Friday, January 27, 2012

Why NOT to ask, "Is your homework done?"

Although my three children are all adults now, I remember the nightly family rituals around homework well.  As a working mother, evenings were crammed with things needing to be done.  Usually, one of the tasks for my kids was school assignments.  The task for me was to be available to help if they needed it, which was not always easy.

I began teaching when my oldest was eight, so when she and her siblings began bringing assignments home I had both a parental and a professional interest in what they were doing.  As a science instructor I usually had lab reports or some papers to grade after dinner, so it was not uncommon for me to sit at the kitchen table and do my "homework" while they were doing theirs.  We would discuss what they were working on and I would give nudges when they became distracted.  I remember being fascinated listening to my kids debate essay prompts like "How is the Communist Manifesto like the Declaration of Independence?" I have to admit I sometimes joined in.

When they were older I began a Master's Degree program and now had actual assignments from my own instructors, along with the prep and grading required by my job.  As teens, my girls took on the role of helping me examine my thinking, and encouraging me to get back to my writing, or to take a break if I obviously needed it.  We still often shared the kitchen table as we worked.

Back then I was not consciously aware of the power of modeling my love of learning and the excitement of mastering an intellectual challenge.  Even as an educator I hadn't really thought much about the underlying psychology at work in our shared learning / homework rituals.  Now—as a preventionist—I can see how lucky I was to have stumbled by necessity onto something that worked well. 

The secret was not that I was acutely aware of whether or not they had done their homework.  The secret is that I asked them about the content of their homework, what they were struggling with, and what they needed for help to be able to be successful.  I now know that asking what their assignments were, which ones they thought would be a snap, which ones they were intrigued by, and which ones they thought were dumb (and why) made a difference.  As I mentioned before, I didn't ask these things because I knew that doing so would more likely instill a commitment to school and learning.  I asked because as a teacher I was extra curious...and, because I was sitting right beside them at the table and could hear the dramatic sighs or emphatic calculator key pushes.

So, where am I going with this?  My goal, and the goal of the Five Town Communities That Care Coalition is to help our local kids thrive.  We know that when kids aren't committed to school or learning they are more likely to engage in problem behaviors that may lead to heartbreak and challenges later on.  We also know that schools themselves aren't the only things that influence our youth to love learning and to be committed to their education.  Families and the larger community does as well.

Questions like, "Is your homework done?" send a message that completion of the task is what is important.  If this is the only message that young people hear they may internalize that what matters is getting the stuff done so that they can get the grades.  Changing the question to "What assignment do you have tonight?"  and asking followup questions about what the topic of the assignments are and offering help can change that pattern.  This can lead to more healthy ideas about the importance of learning AND of getting decent grades.  It can also reduce the likelihood that these young people will get involved in problem adolescent behaviors .

The US Department of Education has a great tip sheet for parents and caregivers about homework. I encourage you to take a look at it.

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