As a parent of two, very different boys, and having taught for over twenty years, you’d think I’d have homework mastered, by now. Well, even I find myself slipping into the trap of thinking, ‘They’re old enough to get on with things on their own. All I need to do is keep reminding them to stay on task.” Big mistake! It does not seem to matter how old they get, they still have homework assignments that send them over the edge. Sometimes, we just need to help our child to break down tasks.
My eldest has difficulty with understanding how to break tasks down into bite size pieces, and often does not fully understand what he is being asked to do – even at 17. He is a very literal thinker, and finds inferential thinking, tough. He also can misunderstand even the simplest of instructions – well they might seem simple to you or me.
For example: He was regularly assigned projects for homework, and the teacher would break down the steps to be completed, with the obvious first step being –
So, for every single assignment, he would start off with, “Hi my name is… and this is my project on…”
None of his teachers ever corrected him. I had to sit him down, and explain to him that wasn’t what they meant about an introduction, and explain what they were really looking for. My youngest is more independent – but only if he really understands what he has to do. He still needs help with understanding his homework assignments, and how to go about completing them.
I am sure you have encountered every procrastination technique that they can dream up;- ‘I’m hungry. I’m thirsty. I’m tired! I just need to go to the toilet.’ OR ‘I’ve been concentrating for half an hour, can I take a quick break?’ Doodling, day-dreaming, tearing hair out, or banging the desk in frustration, or simply going very quiet and withdrawn. Anything, but the homework that needs to be completed. Seriously, if your child is adopting a Professor Procrastinator persona or Doctor Delay demeanour – it is a total waste of time to yell at them, threaten them or bribe them to get on with their homework. All it will do is escalate stress levels, on all fronts. Instead, ask yourself what could possibly be at the root of the problem, and build from there.
So if your child is struggling to settle to task, you should probably be asking a few different questions.
1. Does my child fully understand what the homework task is asking of him/her?
If they haven’t settled to task quickly, they most likely don’t understand what is being expected of them. So sitting down and having that dialogue with them, will help, enormously. It is also important at this stage, to make use of de-stressing techniques, like ear massage, or deep, slow breathing, or hands held lightly across the forehead, to draw stress out of the body.
Ensure your child can explain to you, fully, what they need to do, and check they have understood it clearly. It will be tremendously frustrating to spend ages on an assignment, only to find out that they have misunderstood the task. This can be clarified simply through encouraging them to talk about what they think their task is, using a few carefully directed questions, to check their understanding and thinking. How does it relate to things they have been doing at school?
2. Do they know how to break the task down into manageable steps?
In order to complete any task, you need to ask yourself lots of questions. It will be the same for your child. What do they want to do? What ideas do they have? What steps do they think they might need to take to get there?
Many individuals can find this process a minefield to even begin trying to get their heads around – and so the procrastination sets in. They genuinely have no idea where to start. So modelling with them on how to approach a task, is a useful life tool to equip them with. Try to get the steps to be taken, from them, through careful questioning, so that they learn how to develop the breaking down of tasks, for themselves.
Step 1 =
Step 2 =
Step 3 =
3. What should the first step, be?
So they have been able to explain what it is they have to do and discussed ideas of what they want to achieve. BUT – How are they going to get there? This is something that lots of individuals have trouble breaking down. They need to be taught how to do so. We wrongly assume that everyone is able to work out the steps for themselves – or that it is something that is securely taught in all schools. Many need it to be modelled, repeatedly. The home environment can feel like a very different place than school. Not all children realise that the skills they practise at school, have a cross over and relevance to other aspects of their lives. There are those who will compartmentalise their learning at school and need to be encouraged to recognise the relevance outside of school.
As you help your child to identify their steps, always encourage your child to initiate them and to do the work, themselves. As parents, our best support is that of FACILITATOR, not DOER.
Where should they begin? What is it they have to find out? Why do they have to find it out/do it? Where are they going to look? What key words might they use to search for information?
What will their steps be, to achieve the completed assignment? For example:
b) Make notes – How? (bullet points, key words, mind map)
c) Draft /Plan layout – thumb nail sketches, rough sketch
d) Write it out/Create it
This is where a technique like Kanban can be really useful – whether it is on a tablet, the study/kitchen/bedroom wall, or on a pin board or a door.
Keep the steps that need to be taken, as simple and clear as possible. Jot them down on bits of paper/card or sticky notes. Sort them into sequential order in the TO DO column.
Then your child can move the first one or two tasks, into the middle DOING column. That is what they focus on completing.
Once the current tasks are completed, they move the sticky notes into the DONE column.
Only then, do they move onto the next task, which is moved into the DOING column.
Continue in this manner, until the task is completed.
For a child who struggles with sequencing of thought, retention of instructions etc, this is a great visual tool, which they can control. By only focussing on one or two steps at a time, your child is more likely to progress through to completing, without feeling too overwhelmed.
Pace the homework at a rate that works for your child, with regular breaks. Know your child’s concentration levels, and work around them. Everyone is an individual. Children need down time, and a chance to play, too. I choose to give my son some down time when he gets home from school, because he has had a long day, already. However, he knows that the down time has a cut off point and he has to settle to homework by a given time, which we have agreed, at the start of the new academic year.
Drinking water throughout, will also help keep the brain hydrated, which aids in clarity of thought and action.