crushed under homework demands, simply because they work more slowly than the rest. Time must be time, not anyone's best guess. To read the article, click http://articles.philly.com/2012-01-03/news/30583510_1_homework-policy-middle-school-gfs/4. Click here to return to my website, www.thehomeworkdoctor.com.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Welcome to the Homework Trap

In about two months, I expect to release my book, The Homework Trap. Starting this week, I will begin posting weekly blogs on homework and other education and psychology related topics. Watch for upcoming blogs, and visit my website for information about homework and my upcoming book. www.thehomeworkdoctor.com.