Saturday 21 April 2018

Dad! Can you do my sums?

Homework is a chore for parents as well as children, so when is the best time to do it, asks Joe Donnelly

CAN you remember a time when you were most at peace with yourself? This question came up during one of the many evenings spent helping my eldest boy with his primary school homework. It appeared in the 'Alive-O' book, published by Veritas and used in senior infants. I'm all for religious education in schools but on this particular page was the instruction: 'Tell your child about a time when you were most at peace with yourself'.

What, exactly, does being 'at peace with yourself' mean? I wasn't quite sure how to answer, so instead I got him to say two decades of the rosary.

Another school year has begun and the evenings of helping with homework resume. I find it very tedious. I never liked homework when I had to do it myself and now I hate it even more because I'm doing it again by proxy.

The obvious solution is I need to be more patient but I sometimes wonder is my son deliberately reading slowly to wind me up.

Some evenings he flies through his reading and other evenings he decides a syllable per minute is an acceptable rate.

He'll often spend ages and ages colouring in a picture, meaning that we're getting to his addition tables on the brink of bedtime.

Distractions are the worst. Any sort of diversion and he'll be away from the table to investigate.

"Was that a unicorn I saw in the garden?" Unicorns don't exist.

"I think I heard a noise upstairs." We live in a bungalow.

"I have a pain in my tummy." No you don't.

It's up to me to oversee the homework on the evenings when my wife works late, but I still haven't worked out the proper order in which to get everything done.

Try to get it done before dinner? Or perhaps while I'm cooking the dinner and the youngest is being babysat by the television, the eldest can get through the exercises?

Or should we wait until after dinner and risk having it drag out until bedtime?

Paul Kerins, from Meath, is a father of four boys, two of them in school. "Sam is in first class and Charlie is in senior infants," he explains.

Have they come up with the perfect routine in Paul's home?

"Firstly, I should say that it is mostly my wife who monitors the homework. I'm a sales rep so I don't have fixed hours.

"She finds that getting down to it straight after school is the only way to get the homework done. Laura's a full-time mum so that's definitely an advantage for keeping a system in place.

"Even though the kitchen table is the main hub of activity in the house, we get them to do the homework there. When the two of them are at the homework together you have two different levels going on. For instance, Sam has more to do than Charlie."

It seems like plain sailing for the Kerins family -- I've a vision of ruthless efficiency and a squabble-free homework period.

"Not at all," says Paul. "It's very hard to keep your cool. The first few weeks after school starts back is probably the hardest.

"Getting them settled into a routine is difficult but after a while they realise the summer is over and the need to get homework done becomes more real for them.

"The hardest part for me, when it's my turn to help the boys, is the fact that I'll have come in from work and the last thing I'll want to do is homework. In fairness, the boys probably feel the same way.

"It's hard to keep them motivated when you've a job motivating yourself too. The hardest thing is to keep them concentrating on what they're doing.

"When you've four boys, they all want to tell you something at the exact same time. You'd always have to segregate them, the older ones from the younger ones, in the hope of getting any homework done."

Paul confesses that he's a bit of a soft touch when it comes to policing homework.

"I'd be more inclined to say, 'that's good enough' about a completed exercise, rather than spend ages on perfection."

One issue that can't be overlooked is the volume of homework and the time it takes to be completed.

"It can sometimes take an hour, maybe a bit more," says Paul. "I think it's a bit too much sometimes, but of course the kids often drag it out."

Are schools aware or realistic about the challenges of getting the homework completed successfully? I know of one school that, in correspondence with parents, recommended that "homework should be completed in a quiet, calm atmosphere without distraction".

I've been to places that are quiet and calm and don't have any distractions -- such as Glendalough in mid-winter. Our house is not like one of these places, at all, ever. The only time our home is calm and quiet is when we're not there.

There are online resources that offer help in winning "the homework battle", as the website puts it. Two key tips they offer are: homework is done at the same time each night, and homework is done in a public area of your house.

Yet they also recommend not trying to take 'too much control' over the situation because it will backfire and result in a 'power struggle' over homework.

Sorcha Brennan is a primary school teacher on the northside of Dublin. While stressing that every school has its own policy in relation to homework, she believes completing exercises and tasks at home is fundamentally important on many levels.

She also acknowledges the challenges involved.

"Every family is different and there are different routines," she explains. "But having a set routine is most helpful. The habit of it will mean less rows and arguments.

"I'd advise getting it done as early as possible because there will be less anticipation for the child."

I suggest 'dread' might be a more apt word than anticipation.

On the subject of time, I wonder is Ben spending too much time at his homework. What is expected of the child by the school or teacher?

How much time is too much time?

"The most important thing, at the beginning of the year, is to make sure you get guidance from the teacher as to how much time he or she expects to be spent on homework," advises Sorcha.

But does that mean that the child should stop after an hour, even if all the exercises haven't been completed?

"Every teacher is governed by the policy of the school, so it depends," she says. "My own opinion is that over an hour being spent on homework by a six-year-old, every night, could be too long.

What should a parent do if they think their child is being given too much homework?

"It may be possible that the teacher doesn't realise the volume of work is proving difficult to complete. The parent needs to bring this to the attention of the teacher.

I'll try my best to put Sorcha's advice into practice but it'll require quite a shift in my own approach and attitude. And if you're wondering, the time when I am most 'at peace with myself' is . . . when we've just finished the homework.

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