Homework struggles: the workshop and training helping children to study

We discover tips and tricks for helping children with their after-school learning.

Yacoub Ali, 9, focuses on solving maths equations at his home in Abu Dhabi. Yacoub is one of the children given brain training by Dots & Links. Delores Johnson / The National
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During the car drive back from school, Emma Clark used to ask her 13-year-old son Aaron what homework he had that day. The answer from her son, who has dyslexia, was invariably a loud groan. “He didn’t really want to think about it,” the 47-year-old British mother says. “Homework can be a bit deflating – it’s either too much, too challenging or there’s just not enough time to do it.”

The Jordanian education expert Razan Nabulsi hears many similar accounts from parents whose children are enrolled in the brain-training programmes at the Dots & Links Training ­Centre in Abu Dhabi, where she’s the director of training.

“Many parents I meet say homework feels like pulling teeth. It’s causing the whole family to be stressed out, affecting parents’ relationship with children and also their relationship with each other,” she says. “Most of the time, Mum wants the child to sit for hours to get it done, and Dad says no, we need to do some activities. It’s a very hot topic and parents always want to express their frustrations about it.”

So Nabulsi, 36, has decided to hold a free workshop entitled The Homework Struggles, to offer her tips when it comes to the thorny issue of homework. She says, contrary to popular belief, dishing out too much homework can impede a child’s learning as much as doing too little. A ­Spanish study undertaken earlier this year by Ruben Fernández-­Alonso, Javier Suárez-Álvarez and Jose Muñiz found that when middle-school students were assigned more than 90 to 100 minutes of homework per day, their maths and science scores started to decline.

“If the school is expecting a 6-year-old to sit for three hours a night to do homework, there is something wrong,” says Nabulsi. “The parent needs to work as an advocate for the child, and try to find out whether the homework is taking a long time because their child has a weakness in their speed-processing skills, or is it because the school system demands too much?”

For Clark, half the battle is trying to find the most appropriate time of day to get the work done. “There isn’t a lot of time in the evening,” she says. “By 8pm, it’s too late, because by then Aaron has completely switched off. It’s only 45 minutes until I’m putting him to bed with his book.”

Aaron’s elder sister, Ellie, who’s 18, has found that her peak time to study is from 7pm to 10pm, her mum says. “Ellie doesn’t like to do any homework from when she gets home until after she’s had her tea and a shower.”

Nabulsi says every child has a different time of day in which they will focus at the peak of their abilities. “Experiment to try to find a scheduled homework time that suits your child best. But bear in mind that, in general, it’s best not to try to do a lot of cognitive work after a heavy meal with lots of meat and rice, which can make kids drowsy. Instead, give them a quick, healthy energy snack, such as strawberries or bananas. And make sure they get a good night’s sleep to help them focus and retain information.”

Clark has found that a Whats­App group set up for the parents of the children in ­Aaron’s class is a useful way to reach out for homework support. “It can be a lifesaver to be able to ask other parents for advice – for when Aaron hasn’t grasped the homework, is unsure when it’s due, or has lost the homework sheet, which was our issue yesterday.”

Technology can provide easy distractions, so all devices should be switched off before they begin, says Nabulsi, except the one the child might be doing the ­homework on. “In which case, tell your child to close all other applications and not to check social-media messages until the task at hand is completed.”

Ensaf Ali, a Jordanian mother, says that, until recently, persuading her 9-year-old son Yacoub to do his homework usually resulted in a big battle. “I would say ‘sit down’; he would not sit down. Then when he did sit, he did not want to sit still. It would take three hours to do a paper, which should have been done in 45 minutes.”

Ali sent Yacoub to Dots & Links for brain training, which she says has helped him to build his learning skills. She also paid heed to Nabulsi’s advice on homework. “Razan told me not to sit next to him when he is doing homework, but to keep away a little bit to make him more independent.” Nabulsi acknowledges that parents are often tempted to dive in and end up doing much of the homework themselves.

Ali says she finds the problem is that schools often dish out projects that aren’t age-­appropriate for the child. “This leads parents to end up doing much of the work themselves. The parents learn, but the children do not get the benefit of these projects.”

Research on homework backs up the notion that it’s better for children to learn from their own mistakes. In 2000, a Dutch study found the effect of family help on results in mathematics was not statistically significant. And in 2010, Jianzhong Xu at ­Mississippi State University found that students who were more autonomous when doing homework achieved better ­results.

“I would look at homework as a chance to learn about consequences in life,” says Nabulsi. “If the child goes back to school with a perfectly done piece of artwork because Mum and Dad worked on it, you are teaching them that they don’t need to work hard. Don’t become fixated on impressing the teacher. You don’t want children obsessed with grades and reports.”

Clark finds that when Aaron can do the homework independently, it boosts his confidence. “I love the look on his face when he can do his homework all by himself,” she says. “It makes him feel empowered.”

Praising your child is the key role for parents of children at any age, says Nabulsi. “When they’re trying hard, praise their effort, not just the outcome. Make them feel that you trust their abilities. And if they’re struggling then support them, don’t blame them.”

As for the Clarks, the mention of homework elicits less of a groan from Aaron since he moved schools to Brighton ­College and is getting more help to support his dyslexia.

“I never wanted Aaron to feel like he had to go to university, but then he seemed to feel like he didn’t have to try, and school was just something he had to do until he could get out of it,” says Clark. “I think he used to be a bit lazy. But now he’s realising he has to put some effort in.”

he Homework Struggles workshop is held at Dots & Links Training Centre in Khalidiya, Abu Dhabi, on Wednesday, December 9, from 11am to 1pm. To reserve a spot, call 02 666 0948 or email info@dotsandlinks.ae.

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