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Easing the hassles of homework

Question: I have the hardest time getting my children, ages 8 and 13, to do their homework. The only thing that seems to work is my sitting with them the whole time, and even then there's a lot of arguing. Any suggestions?

Answer: Over the years in my practice, I have noticed that parents seem to be getting more and more involved in their children's homework. I suspect that this is related to the increased frequency of mothers working outside the home. Helping during homework time may be one way working parents compensate for spending fewer hours with their kids.

Although it is certainly important to be involved with children's schoolwork, many problems arise when parents routinely sit down with their children during homework time. The two problems I see most often are parent-child battles over homework completion and children who are overly dependent on their parents.

A good starting place when you are trying to tackle homework problems is asking the teachers what they expect your involvement to be. Ask them to specify the help you should offer, and for advice when a child refuses to complete assignments.

Most teachers will tell you that they want you to be available to explain instructions and to help when your child gets stuck on a question. Many teachers will also want you to check that all of the homework was done. I have yet to meet a teacher who wants parents sitting with their children while the homework is being done. Once you know what your children's teachers expect, you can begin putting a homework plan into place.

Decide with your children the best time for them to complete homework. This may not be the same for both or all of your children, if you have more than one. Some kids, especially younger ones, need a break after school for outdoor play or quiet activities indoors. Older children may prefer to get their homework over with early so they can talk on the phone or watch television later.

For each child, set a realistic time for homework to be completed. For example, a younger child may have free time from his arrival home until dinner at 6 and then have homework time from 6:30 to 7:30. A teenager may do homework right after school, from 4:30 to 6:30. When setting the homework schedule, make sure to account for after-school activities such as sports or music lessons.

Also, decide with your children where they will do their work. Older children often do best in their rooms. Younger ones may need to be in a room closer to where a parent will be. Television is highly distracting and should not be on in a room where a child is doing schoolwork. Don't insist that your teenager work in a completely silent room. If she has shown that she can work while listening to the radio, don't make an issue of the music.

Once the schedule is set, let your children know that you will be available to assist them as needed only during the times that have been set aside for homework. Plan to be busy doing other things, like dinner preparation or cleanup, during the homework times so that your children know that you can help them but that you will not sit with them. When they need help, they should come and find you, ask their questions and then return to their work area. Once they say their work is done, check it for completion, not accuracy, only if the teacher asked you to. Let your children know from the outset that no fun activities are allowed until the work is finished.

When your children will not follow the program, allow them to go to school with their work incomplete so they learn the consequences. Many elementary school teachers will keep children in from recess to complete unfinished assignments. Middle school and high school teachers are likely to mark grades down if homework is incomplete or late. Allow these consequences to happen a few times to see if this will improve your child's homework compliance.

If you take these steps for several weeks, including allowing your children to go to school without all their assignments, and you still have battles over homework, consider asking the school counselors to help set up a more structured program with teacher and parent involvement. Counselors generally have a great deal of experience with this problem.

You may send your questions to Margaret Sayers in care of Familywise, Floridian, the Times, P.O. Box 1121, St. Petersburg, FL 33731.