Setting Up For School Success

Of all the myriad aspects that make up the school year -- routines, extracurricular activities, early mornings, pick up and drop off plans -- the one that challenges parents the most is homework. And most parents (and children too!) close their eyes to its inevitable occurrence thereby finding themselves ensnarled in power struggles and tantrums with each other once homework passes through the portals of their previously calm home. Let's look at an alternative to the closed eyes route and see how you might be able to set your child up for success even before school begins.

It's striking that even though we live in a democracy we often fail to recognize one of the basic principles upon which our country was built and by which we live on a daily basis -- that people are more likely to live by rules that they help to make up. This foundational principle is no less true when dealing with your children. In fact, many schools now recognize this and engage children in discussion at the beginning of the school year about classroom rules finding that, in doing so, children remember the rules more clearly and stick to them more closely. This basic principle is also useful in dealing with homework in a proactive manner.

Prior to school beginning, engage your child in a discussion about homework. Say that you'd like to settle upon a satisfactory arrangement for both of you with regard to how and when the homework gets done, and elicit your child's opinion about what his needs and thoughts may be. Ask your child outright when he thinks the best time to do homework would be. As you listen, keep in mind some basic guidelines that will make this discussion a productive one:

* Listen without judgement. This is perhaps the most difficult of the guidelines, yet one of the most critical. Remember that if you appear judgmental, if you shoot down your child's ideas (as wild and crazy as they may sound) then your child will get the impression that this is not a discussion at all, but simply a way to manipulate him into doing what you want him to do. As the object of this discussion is to allow your child to help make up the rules for homework, it will backfire the minute he thinks that it's a ploy to force your ideas upon him.

* Write down the key points that both you and your child make during this discussion. Children feel taken seriously when you write down what they say. The more seriously your child feels you take her, the more likely she is to take herself (and her homework) seriously.

* Remember that different personalities have different needs. Some children do much better with a "work first, play later" philosophy. This means that a schedule for homework that involves eating their after school snack while they do their homework and playing afterwards will be conducive to their getting homework done quickly and efficiently. Other children, however, need a half hour or so of down time after school to play with their toys, read a book, or talk on the phone to a friend. If your child feels that some down time is necessary, respect that need. But don't make the amount of time open-ended. Ask him to set a specific time that will signify the end of "down time" and the beginning of homework.

* Work TV rules into the homework schedule. TV is seductive. Most children would rather be passively entertained than to actively do schoolwork. How much television your children watch and when they watch it should be your decision, not your child's. Determine ahead of time whether or not television will be allowed during the week.

* Don't let things get too late. Most kids don't do particularly well on homework if it's done close to bedtime. If your child wants to do homework immediately prior to bed agree to try it for a week, with the arrangement that if it's not working out, either because bedtime then gets pushed too late or because your child has trouble thinking clearly at that hour, then the two of you will come up with a different time frame.

* Remember your role. The more you can remain your child's advocate as opposed to your child's critic, the better your relationship will be and the better homework your child will produce. Allow your child's teacher to do his or her job -- that of teaching your child. If your child's homework isn't "perfect" let him go to school with it that way and trust that the teacher will make the necessary corrections. If the teacher doesn't, then it's time for a parent-teacher conference.

* Review the homework rules. Agree with your child that the "rules" you set up for the how and when of doing homework will be reviewed in a week or so by the two of you to determine how it's working out. That way, neither of you will feel stuck in a system that's not functioning properly. Do set up a specific date and time for this review.

* And finally, remember the 6 - 8 week rule: It takes children, parents and even teachers between six to eight weeks to adjust to a new school year, NO MATTER WHAT GRADE your child is entering! So if things are a little rocky, if a power struggle pops up now and then, if everyone seems a little cranky at first, keep in mind that usually by Halloween (or a little after) most families have adjusted to the demands of a new school year.