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How to Create an Academic Environment at Home: The Routine


kamurj

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Excerpted from
Middle School Years: Achieving the Best Education for Your Child, Grades 5-8
By Michele A. Hernandez

Children need routine in their lives, particularly in regard to doing homework and getting used to a schedule. Remember, it is always easy when they get older to allow more freedom, but while they are young, you want to mold their behavior as much as you can to teach them positive habits.

Assuming your child gets home from school around three or four o'clock (this could be later if they have extracurricular activities on certain days), the first thing you should do is allow him to have a healthy snack so that his brain has some energy. High-fat foods like potato chips or nacho chips are not recommended because they do not provide as much energy to the brain as a healthier, more substantial snack. If you set children to work on an empty stomach, they will be much less productive and much less able to concentrate.

Once they have had some juice (or lots of water), and non-junk food, you need to set the routine: They will take their books to the designated study room and work on homework either until it is completed, or for at least thirty minutes, at which point a break is in order before resuming again. Obviously, by the time they reach high school, they might find themselves with three to five hours of homework, but by then they will automatically schedule in their own breaks when they are tired and resume when they are ready. Until they mature to that level, it's better to have a strict plan with some enticing rewards at the end.

I think it's important to emphasize to children that homework is a fun and useful activity, not something to dash through so that they can watch TV. Completion of homework leads to positive reinforcement (from the teacher and from classmates) and fulfillment in class; once the child starts to achieve this success, it will naturally lead to more reinforcement and greater success. How does a parent create the impression that homework is important? I think primarily by showing interest in what the child is doing. Ask what he is studying in each subject and try to ask some questions that show that you are either familiar with the topic or would like to find out more. Let's say they are studying adding and subtracting and accounting, and you never for the life of you could figure out how to do this well. You could ask them to show you what they've learned and add something like, "Now that you've shown me that, I'll finally be able to balance my checkbook more accurately."

What you've done is made some seemingly irrelevant thing they are learning in school into something that has importance in everyday life. The same goes for science, history, and all other subjects, academic and otherwise.

If you happen to know a lot about a certain area, let's say English, you might want to discuss the book they are reading and ask them some questions about it. "I loved that book when I first read it; I remember that my grandfather read it out loud to me when I spent the summer in Maine." By bringing your own life experiences to their schoolwork, you are positively reinforcing that what children are learning is not just useless busy-work, but rather is information that is vital to their lives: This is a big step in the right direction.

As for positive rewards for finishing homework, that will depend on what your child likes to do in his spare time. If his passion is playing catch with the neighbors, that is the carrot you would dangle; if he prefers to play with his train set, then you would offer that option instead. In fact, especially when they are young, I think you could encourage children to do almost anything they wanted to as long as all homework is done.

A word of caution: You should be the one, at least while your child is learning a routine, to follow up and check whether homework is really done. Spot checks are a helpful idea. Every few days ask to see the homework notebook and have your child give you a brief synopsis of what is to be completed. That should help you gauge how long he should spend on one area and whether he is on track. If your child says that he has to read four chapters of To Kill a Mockingbird, it will be a good guess that most of the homework for that evening is reading.

In addition, spot checks will help you help your child get ahead. If when you check the homework assignments, there is no reading for Monday night but you notice that he has to be on page 124 of To Kill a Mockingbird by Thursday, you need to help your child divide up the reading load so he can break it down into smaller daily segments. Until your child becomes proficient at breaking down tasks, I think it is your job as a parent at least to teach the skill so that your child will be able to do it on his own well-managed segments of time.

I'd like to insert a friendly reminder at this point: You need to do all this in a loving way, not a nagging way. At all costs, you want to avoid a situation where you are forcing your child at gunpoint to do his work. That's why it's always important to reinforce the subject material as I've described above.

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