10 Tips to Start off the School Year

Over the summer, I kept on seeing the same type of article I’ve been seeing for over a dozen years about how to help your kids succeed in school and with homework. By now I’m sure you’re as familiar with that advice as I am: establish a routine and schedule for homework; limit distractions during homework hours; assist your child in getting started or figuring out how to divide the assignments into smaller parts; praise your child for effort, etc.

I thought I would write my own 10 tips, which would lean more towards how to ease homework overload than how to set up a comfortable work station at home, but before I started typing I saw that Kerry Dickinson, someone I’ve written about many times (she was instrumental in changing homework policy in her Danville, California, community), had posted her top 10 tips on her new blog East Bay Homework Blogspot. While Kerry’s tips are different than mine would be, she has lots of good ideas.

Here are her first three tips:

1. Don’t over schedule your children this school year. Benefits: you save money, get more time at home as a family and are generally less stressed out when you’re not driving your kids around after school running from one activity to the next.

2. Don’t sign your child up for academic tutoring unless he/she is in jeopardy of failing a class. (Don’t pay for a tutor to boost a “C” or “B” to an “A”.) Benefits: same as in #1 and you are sending the message to your child that he/she is fine the way he/she is. You will trust the teachers to do their jobs. They will get a better indication of your child’s ability if your child isn’t getting extra outside help (this includes helps from you, too).

3. Don’t ask your kids about grades, test scores or homework. Instead, focus on the content of the subject. (Instead of “What did you get on the test?” say, “What are you learning in science?” If you are connected to some school communication tool (like Schoolloop) you can look at homework assignments and grades privately. Benefits: you are teaching them to take ownership of their own schedules. You are letting them manage their own time. You are taking the focus off scores and putting it on learning. You are alleviating stress in their lives.

Read the rest here. And if you have more to add, please leave a comment below.

16 thoughts on “10 Tips to Start off the School Year

  1. My biggest objection to the 10 tips is that they’re too passive. Here’s a tip from me:

    11.) Look at your child’s homework. If it is tedious, repetitive, pointless, not at your child’s academic level, or just overwhelming, tell your child not to do it. Contact the teacher. Contact the principal. Contact other parents. Raise a fuss.

    Also, tip #10, “Let your child fail.” I don’t agree with this at all. It was a devastating experience for my daughter to fail math tests in 5th grade. I don’t see how any young child could respond well to a big red “F”. A child who fails needs support and counseling. And again, let’s be open to the possibility that the failure is a sign of something wrong at school. My daughter’s clueless math teacher remarked to me, “Oh yeah, 8 of the kids failed that test.” Well, if 8 out of 24 hand-picked bright kids failed the test, maybe you didn’t teach the material well. Maybe you need to go back and review and see what the kids missed (this never happened).


  2. The “Let your child fail” tip is a bit baffling. First if one is a proponent of a no grading system, such as Alfie Kohn puts forth, then failing is a non issue. I like, “Let your child make mistakes” better…

    Last night my darling came home with a two sided sheet of paper and she was supposed to correct the paragraphs, putting in the capital letters as needed. She was enthusiastic about it, but the problem I had with it was that she wanted it to be PERFECT. She wanted me to check everything so that it would be PERFECT.
    I’m being very cautious and will ask about this drive for perfection when we have our curriculum night. I suspect it’s just her (and her girlfriends). This year there are 11 girls and just 4 boys in the class and a female teacher…so I suspect there will be lots of good readers and writers and perhaps much drive to be PERFECT.


  3. My guess is that the “let your child fail” tip had more to do with not taking it upon yourself to be the homework enforcer. Let your child suffer the consequences from their teacher if they don’t turn it in. So long as you’ve allowed them the opportunity, given them the space to get it down, and the time, then in lieu of bribing or punishing them at home if they don’t do it, let the teacher handle the consequences.
    I agree with this theory, but I have to say, I still find it hard to let go. My daughters have been back in school since mid-August and I’ve been having a tough time with my 4th grader getting the homework done. I’m afraid of getting the reputation of “uninvolved parent” if I don’t ensure that the homework gets done.
    I’ve gotten the impression that teachers won’t put as much effort in helping a child if they don’t feel that child has a strong support system at home. It’s hard to take that step back if I’m afraid it will mean my child slips through the crack.


  4. To April:

    Appropriate homework that is meant to reinforce work done in class (ie, the child should know what to do fully), should not require parent involvement. What about the countless families whose adults do not speak English? Should those children be penalized by teachers because they’re not getting the “support” from home?

    Absolutely, you should be taking a step forward to speak with the teacher about how much homework is getting assigned, the content of it and why your child is not able to do it without your intervention. A 4th Grader is what? 9 years old. It’s sad to think that a month into school and she’s already stressed and having troubles. She should be having fun…school is not drudgery. At least it shouldn’t be.


  5. April — I don’t agree with this either. Why should I step back and allow the school to punish my child for noncompliance? Nothing good comes of this. It just makes the child hate school.

    One of my beefs with schools is that whatever the problem is, they think punishment is the solution (“consequences” is a euphemism.) There are so many possible reasons why a child might not complete her homework. Taking away the child’s recess is not a useful response to any of those reasons.

    I wish schools would take a long hard look at themselves and consider they possibility that they are not always right.


  6. April — I forgot to mention, I used to worry about my reputation with my child’s teachers too. My advice is, don’t worry about it. It’s impossible to advocate for your child and also have all the teachers like you.

    “I’ve gotten the impression that teachers won’t put as much effort in helping a child if they don’t feel that child has a strong support system at home.”

    Teachers — are you listening? Your job is to teach your students no matter who they are, no matter who their parents are. If their parents aren’t doing what you want them to, that doesn’t let you off the hook.


  7. April, you could bend over backwards and still not get the respect you crave. Don’t worry about that too much. You’ll have those teachers for one year. You have your child for a lifetime. Which in the end would you rather please?


  8. Thank you all for your thoughtful responses! I think I will be having a talk with the teacher.
    My 4th grader fell asleep doing her reading homework last night, and I let her.
    I think I’m more frustrated than she is right now. She just doesn’t want to focus and do it. She knows how, that’s not the issue. Sometimes she asks me for help, but when I probe her, she knows how to do it. But she spent more time the other night tying shoelaces to chairs (!), dropping her pencil, sharpening her pencil, in other words, anything but the homework!


  9. If I were in your shoes April, I would document. First, decide for yourself how long YOU feel it is appropriate for her to do homework that night (it could depend on how busy a day it was for her) and then quietly notice and document what she actually does in that time, without your intervention. When the time is up, tell her she’s done and can do something else….and again, notice what she does. I’ll bet dollars to donuts that whatever she does in the second period is done with more interest than what she did during the homework period.
    That tells you two things. First that what she comes up with to do on her own is of more interest than the homework. Second that it isn’t a question of fatigue (unless she chooses to go to bed). So if she isn’t tired…what is it about homework that she’s not interested in.
    A child who wants to do homework is the only one who is going to benefit from it. And there is nothing you can do (short of bribes/threatening them) that will make them want to do it.


  10. I am getting to something key here. Please read and dissect!

    We are still talking about minutes. Ten minutes for first grade, twenty for second, thirty for third; okay, you get the picture. Recent research that NO homework is beneficial in elementary aside, how do you “police” the time maximum, hold schools accountable?

    The problem with the minutes debate is that you have no way of knowing if the teachers assigned honestly, adhering to the minute limit and just miscalculated or if schools are trying to pull the wool over our eyes. Because it seems to me, the burden of proof is always on the parents. What would stop a teacher from assigning three hours, calling it one, and blaming it on your “time management?”

    We need to ask those first questions and ask them early and often. How many minutes, be firm with the limit, and how did the teacher arrive at her conclusions? Do you know for sure that what you say takes ten minutes doesn’t in fact take sixty? Must a parent always have to come and refute it? Isn’t it the school’s job to know these things? If you are going to send it home, you have to do more than wing it.

    Are you aware that how a child performs at school is completely different than how she performs at home? That children at home stall, avoid, procrastinate, that they see home as an escape from school, that the dynamic of schoolwork is entirely different with a parent?

    You, the teacher, may assign spelling and allot thirty minutes. You observe the child complete said assignment in thirty minutes. You now conclude this is exactly how it will shake down at home. Not so fast.

    Do you stop to consider that the environment, set up and, relationship dynamic has now completely changed? A business executive, an adult, has learned how to take work home. And even then, I have many friends who say they can never do office work at home because the laundry, cooking, and Facebook beckon insistently and they have trouble separating out the priorities. Those folks do finish at the office and don’t bring it home.

    Quadruple that prioritization/gratification delay conundrum for a child who has not yet mastered the ability to filter out distractions, prioritize, sequence and time manage. We know for a fact that time management skills don’t even begin to kick in ever so slightly until 6th grade!

    A seven year old child walks through the door and is eagerly greeted by her books, dolls, markers and leggos. Toys in the classroom (and don’t those disappear by second grade?) are not the same analogy, it is hardly the same temptation. When schools make kids take work home, they have to consider the entire dynamic of home life.

    In the old days, homework truly did adhere to time limits, so while some kids found it onerous, it could still be dispensed with quickly with ample time left over for play and pleasure reading. Someone thought it was a bright idea to eliminate all that and turn homework into what many parents will readily describe as a nightly torture. For both child and parents alike.

    The only way to keep the process honest is for teachers to keep asking, surveys to go out, and regular meetings called between the two major stakeholders to promote this “partnership.” Signing a form is not a partnership unless you have solicited input from the partner! And I consider children and their parents to be the primary stakeholders in this “partnership,” given that HOMEwork is sent HOME. Shouldn’t you at least ask permission?

    But the fact that I’ve not been asked ONCE in public school how long it takes, how it works in my home and what problems have arisen, sends up giant big red flares.


  11. Ah…but think of the “tips”!!! Homework Blues…we are supposed to change our homes to accommodate these students. We are to keep them away from all those distractions, mimicking a classroom environment as much as possible, so that the conditions are ripe for doing the teacher’s homework. That’s how we all play into this partnership and how the teacher’s time guidelines work. IT’S OUR FAULT if the time thing doesn’t work out. Don’t you have that distraction free, well lit, quiet area set up for your children?

    In our case, we do get asked how things are going and are asked to speak to the teachers if there are problems. So I can’t complain. But I very much see your point.

    If the teachers/schools were truly serious about being in our homes, they would have family schedules for each student and customize a plan for each family. I wrote that with my tongue firmly planted in my cheek because I know that’s ridiculous. It’s as ridiculous as sending home a schedule of homework assigned/due days for kids under 12 because it assumes the family will care and oblige! Imagine a teacher having a binder on her desk with a weekly schedule for each child’s family list of activities and seeing, “Ohoh, on Friday, Sammy has soccer at 5 and then the family is going away for the weekend….I guess there’s no point in giving him any homework”

    But we get the teacher’s schedule and our lives have to stop! I find it hard enough to get lunch together every morning and supper every, freakin’ blasted night of my life. I think it’s etched on my brain now that gym is on Wednesday, Library is on a certain day, that Friday is pizza day…but winter’s coming. How many days will we leave the house without snowpants, or mittens or spare clothes because the schoolyard mud/snow/slush pile is just too tempting. If I, Mom, age 48, can’t keep it all in mind for one child, how on earth is child age 5,or 6,or 7, or 8 going to do it?

    HomeworkBlues, I’m with you…they need to be invited into our home and lives. They shouldn’t be allowed to barge in and take over.


  12. PsychMom, thank you. You win first prize as my first dissector! You aptly write: “Ah…but think of the “tips”!!! Homework Blues…we are supposed to change our homes to accommodate these students. We are to keep them away from all those distractions, mimicking a classroom environment as much as possible, so that the conditions are ripe for doing the teacher’s homework. That’s how we all play into this partnership and how the teacher’s time guidelines work. IT’S OUR FAULT if the time thing doesn’t work out. Don’t you have that distraction free, well lit, quiet area set up for your children?”

    And that is what has been so wrong about this debate and where we took a left turn (acknowledging that as a leftie, I resent that analogy!). We allowed schools to give us tips, point by point instructions of how to create school at home. Read Susan Ohanian’s book, where she demonstrates a tip long sheet from a New Jersey school district and then asks us to pause and contemplate just how condescending those tips are.

    Throw out the tips. Home is not school. School is school and home is home. You do your job and I’ll do mine. Engage me in a discussion of how I can do “homeschool on the side’ and I’ll talk your ear off. Books, museums, plays, nature centers, culture, history, classical music. I can lavishly enrich my daughter’s life for a song. I can scout out free stuff like no one’s business. I can do that But you have to let me. And if I could turn the clock back, I would state, not ask.

    A concerned loving involved parent, yea, that’s me! I can do that like breathing. Asking me to be an evening teacher after a long day’s work when I do not have the requisite training or expertise in this area (full disclosure: I have taught but not as a full time teacher) and expect it to somehow get done, come hell or high water, that I cannot do. I wasn’t good at it. It did not go well. We fought. We cajoled. It dampened my relationship with my child. It got done but at a significant price. I payed steep and for what? Contrast that to summer when we read together and took endless trips, now we’re talking.

    I can’t do the homework thing well. It gone done, she got good grades but it was never worth what we gave up. It took rather than give..

    If my child was April’s kid’s age, I’d be tellling the school this. April, you have two routes. In both cases, you are armed with research and data. The teachers may not love you but one thing they will never think is that you are uninvolved. Please try, hard though it is, to get over that and be strong in your convictions. My daughter is in high school and it’s a different ballgame now.

    April, your daughter is what, nine? You have so much still to salvage. So you have two routes. One, you can decide that you fully embrace the research showing NO homework is beneficial in elementary. Tell them it has changed your philosophy. Makes you sound like a smart,caring thoughtful person. You can do that tack. You are not asking, you are telling. You can be polite, you can be appropriately deferential. You will say, (if this describes your child, we read together, and then reel off a million educational activities you will do in lieu of homework.Fear not, dear teacher, her brain will not turn to mush.

    That is the best case scenario, in my humble opinion.. Do how Sara Bennett writes as she details her own experience..If the teacher is resistant, say with a smile, we are going to have to agree to disagree. Your position does not change. You also want to state clearly that your daughter will not be punished because this is YOUR decision after carefully reviewing the homework literature and your family life. You may get lucky and the teacher may so, I had no idea. But in any case, you will likely get a dose of admonishment that you are harming your child and a threat of “consequences.” Don’t fall for either. I bet you dollars to donuts some mom is going to be jealous of your new homework free home life.

    I like that option best. If you feel skittish, then go the minutes route but I think it’s far weaker than Plan A. But you must stick to the minutes. They say forty minutes? That is all she will do.

    You will provide the space, materials and encouragement. By encouragement, I mean turn the tv off and announce it’s homework time. That’s it. You do not cajole, sit with her, check her math answers (that’s the teacher’s job unless you’re being paid), or yell. Forty minutes. If she gets up, the clock does not stop. Because if you fall into the “it’s only forty minutes when she’s actually working,” trap, this will become an all night ordeal, reenacted daily.

    Don’t use a buzzer but watch the clock. At the end of forty minutes, it’s over and she goes out to play. I advise you to help only if your girl has a specific question. Long projects often induce major parental involvement, don’t go there. Don’t sit with her all night long. Some kids do want you there, so you can sit across from her with a book, if you would like. But don’t do her work for her, don’t spend all night managing and monitoring, step by step,inspection, and STOP when forty minutes are up.

    If you want to go that minutes route, then the only job I see you doing is library, store, and the occasional question. And make that clear to the teachers. You can be nice, you can enlist them in your new game plan but don’t waver. And don’t back down.


  13. I PAID steep. And LONG TIP sheet. And I’m sure there are others.

    Now I know why I don’t catch all my typos and mistakes until after the fact. When we do our draft, the type is very light. Once it’s posted, it darkens and all the monsters (er, mistakes) come out like cockroaches.

    Sara, anyway to make the type unshadowed while we are composing our brilliance?


  14. PsychMom, another misconception about homework is that we do not try to eliminate those distractions. Back when I started out, earnest and eager, good parent, willing parent (don’t kid yourself, I have never been a sheep, not from day one), I did all that.

    With some difficulty. We lived in a cramped apartment. These tips assume we all live in McMansions with special sound proof aerodynamic specially constructed happy content rooms designated for homework. I don’t.

    But I cleared space. Quiet, distraction free. TV off, in a corner, out of her radar so she was never tempted, books stowed away, markers hidden, leggo concoction tucked in master bedroom, dolls stuffed into closets, bed made with toys hidden inside, drawings filed away, dollhouse magically relocated. Christ, I spent hours designing this “homework friendly” environment.

    I am hear to tell you some children can walk. They have legs. Short of chaining them to the chair, they get up! They’ve been sitting still, or trying to, for seven hours! The bozo principal thought it would be a grand idea to eliminate recess. If I didn’t know any better, I would think it was a sadistic plot. With the principal grinning into his wizard mirror, squealing in glee, ah, ha, I got those suckers! Hello, mom, kid hasn’t had recess, good luck!

    Your five year old (and my kindergartener only had optional homework. We optioned right out of it) leaves your quiet distraction free cheerful well lit carefully crafted homework space, with a plea to use the bathroom. What are you going to do, say no? Not until you do all your spelling? And you swear she got flushed down because an hour has elapsed and she has not found her way back.


  15. This came in my email box today. It’s a link from Raising Small Souls. I don’t have to outline what is so wrong with this report. It’s called Waking up From the Homework Nightmare. So far so good, right?

    Wrong. I can’t tell you how many of my friends with ADHD children run from one highly priced coach to another, lapping up every trick, every strategy, every technique, every snake oil enticement out there. There is a veritable cottage industry, all designed to help you get your child through homework. Many parents who’ve been through the “help” mill will tell you the only thing that changed was their wallet.

    When I was a kid, we didn’t need a homework coach, therapist, psychiatrist, consultant, tutor, advocate, stress relief, medication and reams of books and guides and gadgets and gismos (an ADHD conference was selling special timers and clocks and watches and beepers and planners and folders and organizers and special peel off highlighter tape and buzzers and squushy balls and rotating chairs and bouncy balls and floor mats, yes, special floor mats, and mirrors (they say mirrors helps kids do homework)…just to get through homework.

    Wake up from the Homework Nightmare? Would love to. Best way to wake up from it is to eliminate it. In its current form.

    I did that too, at first, tried to research ways in which it could go faster and better. Until it dawned on me my child was not the problem, I was not the problem, my home was not the problem, homework was the problem!



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