Q: My son, Josh, is a freshman who blows off his homework. He says he "works on it" in school, but he had several incompletes in his last grading period. He's no genius, but he didn't have this problem in middle school. How can I motivate him?
A: Many students hit a homework wall in high school. The study skills that allowed them to muddle through grades K-8 aren't strong enough to provide the structure and discipline needed for the harder course load in high school. There's no reason Josh can't get his act together -- genius or not, says Wes Crenshaw, Ph.D., a Lawrence, Kan., psychologist. Crenshaw, author of "Dear Dr. Wes: Real Life Advice for Parents of Teens" (Family Psychological Press, 2011), gets this question often.
Crenshaw tells parents to drop "homework" and institute something called "study time" each day, starting with early elementary school. "Study time is a defined period of the afternoon or evening when students work on learning something," he says. "Using the 10-minutes-of-study-per-grade rule of thumb, a second grader would have 20 minutes of study time. A ninth grader, 90."
If students don't have assignments from class or if they finished the work at school, they can work on something else, such as enrichment activities: re-reading a chapter, reading a book, solving a puzzle, practicing math problems, doing an art project. The idea is to promote learning for the sake of ... (BEGIN ITALS)learning(END ITALS).
In Josh's case, says Crenshaw, he might learn SAT vocabulary words or practice activities for the ACT test. "If you do this correctly," he says, "Josh will never again claim to have no homework because he'll have to use the study time one way or the other."
Do three things to give Josh structure, says Miranda Davis, a "teen co-author" with Crenshaw on "Dear Dr. Wes." First, help him set up a system for organizing and tracking assignments each week and over time. Just make sure it's Josh, not you, who ultimately takes responsibility. Second, stay in touch with teachers through email and meetings; make sure the incompletes don't continue. Third, use all available technologies to help Josh stay organized. She adds that some districts have software programs like PowerSchool to track grades and assignments.
If Josh does a full 90 minutes of study time Monday through Thursday and there are no more incompletes, then give him the weekend off, says Crenshaw. Save Sunday to get a smart start on the week.
"If he is getting the job done, let him have Sunday off too," he says.
If he needs help with study skills such as note taking and summarizing, Donna Goldberg's excellent book "The Organized Student: Teaching Children the Skills for Success in School and Beyond" (Touchstone, 2005) is an invaluable guide.
Any problems with compliance should result in removal of all of Josh's entertainment devices, advises Crenshaw.
"Playing the bad cop now will make him a stronger overall student," he says. "College is expensive. Give him the tools to succeed as a scholar. Ninety minutes a day isn't a big investment in what Josh stands to gain."
(Do you have a question about your child's education? Email it to Leanna@aplusadvice.com. Leanna Landsmann is an education writer who began her career as a classroom teacher. She has served on education commissions, visited classrooms in 49 states to observe best practices, and founded Principal for a Day in New York City.)