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A very smart 10-year-old named Zach used to come home from school, sigh heavily, drop his backpack on the floor and say, “I don’t have any homework!”
“How ’bout math? You usually have math,” his dad said.
“I don’t wanna,” says Zach, “It’s stupid and boring” (which usually means, “It’s too hard”).
Dad coaxed, encouraged, sweet-talked, and bribed his son, to no avail. Zach resisted doing his homework almost every night.
Zach’s dad and mom shared their frustration and worry with Zach’s teacher and, together, they worked out an arrangement, a plan to motivate Zach to get his work done — and boost his resilience and confidence along the way.
The following day after the meeting, Zach’s teacher asked all of the kids to take a look at their homework and pick out three of the 15 problems assigned that they were most likely to get right. She didn’t ask them to pick the easiest problems, but she built in some easy items to make this work better up front.
Then she asked the kids to use a 5-point scale to rate the difficulty level of each problem: 1 is thumbs up, a piece of cake; 5 is super hard. She asked the class to write a number next to the problem and to rate their ability to do each of these independently (1= no help needed). She said, “OK, tonight you have to do these three problems. Please show them to a parent to explain what you’re doing. You can do the rest of the problems, but you don’t have to if you run out of time or energy.”
The next day the teacher asked the kids to talk about whether their difficulty rating was accurate: “What number would you assign, now that you’ve done it? And how about the independence rating…were you right? Any changes there? Did you need more help than you thought you would?” The teacher added: “How confident do you feel about the answers to these three problems?” Again, she asked them to use a rating scale.
She handed out the correct answers and asked the class, “How did you do? How do you feel about doing this activity? We’re going to do something like this again tonight, but this time I want you to double the number of problems you tackle.”
After the kids — all the kids, not just Zach — circled six items, the teacher asked them how they felt about this challenge. The next day she talked with the class about competence and confidence again. When all the kids said they felt good about their work, she said, “This is the way you should feel about all, or at least most, of your homework.”
On the third day, in keeping with the plan the parents worked out with the teacher, the teacher announced, “Tonight you must do all of your homework. Tell your parents about this and tell them you want to try to do the problems by yourself, but let them know you may need their help. This time, you will do three things: 1) Mark down your start/stop times. I want to see how long it takes each of you to do the same assignment. Don’t worry: I won’t disclose this info to anyone. 2) Rate the level of adult assistance you got. 3) Tomorrow I’ll ask you to give the assignment a confidence rating.”
The teacher asked the kids to show their homework to their parents, having identified in class the three items that will be the most challenging. She included one item that is really hard and said, “You have to do the three problems that you rated as most difficult, and you have to do this ‘extra hard’ one that I added. It’s very likely that some of you will make mistakes, and this is good. Because tomorrow we’re going to have an ‘error repair clinic.’”
Sure enough, some of the kids made errors. The teacher assigned kids to repair teams. Their job was to find out where the error-maker went wrong. Then, as a team, they “repaired” the problem and presented their thought process (and the correct answer) to the class or a larger subgroup.
This little exercise boosted Zach’s confidence. He is less afraid of making mistakes, and knows now that his job is to find and fix inevitable errors. His attitude about homework has changed: He is more likely to look at math as a challenge that can be overcome; he’ll know the joy of success that will keep the momentum going; and he will spend less time in “I can’t” land. In short, he is more likely to bend and rebound rather than freeze up and break when faced with a challenge at school or in life.
What’s more, parents and teacher have learned how to build success together. By the way, you can bet that, for every Zach, there are six kids in a classroom who need this kind of training. I’m sure the teacher will be getting a lot of thank-you notes from parents who find homework time more peaceful.
When Zach’s teacher tells her students that “this is the way you should feel when you do your homework,” she is stating the approach I advocate. To be effective, homework should give opportunities to kids to do things that they learned how to do during the day, and that they believe they can do pretty successfully. There should also be some challenge built into homework, some reason for kids to push themselves closer to what I call the “boundary of their competence.”
Homework should never be used to introduce or teach a new concept. This puts a lot of kids on the edge of their incompetence. It is not a good idea, because kids will shy away from tasks that don’t make them feel smart and look competent.
If you like the plan Zach’s parents worked out with his teacher but find yourself thinking, “Yeah, but my child’s teacher won’t go along with it,” do this: Give your child’s teacher a copy of this article and ask them to e-mail me — firstname.lastname@example.org — telling me how the plan worked. Tell them I’d like to add their comments to a growing list from other teachers who rave about this simple and effective approach.
You can use this method at home, as long as your child’s teacher agrees that your child will complete fewer problems in the short run. The goal is to get back to the expected level of solving problems, but with less stress and more success. Who could argue with that?
Remember, if most homework requires help from adults, kids don’t get the chance to feel the joy of independence from doing it on their own. When little kids master a task on their own, they cry out: “Look, Mommy, I did it!” (Remember those sweet moments?) That’s what kids should feel when they do homework.