Homework Tips That Really Work

Ways to turn the nightly grind into brain-building fun. Now that school’s in full swing, for parents and kids everywhere the homework honeymoon is over. The rosy glow of a new school year has faded, the relationship with homework has turned to drudgery, and the lighter homework level is a romantic bygone for teachers already feeling the pressure of looming standardized tests.

While most homework tip lists simply offer ways for parents and students to get through homework as quickly and painlessly as possible, this list promises double duty: making homework fun and gaining the long-term benefits of better cognitive abilities. “There are many ways parents can use homework time to build their children’s cognitive skills – basically build up the mental tools that help them think, reason and pay attention,” says Dr. Ken Gibson, author of Unlock the Einstein Inside: Applying New Brain Science to Wake Up the Smart in Your Child. “In the long run, building these skills will not only help kids do schoolwork faster and better, it’ll actually help them develop smarter, more efficient brains.”

The key to homework success is finding ways to make it fun while building cognitive skills with activities that are intensely focused. With that in mind, here’s a list that goes beyond the typical homework help tip sheet, to turn the nightly grind into brain-building fun.

Before you start:

1. Adopt an attitude of “Homework can be fun!” Your kids will take their cues from you and will quickly learn that homework can be challenging, rewarding and even enjoyable.

2. Help your children develop a written homework plan that includes timelines and goals, using whatever tools are the most appealing to them: computer, notebook, giant calendar page, blackboard, sticky notes on the refrigerator door, even dry-erase markers on their bedroom window. Anything will work, as long as it’s something they find fun and are eager to take part in.

3. Develop a reward system that promises more fun. Create a system that works for your family and budget. One possibility uses fun tickets as motivation. Each time your child earns a reward, give him a ticket toward a set goal: movies with mom, breakfast in bed, extra TV time or a special trip to the playground. Making the rewards something memorable rather than monetary will inspire long-term positive attitudes regarding homework.

4. Feed your child first. “People don’t realize a child’s brain is burning through energy very, very rapidly and needs consistent fuel,” says registered dietitian Martha Rosenau of Colorado Springs. She says as soon as kids get home from school, they need to eat a “meal” which consists of a portion of carbohydrates, protein and fat. “The point is: food has to go in before homework goes on. Eating is critical for homework to be effective. Kids would be short-changing themselves in terms of production, concentration and productivity if they try to do brain work on an empty stomach.”

5. Set the stage. Find a place to do homework, make sure supplies are ready, and have a stopwatch available at all times.

6. Get geared up to pour on the praise. When your students finish one of the following activities, always reward them with a “Great job!” and possibly a handful of a healthy snack mix.

Building brain skills during homework:

7. Break down assignments into smaller chunks. This is especially helpful if your child suffers from attention problems. Use a stopwatch to time your child to see how long they can pay attention to a task before giving up, then encourage them to go longer during the next timed round. This will work on sustained attention and will help your kids become independent learners. Don’t be afraid to break the homework session into two to three chunks as well, and remember to time the breaks too.

8. Turn math problems into a fast-paced game. Time your children as they do a row of problems as fast as they can, then challenge them to do the next row faster. This will build the cognitive skill of processing speed; basically turning them into faster thinkers.

9. Tell your child to do their best to stay focused on a short homework assignment while a sibling tries to distract him in a goofy way. Reward them for blocking out the distraction and completing the task. This fun, and often funny, activity is very rewarding because it builds the mental skill of selective attention which will help kids block out distractions in school and throughout life.

10. Give your child two tasks at once. Test him on his spelling words while he’s doing a math problem, drawing a picture, or simply packing up his homework. While he’s spelling the word aloud, make sure he doesn’t stop the other activity. This challenging exercise is harder than it may seem and will grow the divided attention skills that will help people multi-task or listen to directions while working.

11. Play charades. Have your child demonstrate or act out what a word or concept means. This can build the skill of comprehension and visual processing.

12. Let your children play teacher. Letting them teach you a skill or concept that they’re working on will improve their understanding of the concept and will build logic and reasoning skills. Let your kids “test” you, and let them determine a fitting reward if you pass their exams!

13. Put spelling words or vocabulary words in a word search using , then give your kids clues as to where to find them, such as “It starts in the upper left and runs right.” This will help them learn the words, and will build auditory and visual processing skills. If you have them type the words into the puzzle-maker list, it’ll help them learn the words and practice keyboarding.

14. When practicing spelling words or reading aloud have your child break up the word by sound. If the word is “school” your child would say /s/ /k/ /oo/ /l/ or if the word is “reindeer” your child would say /r/ /ae/ /n/ /d/ /ee/ /r/. This will help your child build stronger phonemic awareness skills, which are essential for reading.

While these tips can make homework more fun and rewarding in the long term, if the homework load is simply too much, parents may need to do more. The general standard for homework amounts is 10 minutes, multiplied by grade level. If your child is spending significantly more time than that, talk to the teacher to see if all that homework is really necessary.

If it’s still an issue, consider having your child’s cognitive skills tested to check for an underlying problem. “Cognitive skills testing can often get to the root of the problem, instead of just trying to address the symptoms,” explains Gibson. “Quite often, poor learners are deficient in the skills of attention, memory or phonemic awareness. Once the source of the problem is determined, those skills can be built up through cognitive skills training, and the learning issues can be eliminated.”

If all this simply seems like extra work, think of it as an investment. The time you put in now will help your child become a smarter, faster, more independent learner in the future. That’s a payoff that can lead to a healthy, life-long relationship with homework long after the honeymoon is over.


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