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How To Help your Kids With Homework?

Written by Kristen Stuppy MD

Any parent with school aged children knows that homework can be a battle. Even good students can procrastinate, prefer to play, or have practice after school leaving little time for homework. Then there are the kids who struggle.

I think I threw my son’s middle school homeroom teacher for a loop on back to school night. She mentioned that I can always look on line to see the assignments, and I replied something to the effect of, “I don’t have homework, so I’ll never look. It is his responsibility to know what is due.” I am not an absent parent.

I do ask about his day, what he’s doing in class, and what his plans are with friends. He knows I care because I show interest in him, but I don’t micro-manage his day. I do not want to be the parent responsible for the college kid who fails because Mommy can’t manage his schedule.

Of course, I know my son and he’s self motivated and capable of keeping track of assignments. Another child might need more help, but at this age I would recommend covertly looking at the assignments and guiding with questions and looking for the student to offer solutions and plans to get the work done.

How can you help your kids with homework without letting it become your problem?

I am a firm believer that kids are the students, not the parents. Kids need to take ownership of their homework and all other aspects of school. Of course, for many kids this is easier said than done, but I hear all too often of college kids who have Mommy call the Professor to question a grade. That is totally unacceptable. Kids need to practice ownership from early on. Parents need to guide always, but manage less and less as the kids grow.

Not every solution comes from a cookie cutter mold. Kids have different personalities and abilities. You know your kids best. Think how they work and what makes them tick.

Many parents underestimate the problem with missing out on basics: sleep, nutrition, and exercise. If kids don’t get the amount of sleep they need, healthy foods, and regular exercise, they will not be as successful academically. I have blogged on this previously, and really feel that finding balance is important for everyone.

Kids have different problems with homework at different times, and they each deserve their own solutions. Not one of these “types” fits every child perfectly. Most kids have more than one of these qualities, but tend to fit into one type best.

Procrastination:

There is always something more fun to do than work. Kids will put off overwhelming tasks or big projects because, well, there’s a lot to do.

Ask not only what homework they have for tomorrow, but if there are any big projects due in the future. See if they can estimate how much time it will take to do the project and help them plan how much to do each night to get it done on time.

Breaking big assignments or long worksheets into small pieces with short breaks in between can help kids focus. Use a timer for breaks or do a fun quick activity, like silly dance to one song.

Allow kids to have some “down” time after school for a healthy snack (brain food) and to run off energy. Limit this time with a timer to 30 minutes or so. The timer helps kids know there is an end point to the fun, and then it’s time for work. Play can resume when work is done correctly.

Poor Self Confidence:

Kids who are afraid they won’t understand their homework might fear even starting. They blame the teacher for not teaching it correctly. They might complain that they are stupid or everyone else is smarter. They blame the class for being too loud, causing distraction and therefore more homework. They might complain of chronic headaches or belly aches.

Be sure to praise when kids do things right and when they give a good try. Be honest, but try to think of something positive to tell them each day. When they don’t meet expectations, first see if they can see the mistake and find a solution themselves. Guide without giving the solution. Then praise the effort!

Find their strengths and allow them to follow those. If they are poor in math but love art, keep art materials at home and display their projects with pride. Consider an art class. Remember to budget time. Over scheduling can result in anxiety, contributing to the problems.

Perfectionist:

While the desire to do everything right has it’s benefits, it can cause a lot of anxiety in kids. These kids think through things so much that they can’t complete the task. See also the “poor self confidence” section above, because these kids are at risk for feeling they are failures if they don’t get a 100% on everything. They can have melt downs if the directions don’t make sense or if they have a lot of work to do.

Help your child learn organizational techniques, such as write down assignments and estimate time to do each project. Plan how much time to spend each day on big projects and limit to that time. Help them review their progress in the middle of big projects to see if they are on track. If not, have them establish another calendar and learn to review why they are behind. (No self-blame. Is it because one step took longer than projected, they were invited to a movie and skipped a day, they got sick and were not able to work… This helps plan the next project and builds on planning skills.

Remember to give attention and praise for just being your kid. These kids feel pressure to succeed, but they need to remember that they are loved unconditionally.

If you notice they have an incorrect answer, state “that isn’t quite right. Is there another way to approach the problem?”

Not everything is about the grade. Praise the effort they put into all they do, not the end point. Make positive comments on other attributes: a funny thing they said, how they helped a younger child, how they showed concern for someone who was hurt.

Encourage them to try something new that is outside their talent. Not only are they exploring life, but they are developing new skills, and learning to be humble if they aren’t the best at this activity. Help them praise others. Model this behavior in your own life.

Co-dependence:

Helicopter parenting is a term often used to describe the parent hovering over the child in everything they do. This does not allow a child to learn from failing. It does not allow a child to grow into independence. It allows the parent to “own” the problem of homework. These kids call home when they leave the homework or lunch on the kitchen table for Mommy to bring it to school. These kids grow up blaming everyone when things don’t go their way and Mommy can’t fix it. They don’t learn to stand up for themselves. They seem constantly immature with life situations.

Young children need more guidance, but gradually decrease this as they get older. Teachers can help guide you on age appropriate needs. Most parents must sign a planner of younger kids, but as kids get older the kids become more responsible for knowing what the homework is. Many schools now have websites that parents can check homework assignments, but be sure the kids own the task of knowing what is due too.

Have a place that children can work on homework without distraction (tv, kids playing, etc).

Be available to answer questions, but don’t do the work for them. If they need help, find another way to ask the question that might help them see the solution. Get a piece of scrap paper that they can try to work through the problem. If they have problems with reading comprehension, have them read a few lines then summarize to you what they read. They can take notes on their summary, then read the notes after the entire chapter to get a full summary.

Busy, busy, busy:

Some kids are really busy with after school activities, others just rush through homework to get it done so they can play.

Set limits on how much screen time (tv, video games, computer time) kids can have each week day and week end. A maximum of 10 hours per week of screen time is recommended by experts. If they know they can’t watch more than 30 minutes of tv, they are less likely to rush through homework to get to the tv.

Ask kids to double check their work and then give to you to double check if you know they make careless mistakes. Don’t correct the mistakes, but kindly point them out and ask if they can find a better answer. Once they learn that they have to sit at the homework station until all the work is done correctly, they might not be so quick to rush.

If kids have after school activities the time allowed for home work and down time are affected. Avoid over scheduling, especially in elementary school. Be sure they have time for homework, sleep, healthy meals, and free time in addition to their activities. Are the activities really so important that they should interfere with the basic needs of the child? Is the child mature enough to handle the work load?

Kids who are in constant motion can’t seem to sit still long enough to do homework. Be sure they have the proper balance of sleep, nutrition, and exercise or all else will fail. Praise their efforts when they are successful. Set a timer after school to let them play hard for 30 minutes, but then make them sit. Help little ones organize what needs to be done and break homework into several smaller jobs. Set regular 5 minute breaks every 30 minutes so they can release energy. Set a timer to remind them to get back to work and compliment them when they get back on task.

Struggling despite help:

There are many reasons kids struggle academically. Reasons vary, such as behavior problems, anxiety, illness, learning disabilities, bullying, and more.

If they are struggling academically, talk with the teacher to see if there are any areas that can be worked on in class or with extra help at school. Can the teacher offer suggestions for what to work on at home?

If kids have chronic pains or school avoidance, ask what is going on. Depression and anxiety aren’t obvious and can have vague symptoms that are different than adult symptoms. Bullying can lead to many consequences, and many kids suffer in silence. If your child won’t talk to you, consider a trained counselor.

Talk with your pediatrician if your child is struggling academically despite resource help at school or if he suffers from chronic headaches or tummy aches. Treating the underlying illness and ruling out medical causes of pain is important. Depression, anxiety, ADHD, and other learning disorders can be difficult to identify, but with proper diagnosis and treatment, these kids can really succeed and improve their self confidence!

Dr. Stuppy is a practicing pediatrician in Kansas. I feels privileged to be able to help families keep their children healthy and she loves watching entire families grow!  Dr Stuppy is active on Facebook and puts a more personal touch to pediatric topics on her blog.  

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Schoolteachers Are Awesome – School Health Policies, Less So

Schoolteachers are awesome.

They exhibit saintlike patience and calm with tantrums, vomit, and playground injuries. They watch child development in real-time and understand intuitively that what is normal for one child might not be normal for another. And they genuinely love children, which makes them good parent material. It’s probably not surprising that schoolteacher moms and dads top the lists of my favorite families in our practice.

I also have a lot of respect for schoolteachers because they seem to deal with many of the same frustrations that pediatricians struggle with. Teachers, like pediatricians, find that parents can be a child’s biggest advocate in life, but also parents can be a child’s biggest barrier to success. Teachers also seem perpetually consumed with meetings, regulations, and paperwork, with less and less time given to one-on-one classroom care each year. Teachers also suffer the consequences of unfunded mandates.

It seems a no-brainer that pediatricians and teachers ought to be allies for children’s well being.

So why do pediatricians seem to be at odds with the school system so much of the time?

My colleague Dr. Fierstein posted recently on Survivor Pediatrics the absurdity of needing a doctor’s note to apply sunscreen in New York schools. Her plaintive appeal to common sense seems a no-brainer and started me thinking about other ways that our public school systems suck health care dollars.

The cost of school notes.

In most school systems, children are allowed a certain number of “mommy excuses” per semester or year. However, children who exceed this threshold must have their absences excused by a doctor’s note; parents without doctors’ notes face truancy charges. Consequently, parents want to collect a doctor’s note each time their child is sick so they can save their few “Get Out of School Free” cards for emergencies.

Some doctors are OK with issuing these notes by telephone. Certainly, there is still a cost to this; someone has to answer the phone, get the information, and fax a note to the school. As I’ve said before,  I’m hesitant to certify over the phone an illness that I haven’t personally evaluated.

In this case, my main reason for refusing to do doctor notes over the phone is that it adds nothing. If a mother calls the school and says her child is sick, the school won’t accept it. But if a mother calls me and says her child is sick, and I write a note to the school saying “Mom says her child is sick,” that somehow becomes acceptable documentation for the school.

The school expects me to take mom’s word for it but is unwilling to do so itself more than five times per semester.

This neatly passes the buck (or should I say, the bucks) to me, the de facto attendance secretary. And an MD is a pretty expensive attendance secretary. So our policy is: if you’re sick enough to miss school and need my note, you’re sick enough to come in.

In these cases, parents know their children have colds, stomach viruses, and other mild self-limited illnesses which require kids to miss a day or two of school. There’s no diagnostic dilemma, no prescription needed, no particular question that needs my expert opinion. Nonetheless, I estimate that at least 15% of school-aged children coming to my office for a sick complaint are doing so simply to get a school note.

Direct medical costs of getting school notes

What does it cost the health care system to provide these kinds of notes for a school system? Here’s a very rough estimate.

· Number of sick visits to our pediatric practice of school-age kids between August 2009 and May 2010: 5700

· Percent of visits just for school notes: 15% (low estimate)

· Cost per sick visit of this type: $50 (low estimate)

· Total annual cost: $42,750+ just for patients of our practice.

This would more than cover the salary and benefits of a full-time county schools employee, who could monitor attendance and follow up by telephone or home visits to frequent absentees.

If our practice is representative, Tennesseans are spending at least $14 million per year in private and Medicaid health dollars to fund school notes. (This doesn’t, of course, account for the indirect costs to parents, such as transportation to and from my office.)

I suspect that if school systems needed to foot the bill for these office visits, they would quickly find more cost-effective ways to monitor attendance. And I’m not sure we pediatricians have done enough to discourage these kinds of school policies; as you can see, this fairly reliable revenue stream might present a conflict of interest. But it’s not a good use of limited health care dollars. Let’s save the doctor-issued school notes for when there’s really a question for the doctor – like, “Is Kaitlyn’s rash contagious, or can she go back to school?” or “When can Chad return to football after his concussion?” Something may be able to subsidize a cash-strapped educational system, but it shouldn’t be the health care system.

Suzanne Berman is a general pediatrician in Tennessee. Both she and her son, Simon, think that his third grade teacher, Mrs. Hutchings, is really awesome.