Middle School Homework Tips For Students

My youngest stomped into the living room last Monday and dumped his pack on the floor.  

  • "How was school?"
  • "Great!  I only have math homework."
  • I paused "Are you sure?"
  • "Absolutely.  Nothing else.  I asked my friend, too."
  • Didn't you have Spanish today?"
  • "Oh yeah, he gave us a worksheet to do.  And we started our new technology class today.  It looks great."
  • "Don't you usually have a syllabus or something to sign when you start a class?"
  • :"Oh yeah, I forgot.  I need you to sign two papers."
  • "It's Monday.  Didn't you have a letter you had to write in class today in Language Arts?  Do I need to sign it?"
  • "Yeah."
  • "And spelling due Thursday?"
  • "Uhuh.  She handed out a sheet."
  • "Your social studies teacher sent me a copy of your study guide for your test Friday."
  • "But that's not due until Thursday!"

(Are YOU busy with a short attention span?  Skip to the bottom of this page for a concrete list of tips that really help  If you've got the time for the background, read on.)

The Organizational Demands Of Middle School

Sound familiar?  Five assignments.  My son had only remembered one.  And given that up to 75% of his grades are based on homework, not remembering to do it - or to turn it in when it's complete - can cause major problems for kids, failing grades, and even retention in middle school,

Middle school differs from elementary school in many ways - one of the most important, but underestimated, is the increased pressure it puts in kids' organizational abilities.  Take the above example.  Not only does it show off my son's not atypical difficulty keeping track of his work.  It also shows up just how COMPLICATED the work is that he has to keep track of.

  • Five courses with six different teachers
  • Due dates of one, two, and four days.
  • Different types of tasks, each needing different types of materials to complete them

Cognitive Development In Middle School

Although kids make major gains in cognitive ability as they enter adolescence, often the demands of school outstrip them. As I wrote in my previous post: What MIddle School Parents Should Know: Adolescents Are Like Lawyers, middle schoolers make five major gains in their ability to think:

  • They can think about possibilities
  • They can think about abstract concepts
  • Their metacognitive abilities improve (they can think about thinking)
  • They can think multi-dimensionally, playing one idea off of another
  • They can think relativistically, understanding things from different points of views.

The misfit on middle schools to early adolescents' development

A positive side of this development is that they are capable of much more abstract, multidimensional thinking.  

Unfortunately, these new abilities often put them in conflict with the demands of middle schools.  

  • Middle school requires more rote learning.  As developmental researcher Jacqueline Eccles has written, at the same time that adolescents develop new cognitive abilities, many middle schools ask students to do more ROTE tasks that are LESS cognitively demanding.  Whereas elementary school projects often ask kids to integrate and think creatively about material, middle schools often ask kids to memorize and repeat back information.  Although there are many good reasons for this - you can't think integratively and intelligently in the absence of facts and solid knowledge, it can also be frustring for students who feel that they are doing more repetitive, less challenging tasks.  Math, in particular, tends to focus on review and consolidation rather than learning new skills.
  • Thinking about multiple possibilities can cause kids to freeze.  Presented with many different possibilities, kids can freeze up, spending more time thinking and deciding than choosing a path and doing.    
  • School's demands for organization may outstrip kids' abilities to do it.  Moving from class to class requires kids to rapidly adjust to the expectations of different teachers.  Assignments are rarely as integrated as they are in elmentary school or as teachers would like them to be.  And the physical act of bringing home all those books and all those papers - and getting them back again - can be daunting.

The responsibility for completing their work lies in your child

It is important to remember that the primary responsbility for completing work well is with your child.  But it's also really easy for us to believe that when they don't immediately do that well, it's from stubbornness, or laziness, or lack of effort.

Begin with the assumption that it's not.  Most kids want to do well.  They certainly don't want to get in trouble and don't want to spend more time on their homework than they have to.  Giving them the tools they need can improve homework quality while at the same time reducing the time it takes to complete it.  

Some strategies that work

Parents can help kids get organized by focusing on the PROCESS and LOGISTICS of school and not just 'helping with homework' and working on content.  By focusing on HOW they do their homework (what time, what conditions) not the content of it, you let them keep control over it while giving them tools to manage it effectively themselves.

In addition to these suggestions, go to this page on Children With Special Needsfor a wealth of additional information.  A list of strategies for both teachers and parents are available here at Intervention Central.  

Where things fall through the cracks.  

When my son and I went through his problems with completing and turning in his work, we came up with five key points where things fell apart.  These were the principles we arrived at:

  • Eliminate thinking as much as possible
  • Make organization automatic
  • Use planners or assignment books effectively - you can't count on memory
  • Make sure all materials are home when they're needed
  • Make sure completed assignments can be found and TURNED IN

Make things automatic.  The single most important thing you can do is to help your child make good organizational skills AUTOMATIC.The less they have to think, the less likely they are to make mistakes. The goal is for good organizational skills to become habitual so your child doesn't have to think about and remember what to do. They go to class, sit down, and open their planner and check the board for assignments.

Organize all materials together in one place. When my son got his supplies list at the beginning of the year, he was asked to get 7 folders and 7 spiral notebooks, plus two three ring binders.  The idea, I know, was to minimize what the kids had to carry back and forth to school.  Kids are supposed to bring home what they need and leave the rest at school.  This only works for organized kids. For my son, it meant that he'd always be home without the notebook he needed to do his homework.  

A few years ago we had solved the problem by putting everything into one humungous three ring binder.

Last year, that didn't work, as the folders and notebooks were just too numerous.  After six month's experimentation, we finally got a new system: a large expanding accordian folder that took file folders and spiral notebooks alike.  It even took his assignment book.

This year EVERYTHING went on an iPod Touch.  He takes pictures of the assignments the teacher writes on the board.  He takes pictures of the worksheets so he can't lose them. He takes pictures of his assignments so he can print them out again if (when) he loses them.  He enters his assignments in an app that is fantastic for keep track of assignments.  He does his writing assignments on Google Docs, which are accessible from anyplace that has internet. He shares them with his teachers or can access them from his iPod and print them out.  His teachers (bless them) will also let him just show them the picture and give him credit.

Which system works for your child may differ.  But the idea is simple: if everything is in the same place and goes back and forth from home to school, materials are at home when needed and completed work goes back to school where it can be found.  It's one less thing to remember.  If you buy thinner notebooks and eliminate completed work, it isn't too much to carry.

Assignment books are the critical first step in making sure that homework is done.  Many kids' metacognitive skills haven't caught up with the fact that the complexity of their tasks has outpaced their ability to keep everything in their heads.

What they can do:

  • Your child MUST keep an accurate list of assignments in their planner (paper or electronic).  Many kids think they'll remember an assignment, because they haven't yet realized how hard it is to keep track of the many tasks they're assigned. Different schools use different methods. Make sure you understand the system that your child's school uses to record assignments so you can help them use it effectively:
    • Write down the assignment on the day it is due.  The way I and many parents were taught to use a planner is to write assignments down the day it is due.  You look ahead and know what to work on.  You can put in 'tickler' notes to break down long assignments into smaller parts. 
    • A newer method: Writing down an assignment the day it is assigned.  Both my sons - in two different school systems 10 years apart - were taught to write down assignments on the day they are ASSIGNED.  After 10 years, I have finally learned how this system is SUPPOSED to work, although neither of my sons ever did.  It does make sense and is an excellent system if your child can use it.
      • When an assignment is assigned, write it down the day assigned AND THE DAY DUE.
      • The next day, check the previous day's assignments.  Anything not complete gets written down again.  Each day, continue to add new and uncompleted assignments.  When an assignment is done, check it off.
      • With this system, each day's listing works as a 'to do' list.  It thus combines both an agenda and a to do list.
    • PHOTOGRAPH THE CHALK BOARD.  Most of my son's teachers write the assignments on the boards.  Many of them have the week's assignments written there on Monday.  Take a picture.  They can organize it later.

What you can do:

  • Ask your child about each class and check to make sure any assignments are written down.  Be especially aware of patterns.  Is spelling always due Thursdays?  Math tests on Fridays?  Put it on your own calendar so you can remember to ask.
  • Check their planner against other sources of information.  One way that parents can help is to check assignment books against other sources information to make sure they are complete.  Your kids can do that too. Many schools put some assignments on-line.  Other teachers hand out calendars.  Others have weekly scheduled.  For example, my son's Language Arts teacher assigns spelling, analogies, and grammar on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday, respectively, and everything goes in on Thursday.  Writing that down at the beginning of each week helps to keep things in order.
  • If it's still not working, ask for help from the school.  If, after all best effort, you child still isn't bringing home an accurate list of assignments, enlist help.  Ask your child to stop by their teachers after school or at the end of each class and check their assignment books.  If your child isn't turning in homework, your child's teacher is probably at least as frustrated as you and your child.

Make sure needed materials are home when they're needed.  One of the real challenges of getting homework done is making sure that each of the books, handouts, and assignment lists are home when they're needed. 

What they can do:

  • Check the assignment book at the end of each day as they're packing for home.  
  • Set up a system to remember books. Have your child mark down what they need when they write down the assignment. For example, they can put a post-it note on the front of the planner. When they write down the assignment, they write down the books or handouts they need to do it on the post-it. If they check their post-it before they leave at the end of the day, they should be set.
  • Ask for extra books.  Is this a chronic problem?  Does you child have a 504 or IEP or just concerned teachers?  Ask for an extra set of books.  In addition, many books are available electronically and the teacher just have to give you an access code.
  • Don't forget worksheets!  Sometimes putting all worksheets directly in the planner is the best way for them to make it home.  My son takes photographs of every worksheet he is given so it's on his iPod, he can't lose it, and he can print them out if they get lost.

What you can do:

Still not working?

  •  If you can get a second copy of your child's books, DO IT.   Some books are needed every day, but others are only needed once in a while.  Kids often forget books not needed on a daily basis.  This can cause major problems.  It had never occurred to me that I could solve this problem by getting an extra copy of textbooks, but when I asked, my son's teachers were happy to oblige.  Often now they are available electronically, you just need to get the passcode.  If you're having a problem, they may have extra copies of old textbooks stuck in a closet somewhere.  Ask.  They can only say no.

Turning in Completed Homework

Maybe it's just my family, but both my sons and two of my neices complete their homework and then never get credit for it because they (a) leave it in their locker (b) can't find it when they teacher asks for it or (c) forget to turn it in.  Because teachers are trying to reward good homework skills, this often means 0's entered into their grades or, when we're lucky, losing half the credit or more.  Frustrating.  

What your child can do:

  • Put all homework in their assignment book.  For some children, slipping all homework for the day into their assignment book is a good strategy, as they need to take it out to write down their new work.  If that works, go for it.
  • Flag assignments that will be turned in.Because some homework needed to be in binders and other was loose, keeping it all in one place simply did not work for my son.  Flags did.  You know those bright post-it notes or flags you can buy?  Or paper clips?  Every time my son completes an assignment, he puts a bright flag on it before he sticks it in his accordian folder.  When he opens the folder up, the first thing you see is four or five bright markers, showing what has to be turned in for the day.  Since he began using this system, he hasn't lost one assignment.  
  • Have them photograph every assignment.  The ones they do in class.  The ones they do at home.  My kids can lose anything.  Photograph it.  They may also realize the assignment they thought was done wasn't finished.  The photograph will show it to them.
  • Do all work that can be done in Google Docs.  They can't lose an assignment typed into Google Docs.  They also can't lose an assignment photographed or scanned and uploaded to Google Docs.  Anything in Google Docs can be printed again.  Many teachers who are just checking off that things are done will just look at an iPod or phone and check it off as there.

What can you do?  

Essentially nothing.  You can teach your child strategies and give them the tools they need to do their work.  You can make sure they photograph or upload it.  But ultimately, once the homework is done and they are off at school, they're on their own.  

The Disorganized Child

The New York Times published a piece today by noted psychologist, Alan Sroufe, about the long-term problems of relying on ritalin to help kids who have problems with hyperactivity and concentration in school.   Bottom line: it doesn't work.  Whatever your feelings about the diagnosis or over-diagnosis of attention deficit disorder, ALL of us need tools to help us stay organized and on-task in this very demanding and multi-tasking world.

Middle school is a great place to learn skills that can carry kids forward into adulthood.  Some kids may develp those skills naturally.  Other kids need some help.  But all of us can benefit from making good strategies automatic, so can work more effectively.  

Related Pieces

Check out the comments section!  We've had some good suggestions added.

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Here is the best guide to helping kids do homework successfully that we’ve seen, published by the National Association of School Psychologists on their website, NASPonline.org. Our thanks to NASP for sharing it with us.

There are two key strategies parents can draw on to reduce homework hassles. The first is to establish clear routines around homework, including when and where homework gets done and setting up daily schedules for homework. The second is to build in rewards or incentives to use with children for whom “good grades” is not a sufficient reward for doing homework.

Homework Routines

Tasks are easiest to accomplish when tied to specific routines. By establishing daily routines for homework completion, you will not only make homework go more smoothly, but you will also be fostering a sense of order your child can apply to later life, including college and work.

Step 1. Find a location in the house where homework will be done. The right location will depend on your child and the culture of your family. Some children do best at a desk in their bedroom. It is a quiet location, away from the hubbub of family noise. Other children become too distracted by the things they keep in their bedroom and do better at a place removed from those distractions, like the dining room table. Some children need to work by themselves. Others need to have parents nearby to help keep them on task and to answer questions when problems arise. Ask your child where the best place is to work. Both you and your child need to discuss pros and cons of different settings to arrive at a mutually agreed upon location.

Step 2. Set up a homework center. Once you and your child have identified a location, fix it up as a home office/homework center. Make sure there is a clear workspace large enough to set out all the materials necessary for completing assignments. Outfit the homework center with the kinds of supplies your child is most likely to need, such as pencils, pens, colored markers, rulers, scissors, a dictionary and thesaurus, graph paper, construction paper, glue and cellophane tape, lined paper, a calculator, spell checker, and, depending on the age and needs of your child, a computer or laptop. If the homework center is a place that will be used for other things (such as the dining room table), then your child can keep the supplies in a portable crate or bin. If possible, the homework center should include a bulletin board that can hold a monthly calendar on which your child can keep track of longterm assignments. Allowing children some leeway in decorating the homework center can help them feel at home there, but you should be careful that it does not become too cluttered with distracting materials.

Step 3. Establish a homework time. Your child should get in the habit of doing homework at the same time every day. The time may vary depending on the individual child. Some children need a break right after school to get some exercise and have a snack. Others need to start homework while they are still in a school mode (i.e., right after school when there is still some momentum left from getting through the day). In general, it may be best to get homework done either before dinner or as early in the evening as the child can tolerate. The later it gets, the more tired the child becomes and the more slowly the homework gets done.

Step 4. Establish a daily homework schedule. In general, at least into middle school, the homework session should begin with your sitting down with your child and drawing up a homework schedule. You should review all the assignments and make sure your child understands them and has all the necessary materials. Ask your child to estimate how long it will take to complete each assignment. Then ask when each assignment will get started. If your child needs help with any assignment, then this should be determined at the beginning so that the start times can take into account parent availability. A Daily Homework Planner is included at the end of this handout and contains a place for identifying when breaks may be taken and what rewards may be earned.

Incentive Systems

Many children who are not motivated by the enjoyment of doing homework are motivated by the high grade they hope to earn as a result of doing a quality job. Thus, the grade is an incentive, motivating the child to do homework with care and in a timely manner. For children who are not motivated by grades, parents will need to look for other rewards to help them get through their nightly chores. Incentive systems fall into two categories: simple and elaborate.

Simple incentive systems. The simplest incentive system is reminding the child of a fun activity to do when homework is done. It may be a favorite television show, a chance to spend some time with a video or computer game, talking on the telephone or instant messaging, or playing a game with a parent. This system of withholding fun things until the drudgery is over is sometimes called Grandma’s Law because grandmothers often use it quite effectively (“First take out the trash, then you can have chocolate chip cookies.”). Having something to look forward to can be a powerful incentive to get the hard work done. When parents remind children of this as they sit down at their desks they may be able to spark the engine that drives the child to stick with the work until it is done.

Elaborate incentive systems. These involve more planning and more work on the part of parents but in some cases are necessary to address more significant homework problems. More complex incentives systems might include a structure for earning points that could be used to “purchase” privileges or rewards or a system that provides greater reward for accomplishing more difficult homework tasks. These systems work best when parents and children together develop them. Giving children input gives them a sense of control and ownership, making the system more likely to succeed. We have found that children are generally realistic in setting goals and deciding on rewards and penalties when they are involved in the decision-making process.

Building in breaks. These are good for the child who cannot quite make it to the end without a small reward en route. When creating the daily homework schedule, it may be useful with these children to identify when they will take their breaks. Some children prefer to take breaks at specific time intervals (every 15 minutes), while others do better when the breaks occur after they finish an activity. If you use this approach, you should discuss with your child how long the breaks will last and what will be done during the breaks (get a snack, call a friend, play one level on a video game). The Daily Homework Planner includes sections where breaks and end-of-homework rewards can be identified.

Building in choice. This can be an effective strategy for parents to use with children who resist homework. Choice can be incorporated into both the order in which the child agrees to complete assignments and the schedule they will follow to get the work done. Building in choice not only helps motivate children but can also reduce power struggles between parents and children.

Developing Incentive Systems

Step 1. Describe the problem behaviors. Parents and children decide which behaviors are causing problems at homework time. For some children putting homework off to the last minute is the problem; for others, it is forgetting materials or neglecting to write down assignments. Still others rush through their work and make careless mistakes, while others dawdle over assignments, taking hours to complete what should take only a few minutes. It is important to be as specific as possible when describing the problem behaviors. The problem behavior should be described as behaviors that can be seen or heard; for instance, complains about homework or rushes through homework, making many mistakes are better descriptors than has a bad attitude or is lazy.

Step 2. Set a goal. Usually the goal relates directly to the problem behavior. For instance, if not writing down assignments is the problem, the goal might be: “Joe will write down his assignments in his assignment book for every class.”

Step 3. Decide on possible rewards and penalties. Homework incentive systems work best when children have a menu of rewards to choose from, since no single reward will be attractive for long. We recommend a point system in which points can be earned for the goal behaviors and traded in for the reward the child wants to earn. The bigger the reward, the more points the child will need to earn it. The menu should include both larger, more expensive rewards that may take a week or a month to earn and smaller, inexpensive rewards that can be earned daily. It may also be necessary to build penalties into the system. This is usually the loss of a privilege (such as the chance to watch a favorite TV show or the chance to talk on the telephone to a friend).

Once the system is up and running, and if you find your child is earning more penalties than rewards, then the program needs to be revised so that your child can be more successful. Usually when this kind of system fails, we think of it as a design failure rather than the failure of the child to respond to rewards. It may be a good idea if you are having difficulty designing a system that works to consult a specialist, such as a school psychologist or counselor, for assistance.

Step 4. Write a homework contract. The contract should say exactly what the child agrees to do and exactly what the parents’ roles and responsibilities will be. When the contract is in place, it should reduce some of the tension parents and kids often experience around homework. For instance, if part of the contract is that the child will earn a point for not complaining about homework, then if the child does complain, this should not be cause for a battle between parent and child: the child simply does not earn that point. Parents should also be sure to praise their children for following the contract. It will be important for parents to agree to a contract they can live with; that is, avoiding penalties they are either unable or unwilling to impose (e.g., if both parents work and are not at home, they cannot monitor whether a child is beginning homework right after school, so an alternative contract may need to be written).

We have found that it is a rare incentive system that works the first time. Parents should expect to try it out and redesign it to work the kinks out. Eventually, once the child is used to doing the behaviors specified in the contract, the contract can be rewritten to work on another problem behavior. Your child over time may be willing to drop the use of an incentive system altogether. This is often a long-term goal, however, and you should be ready to write a new contract if your child slips back to bad habits once a system is dropped.

Click here to download the homework planner and incentive sheet.

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