In Homework Blues, we gave you an overview of our homework problems (note: we say 'our' quite deliberately - although it was our daughter's homework, the problems it caused impacted on the whole family) and a brief outline of our solutions to them. Homework Blues Background went into more detail about what all the problems were (so that you could see if they were similar to your own experience), while this blog is going to explore the various solutions we developed to improve the situation.
A warning, up front. It isn't always easy. It's far easier to get into bad habits than good ones! Improvement isn't automatic, but will require work on the part of both you and your child(ren). Most of it is common sense but it can make a huge difference when applied consistently. Practice is the key!
As we mentioned in the other Homework Blues blogs, we used QWERTY® to do our strategic planning. It allowed us to consider a lot of possible options (some more sensible than others!) before refining our list to what we considered the most viable possibilities, ranking them to decide which solutions to try first, before putting the ones we selected into practice. In actual fact, we're still doing the YaY! stage - refining what we came up with as we go along to improve the overall result.
Let's start with basics: equipment and materials. We established a system that ensured our daughter would have everything she needed for the majority of tasks, without wasting time going looking for them. In a nutshell, that meant stationery and folders.
As we mentioned in Homework Blues Background, one of the biggest problems was getting the required stationery so she could actually start doing her work. Our first step in sorting out this particular problem was to establish a homework pencil case. From the hundreds of pencil cases she had kicking around, we chose a very memorable one that looked like a roller skate (so she could get her skates on!). This was given a permanent home, under the old computer in our lounge. It had the four basic things she needed: a pencil, a sharpener, a rubber (eraser) and a ruler. We also included a pen and some highlighters, but you can make your own choices. The sharpener was crucial - so much time had been wasted previously as our daughter milled around looking for a way to sharpen whatever extremely blunt writing implement she had managed to find. Thus, in future, whenever she started her homework, she always knew exactly where everything she needed was, so didn’t need to waste time finding it all.
When it came to materials, we decided to get two folders to help establish a prompt start. We chose lightweight A4 plastic document folders, with very different patterns so that they were easy to tell apart. We labelled one Finished Homework Folder and the other, yes, you’ve guessed it: Unfinished Homework Folder. Like the homework pencil case, these had permanent homes when our daughter wasn’t doing her homework. The Finished Homework Folder lived in her school bag, going backwards and forwards to school, while her Unfinished Homework Folder lived in a nook near the front door, right beside the place where she usually dumped her school bag after coming in from school.
Once we had the folders, we linked them to a set routine. As soon as a piece of homework was finished, she put it in the Finished Homework Folder and updated her school planner accordingly. The homework then got taken into school to be handed in. New homework sheets she received at school were put in the same folder to be brought home. The Unfinished Homework Folder, as you might expect, was where she stored pieces of homework that she had not had time to complete, so that they were not lost and were there ready for her to work on the following day.
Time was identified as another major factor in the less-than-ideal homework scenarios we had endured before, so let's look at time planning and management.
We wanted our daughter to get into a habit of doing a time plan. This might seem excessive for jobs that should only take twenty minutes, but it was critical in reducing time wastage. She needed to be aware of what she had to do, and how long it should take. She would get out every item of homework (that she had remembered!) and note down all the tasks she had to do on a scrap of paper. She would then jot down how much time she thought each would take, breaking them down into sub-tasks as necessary, bearing in mind any one item should, ideally, take no more than 20-30 minutes. Note: the school does say that any one item should only take 20 minutes, maximum, but we've found that's not always realistic as some take substantially less than that, while some are considerably more (particularly if there is any research involved).
Then, we relied on the trusty timer to put a deadline on each individual piece of homework she had to do. We used an old analogue wind-up timer as it was simple to use, and was a lot less prone to causing a distraction than our daughter’s smartphone might have been, but you could obviously use whatever style of timer worked best for you. In this way she could immediately see how long she had left to complete any piece of work, and pace herself accordingly. She normally ‘blocked’ her homework into sections of about five minutes, which meant that even if she overran with one piece of work, she could re-plan, and readjust to make sure she completed roughly on time.
Our daughter has a tendency to dream, or lose focus, so we had to organise where she worked to minimise distractions. It's good to always use the same place, if possible, so as to help establish a routine. We chose the dining room table. This was useful as it was a good writing surface away from distractions like smartphones, tablets, books et cetera and faced away from the lounge and the TV. You might prefer the kitchen table, while you work on chores nearby, or a quiet room like a study. These are personal choices - it depends on you and your child what will work best.
Another thing we did was concede (reluctantly) that one of us would have to sit with her while she did her homework. We weren’t working with her on her homework. We were doing our own work. But our presence meant she was much more likely to start a new task when she had finished the previous one and much less likely to daydream between tasks. The other reason was that if she did get stuck, we could dive in and suggest things she might consider. We weren’t solving her problems, just suggesting avenues of thought she could pursue without dragging out the process unnecessarily.
So, now we have the equipment and materials ready and have considered some of the time factors, let's look at the actual homework routine we established, how it would work, and how she could remember it easily.
It’s all very well having a pre-prepared pencil case and folders, but if they are not put back in the right place then we're right back where we started with a mammoth equipment and materials hunt. To ensure a smooth and consistent routine, we devised a two-way memory palace based on hooks in the dining room where our daughter does her homework.
She has created a memory palace with seven hooks, to remind her of the seven items she needs. So, when she looks:
1. at the radiator, she imagines having her school bag hanging from it
2. at the printer, she imagines printing out her school planner
3. through the window, she imagines seeing her finished homework folder
4. in the glasses cabinet, she imagines she can see her unfinished homework folder
5. in the tulip mirror, she imagines she can see a reflection of her roller skate pencil case
6. in the sea painting, she imagines she can see her pencil sharpener bobbing up and down
7. on the sideboard, she imagines she can see the timer bouncing up and down as it goes off
When she is starting her homework, she looks around the dining room in a right-to-left direction as shown below.
This prompts her to:
1. get her school bag from the hall
2. get out her homework planner from her school bag (so that she can see what homework is due, as not every task will be in her homework folder e.g. ones where she has a set exercise to do on the computer)
3. get out her finished homework folder from her school bag
4. get her unfinished homework folder from the hall
5. get her roller skate pencil case from under the desktop computer
6. open her pencil case and get out her essential equipment, including the pencil sharpener
7. get the timer from the shelf and put it on the table
At this point, she has everything she needs to do her homework.
When she has finished her homework, she uses her memory palace in the opposite direction, left-to-right, to remind herself to pack everything she has used away properly.
This prompts her to:
1. put the timer back in its normal position on the shelf
2. sharpen her pencil ready for next time (so there is no delay, or excuses, starting homework on the next occasion) and then put all the things back in her roller skate pencil case
3. put her roller skate pencil case back beneath the desktop computer
4. put any unfinished homework in the unfinished homework folder, then put that folder back in the hall
5. put all completed homework in the finished homework folder, then put that folder back in her school bag
6. update her planner to note all the finished homework, so she has a record for her teachers, then put the planner back in her school bag
[Note: our YaY! deliberations afterwards suggested a refinement, where the planner was put INTO her finished homework folder - potentially giving another reminder to hand in homework when at school - and only at that point putting the finished homework folder into the school bag]
7. put her school bag back in the hall, ready to be picked up on the way out to school the next day.
This 'there and back again' approach means that not only is everything quickly brought to the table so she can start her homework promptly, but also that all items are put back in their identified places ready for the same activity to be repeated the following day.
Thanks to the strategies above, we’re now at a stage where, when she starts her homework, she will do it efficiently, and then put everything back, so she can do her homework efficiently the following day. We’re almost there.
The next thing we need to do is to get her into the habit of starting her homework immediately she comes home, and not get lost in the million and one distractions that “will only take five minutes” and last hours. To get her into the habit of starting her homework immediately she gets home we began by using a Flame, Fuse, Fire! technique and then followed it up with parental reminders to start her homework each day.
As usual with Flame, Fuse, Fire!, we did the initial design in the order Fire, Flame, Fuse.
The Fire was obvious: she had to remember to start her homework
The Flame used her habit of dumping her school bag off her shoulders and onto the hall floor as soon as she gets through the door
The Fuse had to link the Flame action with the Fire! task. So, we got her to picture herself dropping her school bag and, when it lands, for her finished homework folder to pop up out of her bag like a jack-in-the-box on the end of a spring. She would then picture herself picking up the folder and putting it down on the dining room table.
This Flame, Fuse, Fire! worked well to begin with, but as tends to happen with Flame, Fuse, Fire! it degraded over time. However, the idea behind it still allows us to make a parental prompt: “What do you see popping out of your school bag?” when she dumps it down in the hall. You'll note we don't say: "start your homework" or "get out your homework folder" but rather we ask a question so that she has to think about what she has to do next. There's no doubt she'll let out a big groan but then she will settle down quickly and get on with her homework routine.
The final problem was at the school end. How did we get her to remember to bring home her new homework and to remember to hand in the homework she had completed? We decided to use a mnemonic acrostic: CHUM, which stood for:
Clarinet (which she would need most, if not all, days)
Homework (what we are interested in here)
Unusual items, e.g. letters home from the school or one-off items she had to hand in
Music bag (which she might need even on days she doesn't have her clarinet as she does more than one instrument)
To help her implement CHUM, we used another Flame, Fuse, Fire! system where she imagined that just before going into class in the morning, she had to lift a “CHUM” off her school peg so she could hang up her school bag. Then, symmetrically, in the afternoon, after she lifted off her school bag to bring it home, she would have to put her “CHUM” back up on the peg. Our Explode Into Action blog goes into this in a lot more detail.
In this way we improved her record of bringing home new homework and handing in completed homework.
These solutions took time to establish, but have worked very well for us. They might not work as a 'canned solution' for you, but it wouldn't take much to tweak them for your own personal preferences and then you'll see for yourselves what a difference they can make.