Care and Feeding

How Can I Avoid Becoming the Homework Police?

A boy scratches his head as he gets irritated doing his homework.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by imtmphoto/iStock/Getty Images Plus.

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 askateacher@slate.com or post it in the Slate Parenting Facebook group.

My 11-year-old boy struggles with executive functioning and is starting sixth grade shortly. He was diagnosed with ADHD during the last school year, and we are working to get a medication dosage that works right for him.

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His biggest challenges are around organization and impulse control. Online school was particularly difficult—he just wasn’t able to restrain himself from activities like YouTube that were off limits.

Do you have any tips for helping him manage his transition to the middle school workload? Our elementary school never had significant homework, so the afterschool homework routine is going to be new. Honestly, I’m expecting (and dreading) that I will have to finish my workday, sit next to him, and serve as homework monitor. I’d love to find other more productive ways to go about this transition.

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—Homework Police

Dear Homework Police,

My first suggestion is you let his teachers know about his struggles. If he doesn’t already have an IEP or 504, please make sure you inquire about getting him one. Push-in or pull-out services and accommodations will make his academic career much easier.

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Second step: Get him to explain the problem in his own words. Talk about his struggle. Share with him your worry about being the homework police. And together come up with a plan.

If he needs suggestions about how to handle things, there are a million websites that offer suggestions, like this one from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.

Have him look over the list and speculate about which strategies would be helpful, then have him commit to a plan for a week or two. After the designated time period, evaluate the effectiveness of the different strategies, and revise the plan. Keep doing that until he’s figured out which strategies work for him.

The best thing you can do for him right now is help him learn how to solve his own problems. Even if you wanted to, you can’t be the homework police forever.

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Good luck!

—Ms. Scott (high school teacher, North Carolina)

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My 2.5-year-old is smart, funny, sweet, silly, kind, loving…the list goes on! While I certainly experience frustration and enjoy getting stuff done when I have childcare, I’m starting to think about preschool.

Here’s the thing: Absolutely zero part of me wants to, is looking forward to, or feels positive about sending him to school. Zero. A big part of this, admittedly, is I absolutely hated school as a child (I went undiagnosed with ADHD so experienced lots of frustration, loneliness, and a million tiny humiliations for years). No part of me thinks school was “worth it.” School was/is a major source of trauma for me. Yes, I’m in therapy but honestly childhood wounds run deep and some just don’t ever fully heal.

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And now there’s SO MUCH HOMEWORK, so much testing, and busy work. I don’t think it is an environment that often sets our kids up for creativity and a love of learning. That’s not to say there aren’t great teachers. But we live rurally, and I’ve known and worked with some teachers over the years, and there is a lot I don’t love.

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I want to homeschool. I would be good at it and that option is available to us thanks to our lifestyle. Some people have been supportive; others worry about the socialization. My husband is on the fence, but he thinks it would be better to send them to school. His reasoning is it would be a lot on my plate, and also what better way to prepare our kids for working a job you hate…than school (he didn’t love school either). I think with enough conversations, we might be able to come to a compromise of trying it.

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Is this a terrible idea? Am I potentially depriving my kids of something worthwhile? I understand some people love school, and maybe mine would too, but the idea of sending them off to a place I truly hated fills me with dread. I want to give them a wonderful childhood, and in my mind, sending them to school isn’t the move.

—Preschool Blues

Dear Preschool Blues,

I am always wary of recommending homeschool. The main concern for me is access. What I mean by “access” is that if you want your child to be accepted to, attend, and do well in college, he will need certain skills—both academic and behavioral. I think you’re taking for granted how hard it is to be a good teacher. While you may be able to (and even successful at), teach your child letter sounds, or adding and subtracting, reading comprehension, and problem solving are more abstract skills, and they take expertise to build.

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There are also certainly concerns about socialization. A preschool can offer “school-readiness” skills like following a class schedule or raising his hand (which, if you decide to send him to school in first or second grade after a few years of homeschool, he’d be expected to know); and most importantly, they can give you a head start on those pre-academic skills.

Preschool also lacks a lot of the aspects of school that worry you. You can seek out one that is play-based, and they have no testing, no homework, no “busy work.” Preschools are designed to create space for him to express his creativity.

I’m not fully comfortable telling you what to do. But if you are looking for a compromise, or to try one thing out versus another, I would say try doing school first, rather than trying not to do school. I think you’ll find your son will have a more positive experience than you did. Work with your therapist to resolve some of your feelings, and try to not let your own experience color your son’s. Remember you can always reassess school when kindergarten rolls around.

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

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Our daughter was placed in a mixed second and third grade class last school year for second grade due to low enrollment issues for her age group. She’s one of the oldest kids in her age cohort, and so with this in mind, we considered it a positive that she would be in a class with children closer to her own age.

Right before the new school year started we were informed that she would be in a mixed grade class again. Same teacher, and some of the same classmates she had in second grade. The teacher is great, and our kid is generally happy.

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However, there has been no communication whatsoever from the school administrators about the mixed class. Many of us have asked the school principal what the criteria was for placing our kids in a mixed class again, and none of us have received a response from her. We’re not pitching a fit, we just want to know why our kids were selected for this for a second year.

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The issue came up at our in-person back-to-school night. The teacher was frank with us; she said it wasn’t her preference to teach a mixed class, and she is clearly very unhappy with the principal about that, as well as the general lack of communication from the principal.

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The research I’ve done seems to show that mixed classes have a minimal effect on achievement and that the kids who are selected for these types of classes are generally considered independent and free of behavior problems. That said, I’ve noticed that a solid majority of the kids who are doing this again are only children, as is our daughter. As an only child myself, I’m pretty leery of “independence” as criteria for how children are educated. In my case it led to a distinct lack of attention from teachers through my primary education, and I suffered as a result. I worry that our daughter’s “independence” is being used as a crutch by school administrators, and that she may end up in the same spot that I did. I also worry that since she’s already one of the oldest kids in her grade, she’s now sharing a class with some children who are almost two years younger than her.

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Am I making a mountain out of a molehill? Is my daughter’s education being stymied? Should I escalate the lack of communication to the school district?

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—Mixed Class, Mixed Feelings

Dear Mixed Class, Mixed Feelings,

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I don’t think you have much to worry about in terms of your daughter’s education as a result of being a member of the mixed class. As you rightly pointed out, the research indicates that students in mixed classroom perform just as well as those in classes that are not mixed. The structure of learning should not be a concern.

I would be concerned, however, by the lack of communication from administration. You have every right to understand how and why students like your daughter are chosen for a mixed classroom, and you have every right to seek assurances from administrators that your daughter’s level of independence will not result in less individual attention moving forward.

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The fact that the principal has failed to respond to those inquiries is unacceptable. If every effort has been made to communicate with the principal, and she has still failed to respond, I think it’s entirely warranted to move up the chain of command in search of an answer.

Our children spend an enormous portion of every day inside the walls of a school in the care of adults other than ourselves. As parents, this affords us the right to timely and thoughtful responses from teachers and principal whenever we have concerns. When parents don’t receive these kinds of timely responses, we become anxious, worried, and distrustful of the people caring for our children.

You have a right to be angry for being ignored. I don’t blame you for wanting to continue to seek an answer, and I would do the same. Good luck.

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—Mr. Dicks (fifth grade teacher, Connecticut)

I have twins who are starting kindergarten next week. I don’t know whether the school is planning to put them in the same class or different classes, and I’m not sure if I should request one or the other. In normal times, I would request that they be placed in different classrooms because they would both benefit from not being together 24/7, but their Covid risk would be reduced if they are both in the same class this year. I’m not sure what to do. If they end up getting placed in different classes, I also want to help them prepare for that since they have always been together in daycare and preschool. Any suggestions on how to navigate this transition during this strange time would be appreciated.

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—Twin Troubles

Dear Twin Troubles,

The first thing I’d do is call the school and see if they have a preference depending on their Covid protocols. They may end up making the decision for you in order to reduce chance of transmission. If they don’t have a preference, I’d opt to keep them in the same class if you have the choice. Most schools will be following a strict classroom cohort model which will leave very little if any opportunity to interact with kids outside of their class. In this case, having a sibling may prove to be a really valuable support system through what will likely be a very challenging year. Good luck.

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—Mr. Hersey (elementary school teacher, Washington)

More Advice From Slate

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