Sunday, April 21, 2013

An example of the homework trap

A major tenet of The Homework Trap is that parents must be the final decision-makers in the home while teachers can remain the final decision-makers at school. This rational demarcation of authority gets muddied when parents fear that the decisions they make limiting homework will lead to serious consequences for their child at school. A second major tenet is that persistent homework problems have to do with learning and not behavior. A third major tenet is that children need time-bound, rather than assignment based containers within which to work.

The other day, a frustrated parent contacted me about the problem she was having. We had a brief, e-conversation, in which I shared my advice. She gave me permission to publish our conversation (without identifying her by name).  Here is what was said.

Parent's question:

My eight-year-old son is in the homework trap. He is the youngest of four and the only one who got trapped. I have begged his teacher to modify homework assignments for him in a way that he could actually complete them or, in a way that whatever is more important for his grades, could get done. She's always said no. Sometimes, I have made the decision to prioritize important assignments and ignore the rest, but his grades suffer because she gives him zeros for undone assignments. I have had multiple teacher-parent conferences with no results. I just keep being told that homework is for a reason and that it wouldn't be fair to allow my son to do less homework than his peers and that homework should not take him any longer than 30 minutes to complete (which is actually impossible).

I want to make a formal request that homework be done at my discretion and request that he be graded for what he knows and not for the amount of work he does. How can I make my request strong enough that she listens?

My response:

I would start by setting my own time based standard for homework. At 8 years of age, I think 20 minutes a night, Monday through Thursday is fair. If you think 30 is better, that’s okay. If you think a prep time for the next week Sunday night is good, that’s okay, too. It is your decision but let your child know your rule (not just you backing up the teacher) and that he’s fulfilled his obligation when the time is up. He’ll do more under those conditions. That is the only thing you can do entirely on your own. Next, I would tell the teacher of your decision, no hostility, just something that is non-negotiable. I would ask for her input on prioritizing assignments: which is most important, which should be done first. Once the teacher sees you are serious and non-combative, she might bend.

If she won’t work with you, I would (again without hostility) suggest that you bring in a third party, like the principal, to join the discussion.

It is very important that you have copies of my book for everyone who is involved in the discussion (you, the teacher, the principal). Everything I say in the book is somewhere on my website or blog, but that only helps you, since you have chosen to read what I say. The book is written to be a tool, not just a source of information, and intended to be shared with people who do not readily agree with you. It is a short book, and one you can reasonably expect professional educators to read. If you insure that they have copies, then you have a basis to refer back to a particular page or concept in a book they have in their possession. You can ask them to respond to what I say, not just what you are saying about your child.

Parent's response a few days later:

Just to thank you and to give you an update.

After I contacted you, I let the teacher know my son was going to work on homework for 30 minutes a day how you explained it to me and asked for her advise in prioritizing assignments.

We started that on Wednesday. It's only been 2 days and my son is even liking it. The teacher is not liking it yet but since she said homework shouldn't take more than 30 minutes, she is now realizing my son, for some reason, is not able to complete full homework in that time. My inquiry got all the way up to the principal, who, even though she was not familiar with your concept, she took the time to review my case and to ask me questions. The next day, she sent me a note telling me not to worry and that they will work with us.

Thank you!

For more information on Dr. Goldberg's model, read other postings on this blog, visit his website, The Homework Trap, or read his book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers. 


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