Is your 11+ preparation being driven off-course by your child’s intolerable homework burden?
How are you supposed to fit 11+ study time around everything else that seems to be thrown at your precious few hours of family time?
Here are my 5 tips for parents to help you come up with a plan that works for your family, however overwhelmed you might be feeling with homework time.
1. Observe after-school routines from a distance and prepare a space for homework
Monitor your own family set-up for a few days.
In between arriving home, supper and sleeping there are short bursts of time. Most children need to relax and eat before they can do any homework. Don’t let other parents make you feel inadequate by telling you their child sits down to tackle a hard homework assignment the moment they walk in the door. Even a conscientious, no-push-back student may end up weeping when expected to move straight into study time without a break and their supper first.
Have a look at what your child enjoys doing the most to wind down. Don’t dismiss their video game time or think it is expendable. This short break may be their favourite part of the day. Your child’s intrinsic motivation to apply themselves while doing homework will improve if they don’t feel that they always need to be working.
For 11+ prep specifically, all you need is a 30-minute window between supper and the beginning of their bedtime reading routine.
Have an area (even a shelf in the kitchen) where you have the perfect equipment all ready to go: sharp pencils, a sharpener and a rubber, 30cm ruler, protractor, and colouring pens and pencils. Make sure you’re your child’s workspace is well-lit, clear of family debris, without distractions and comfortable.
2. Assess the homework situation each day and perform triage on homework and assignments
Open your child’s school bag when they get home. Get a clear overview of what homework has been assigned. Don’t just look at today’s assignments, look ahead to the rest of the week too. Weigh it all up.
Then perform homework triage.
This is the controversial bit. Some people think parents shouldn’t help with homework. I think differently. In my view, parents do have a role to play in helping their child manage their homework workload.
As a parent, it’s helpful to try to step into the teaching-brain of your child’s teacher. Some tasks are essential to your child’s progression in class—learning vocabulary or science facts for a test are all essential. Other homework assignments are given to consolidate a skill the teacher taught that day—like written comprehension, math homework, and interpreting geographical data.
But every now and then you get a ‘filler’ homework. These include creating a safety poster or finding 5 facts about chameleons. (It’s not just younger kids. Older kids sometimes get filler homework too.)
These types of homework assignments have value, but if you knocked them out yourself and simply ran through them with your child in the car on the way to school the following morning, would anyone really have lost anything? Shh…
Even if there’s no filler homework, performing homework triage by assessing what’s due and when allows you to order your child’s study time according to deadlines and their value to your child’s learning. Start your study time with the most challenging tasks first while your child’s concentration and motivation are high. Consider spiriting away the weaker tasks to be done quietly by someone else. Your child will love you for it and more importantly will begin to feel you are on the same team. Aha! This is the beginning of a positive, collaborative homework journey…
3. Understand your child’s learning style and help them develop appropriate strategies for it
Most primary school learning content can be found at the touch of a button. If learning diagram labels, then print up a blank version so that they can actively label the thing a couple of times from memory.
Technology can help, because if children don’t engage with a learning task it won’t have gone in. For vocabulary sheets I recommend using the brilliant Sqeebles Spelling app. It is designed for younger children but my own sons have used it well into their teenage years.
Type a list of vocabulary into a new test (we’ve used it for French and Latin tests too) and record the words said aloud. You can record the English version if it’s for a French test and then hand over the iPad for them to go off and test themselves.
If they really don’t know the content they can do the first couple of tests by reading it off, until it starts to go in.
4. Once you have a plan for homework, don’t let drift set in
Evenings are exhausting for parents so try not to let the time run away.
Use a timer to set regular alarms to nudge you, as the parent, into action. The more energy you can muster, the better your child will cope and the less push-back misery you will get out of them. If they do kick-off, remain saintly calm and remind them that the ‘it’s so unfair’ chat adds to their homework burden. It’s massively quicker to accept it and plough on.
5. Keep the conversation open around your family’s homework process
Your child is likely to be a sensitive, well-meaning smaller person who is feeling the pressure of the longer school day (and exam in the distance).
At a good time—possibly over a pizza at the weekend—open up a conversation about how they are feeling about school work in general. Listen properly to their anxieties and don’t try to address them immediately. In a second (also carefully-timed) conversation, discuss your thoughts on how you can ease the burden, tighten up their homework timetable so that it doesn’t take over their evenings, and support them fully going forward.
Each time you chat, remember to end with how much you value their free time. Every plan needs to have their freedom at its core. Make it clear that you are simply tidying up their week so that work is minimised and freedom maximised.
Of course, this great plan will slide after a time—that’s just how life works. But stay positive and re-set it if as soon as you see it slipping away. These days we don’t need carrots (positive reinforcement) or sticks (consequences) to get our children working happily and successfully through all their homework tasks. All we need is good communication and a collaborative plan.