Adolescence and Homework

Most young people do not welcome extending the school day by bringing study home

Posted Dec 08, 2014

Although often starting in the elementary grades, homework becomes more seriously given and seriously taken in middle school, when early adolescents start having a lot of other growing concerns on their minds and generally become less welcoming of bringing study obligations home. At an age when there is more resistance to work, more school work is assigned.

“Who invented homework, that’s what I want to know? What’s it for, anyway? And who likes it?”

This question is distilled from a conversation with an eighth grade veteran of the ‘homework wars,’ ongoing skirmishes, if you will, between determined parents on one side and resistant teenager on the other. No clear winners in this case – parents not getting all the serious effort they want and the adolescent doing more than he ideally desires. So maybe compromise won out.

To the first part of the question, I had no answer, being ignorant of the history of homework. To the other two parts I did have opinions to offer.

WHAT’S HOMEWORK FOR?

The purpose of most homework is to supplement study at school. As near as I can see, it can fulfill one or more of four functions.

Function #1: Practice.

Drilling oneself with repetition drives concepts and skills into memory for automatic recall and use, like elementary facts and basic practices.

Function #2: Projects.

Assignments that require further effort outside of class, or independent study, can demand additional time at home to complete.

Function#3: Preparation.

A test approaching, review and study time outside of class is assigned to get ready for the exam.

Function #4: Productivity.

Learning the study habit of completing unwanted work on your own, and not procrastinating, can build productive self-discipline for the years ahead.

WHO LIKES HOMEWORK?

I really can’t think of how any of the three parties involved in homework would enjoy it.

There is the Teacher who is only making more work for herself because now she has to review and grade assignments she chose to give, sometimes doing that work at home herself. There is the Student for whom the school day isn’t over when it’s over because of assignments coming home that intrude into otherwise “free” time. And of course there is the Parent who has to schedule family time around homework time, often having to supervise getting it adequately accomplished, not appreciated for the effort being made by the person for whom it is made, and enduring the tensions that result.

Top this off with a case of very bad timing for the family when everyone is suffering end-of-the-day fatigue and would love to relax from their labors, each in their own way. Except, in addition to homework, there are the additional requirements of after-school activities and the evening meal and household chores and hygiene and bedtime which all need to be attended to.

GETTING HOMEWORK DONE

So what is the most efficient and least stressful way to get homework done? Well, there are a small minority of adolescents who, for whatever reason, are so conscientiously self-managed that they reliably just take care of homework – bringing it home, thoroughly doing it, and turning it in – without having to be directed by parents at all. However, if you have one of these responsible adolescents, you are not likely to have another.

It’s in middle school when an “early adolescent achievement drop” frequently occurs (see March 15, 2009 blog), the most common sign of which is failing to complete homework – failing to bring it home, or failing to get it adequately done, or failing to turn it in, or a combination of all three. What motivates this falling away from homework is some combination of resistance to authority and academic disinterest and recreational distractions and social priorities that devalue doing homework.

In response, sometimes parents will say: “Well, homework is your responsibility, and if you choose not to do it, you must suffer the failing consequences.” The trouble is, what young people tend to learn from this is getting by with lower grades: “I don’t need to do all my homework to pass.” Or, parents try to use reward or punishment to motivate the completion of adolescent homework. I think this is a mistake because it makes homework sound like an activity about which the adolescent has discretionary choice. Now taking the punishment, or forgoing the reward, is worth “the crime” -- not doing the homework. No.

Homework, like chores, needs to be a “no choice” activity. Relentless parental supervision must make this inevitability so, using steadfast insistence to wear resistance down. Like nagging to get chores accomplished, this is the loyal drudgework of parenting. By thanklessly ensuring that homework is completed, parents are on the adolescent’s side -- upholding the young person’s operating capacity for present and future sake.

So, with these young people, parental inquiry and prodding and checking are required. I believe one parenting goal in middle school needs to be using supervision to put the study habit of regularly completing homework in place. This way the practice is there to be relied upon when the young person enters the more demanding high school years.

If resistance to homework persists, it is well for parents to continue supervision the first couple high school years to help the young person catch hold because now zero’s given for homework not turned in can significantly affect grades that have later value. In the last couple years of high school, however, parents may want to consider withdrawing their supervisory support of homework so that the young person can face and take responsibility for present performance as it bears on future possibilities.

It also helps when parents remember that homework, particularly for a younger adolescent, is psychologically hard in several ways.

Homework can feel LONELY to do, sitting by yourself doing work you don’t like, all alone. But the teenager doesn’t have to be alone. When in middle school, parents can sit with the young person and do job work of their own to provide working company, a “study buddy” to make the task easier to bear.

Home work can feel BORING to do. What can partially lessen dullness of the task is distraction that can make concentration easier. Lots of young people, for example, cope better with homework when listening to their favorite music.

Homework can feel DISPIRITING to do. It can feel like the dead end of a dreary day, a real downer. So it can help to schedule homework when there is time afterwards for the young person can do what feels like fun – maybe on the computer, for example, social networking or playing electronic games, or offline enjoying a hobby, watching TV, or having a relaxing read.

Whether they swear at homework for the family pressures it creates, or whether they swear by homework for the supplemental education it provides, to varying degrees parents become enrolled in the schooling of their adolescent as soon as students start regularly bringing assignments home.

For more about parenting adolescents, see my book, “SURVIVING YOUR CHILD’S ADOLESCENCE,” (Wiley, 2013.) More information at: www.carlickhardt,com

Next week’s entry: Parent, Adolescent, and How Each Other "Turns Out"