Care and Feeding

Homework Is a Daily Battle With My Kids

How can I do better next year?

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Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by chameleonseye/iStock/Getty Images Plus and Thinkstock.

Care and Feeding is Slate’s parenting advice column. In addition to our traditional advice, every Thursday we feature an assortment of teachers from across the country answering your education questions. Have a question for our teachers? Email or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

I have kids who just finished up Grade 8 and 9 who (surprise!) are not very motivated to do their homework.

The Grade 9 student is used to a heavy workload but seems less interested in homework with every year. Procrastination has been a big issue this year, and if I don’t nag, the homework doesn’t get started until almost bedtime.

The Grade 8 student goes to a different school and has had varying amounts of homework from year to year. That child keeps telling me there is no homework, or it is done, or the book is still at school. The teacher has told me there are issues with work not getting done, both in class and at home.

But since my kids have no textbooks and everything is online, I have a lot of trouble keeping track of what the homework actually is. When my kids are on their screens, I don’t know if they are doing homework or not. I can only access their class pages through the students’ individual accounts. There is no parent access system.

As we head into the new school year in the fall, I want to do better. How much monitoring and punishing is appropriate with young teens? And how can I effectively set up and enforce “homework time” when I have no clue what they are supposed to be doing and everything is on screens?

—Getting Discouraged Myself

Dear Discouraged,

Let me assure you that your kids are right on time. Being a hot mess about homework in late middle and early high school is a time-honored tradition, and your teenagers are engaged in two of its most classic variations.

I think the best (but potentially slowest) solution is to start pushing your district for a parent access portal, or to adopt a communication system like Remind. I’m honestly surprised they haven’t employed one already! As you allude to in your letter, trying to play the middleman between your kids and a homework load that you have no way of knowing about is exhausting, discouraging, and ineffective. That’s why parent communication systems are such an important tool: They eliminate the need for an unsustainable level of individual back-and-forth with multiple teachers and help to clear away the smoke and mirrors your eighth grader has so astutely been employing. This might be a useful request to take to your PTA, because it will gain traction more quickly if administrators hear a lot of voices asking for the same thing.

You’re also right to be thinking about how much oversight is appropriate for kids this age. Time and task management are necessary high school skills. Mastering them requires giving your kids the space they need to manage themselves—including the flops and fumbles that will help them learn—while also giving them enough structure and guidance to help them succeed. It’s a delicate balance. In my opinion, your soon-to-be 10th grader sounds like they’re doing fine. Experimenting with procrastination and staying up late are very typical at this age, so if their grades are acceptable and they aren’t seriously underslept, I’d leave it be. It’s not a bad idea to have conversations about the habits they’re developing, and the pros and cons of starting work early or pushing it to the last minute, but otherwise, they’ll figure it out. Your younger student is a little trickier, since I think a planner or other homework management system will quickly meet the same fate as the homework itself. You can start the year by laying out your expectations, some tangible checkpoints where you’ll be reaching out to teachers to ensure those expectations are being met (I’d say every four weeks or so would be reasonable, and that interval can get longer as trust is built), and the results they can anticipate from those check-ins. And then … let them figure it out, too.

And, Discouraged, you don’t need to “do better.” You’re doing fine already. You can set some ground rules and issue consequences if they aren’t met (or increase privileges and autonomy when they are), but I don’t think you need to inflict an endless battle of nagging and resistance upon yourself or them, or attempt to structure their time too stringently. You have plenty of responsibilities already, I’m sure. Homework is theirs, and they’re old enough to own their choices and the results of them.

—Ms. Bauer (middle and high school teacher, New York)

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My son has just finished up kindergarten, and I’ve been so impressed by how much he has grown. My concern isn’t around his development, but instead the inclusion of kids in the classroom with disabilities. The school he attends is great academically, but has little to no diversity; it is a predominantly white school and it appears kids who need extra support are pulled out of class rather than supports being brought in. I only knew there were kids in my son’s class who had disabilities when we received the class photo midyear and there were three or four kids I had never seen. My son knew their names but said they only were in class for recess or lunch. There is one kid in the class full time who had a behavior plan, and I only knew because it was discussed so openly and the kid received reprimands so frequently my son would come home and let me know “Tim was on red again today. The teachers kept telling him he was doing things wrong.”

I work with individuals with autism and developmental disabilities, and we live with an adult who has autism. Acceptance, inclusion, and kindness are top values of ours. In addition, I’ve worked with many families who fight for years to get their kids access to general education classrooms and their peers, so seeing the kids separated at such a young age is difficult for me. During a conference, I brought up that my son is picking up on other kids being reprimanded and asked about the class photo. The teacher responded by saying several “autistic kids had been pushed into” her classroom, making it really hard to pay proper attention to all her other kids. She was shaking her head while talking and was overall dismissive.

I shared our family values and what I do as a profession, stating I’d love for my son to meet kids different from him, but her tone didn’t change. Fast-forward to now, she dropped off an end of year gift, which is very sweet. However, the gift is a cartoon version of his class and doesn’t include any of the kids who get pulled out for services, even though my son says they come to his class every day. I want to bring this up again but am not sure how. Should I be concerned about this, or do you think I’m making too much of it?

—Let’s Live Our Values

Dear LLOV,

This sounds like a dicey situation. On the one hand, you’re not directly in a position to talk about the teacher’s ableism (and let’s call it what it is!) because your child is not a special ed child in her class. But I agree that you can’t just let it go either. I certainly wouldn’t. Not only is it ethically questionable to do so—it does not sound like that teacher is treating those children well—but it also normalizes that behavior in front of your son, which goes directly against what you are trying to teach him at home.

I don’t think you’re making too much of it, especially because you don’t know if those kids’ parents are aware of how the inclusion teacher sees them, or if they have the resources to do anything about it. Since the school year has probably just ended, I suggest you approach an administrator. Describe the situation—lay out that your son is acutely aware of some kind of punitive behavioral system in place (technically, it sounds like it’s supposed to be a reinforcement system but it’s being used punitively), and that given your profession and the fact that you do live with an autistic adult, that situation is not acceptable to you. Hopefully, they address the issue of the teacher’s behavior and beliefs internally from there. If you find the administration unhelpful, my go-to is always to suggest a faculty member you feel you have a good rapport with—the guidance counselor or an old teacher of your son’s or whoever else that may be.

I think the important thing here, though, is not to pull punches. Don’t give up on speaking up for what’s happening. It doesn’t sound like you will, but it’s really easy to say, “Those children are not my son; that’s not my problem.” If your son’s teacher believed that your son was a burden on her classroom and talked about him dismissively, you’d want someone else to stop it, wouldn’t you? Put your foot down. You’re right, and the school needs to know if they have an ableist teacher in their midst.

—Ms. Sarnell (preschool special education teacher, New York)

Hello! I’m in a summer teacher training program with the assumption that I’ll be in a middle school classroom (virtual or in-person) in the fall. We have about six hours a day of Zoom instruction, including lecture and discussion time as well as 15-minute breaks every couple hours, and it is brutal. I keep wondering: If I, an adult, can’t handle this much remote instruction, how on earth are students supposed to? How can I get through this, and is there any way to use this experience to inform my work if we do end up having to teach online in the fall?

—Zoom Fatigue

Dear Zoom Fatigue,

That does sound brutal! No, you cannot reasonably expect middle schoolers to be on Zoom for six hours a day. Online learning does not have to mean all Zoom, all the time. Incorporate asynchronous learning opportunities students can do at their own pace, such as reading a text, watching a video, or participating in a discussion board. There are benefits to video conferencing, for sure, but as you have seen, it’s possible to overdo it. Keep Zoom sessions brief. In real life, I teach on a block schedule, but I’m not planning 90-minute sessions for online learning. For various reasons, students will accomplish less at home online than they would in a traditional classroom.

In the meantime, how can you get through this? Well, can you turn your camera off? When I’ve had Zoom marathons and just can’t sit still any longer, I participate while standing. I’ve got a wireless headset, so I can hear fine even if I’m loading the dishwasher or doing a yoga pose during the meeting. Even turning your kitchen counter into a makeshift standing desk can help for a change of pace (one of my personal struggles is sitting all day).

I hope you have an opportunity to give your teacher preparation program honest feedback about how they can improve.

Good luck!

—Ms. Holbrook (high school teacher, Texas)

My neuroatypical son will start kindergarten in 2021. He doesn’t yet have a formal diagnosis, but benefits from OT and play therapy. We expect him to attend a mainstream public school. Long story short, we’re moving soon, and we’re in the fortunate position to choose between several good school districts and to let that determine exactly where we live.

How do we choose an elementary school for a neuroatypical kid? I want to find a school that genuinely values inclusion where my son can thrive. What should I look for? What matters? What doesn’t? Thanks for any guidance you can provide.

—What’s in a School?

Dear What’s in a School,

That is a challenging question. It’s hard to measure what makes a “good” school district, and we have even less information about the quality of special education. Here are some things I would try to for:

1) What does the school’s committee on special education, or CSE, look like? How many occupational therapists and social workers or psychologists (people who typically implement play therapy) do they have on staff? Who is the CSE chair? To me, this is sort of equivalent to looking at a school’s principal and superintendent. Those people matter because they set policy—likewise a CSE chair should set the tone for the quality of special education you get. If there aren’t many service providers, that puts a strain on the ones that are there, which often means fewer quality services. I’m sure the therapists in areas with service provider shortages are doing their best, but understaffing hurts. Does it seem like the district has enough people for its size? Is staff turnover high?

2) How many special ed/inclusion classrooms do they have? And what do those classrooms and programs look like? Inclusion comes in many colors—special education teacher support services, collaborative team teaching, integrated co-teaching, resource rooms, etc. Learn the differences and make sure the school district you’re looking at has the model that best suits your child’s needs based on his previous teacher’s recommendations (which should be on the IEP). If none of them do, the district you choose legally has to outsource your child to a school that can provide that (per the Individuals With Disabilities Education Act, a child has the right to “a free and appropriate public education in the least restrictive environment”—that language is very specific and it means that the school must provide you with, among other things, the right type of classroom as per your IEP recommendation). To me, it’s better to keep a child in district when possible. I’d aim for the district that most closely seems to align with your child’s needs.

3) Budget is another thing to consider. If you can find the budget, see if you can tell how much money is being allocated to special education resources. That will account for classrooms and service providers as mentioned above, but also for the quality of resources. If you’re in a district that keeps cutting its special education budget, that tells you that that district doesn’t care as much about it’s special education students. That’s not a good district for you. If it’s a district that prioritizes special education, then the money will be there.

Those are three concrete things to look at, but I will say one last thing: Trust your intuition, too. Go to the schools. Ask for a tour. Bring your child (if that’s something he can do and would be comfortable with). If they’ll let you, look specifically at the classrooms he might attend. Do they feel right to you? Does he seem interested? Look and see if student work is posted, and what the classroom looks like. Is it tidy? Welcoming? Does it seem like there’s some sort of behavior management plan in place (indicated through a classwide points system of some sort)?

If it feels wrong to you, that’s probably because it’s wrong for him. At this point, you know him better than any of the teachers in these prospective districts, and you are his biggest advocate. So go and look and see which vibe feels right.

—Ms. Sarnell (preschool special education teacher, New York)

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