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Backpack intervention: How TODAY helped end homework battles with my daughter

The teacher swore my daughter's homework was supposed to take a half-hour to complete, but it was taking three. Clearly, we had a problem.
/ Source: TODAY Contributor

This week, TODAY’s “Gain an Hour” series is looking at how we can make our busy lives more productive and less stressful. Today we tackled homework battles with help from mom Alina Adams and educational expert Susan Micari; here’s what the experience was like, in Alina’s words.

The teacher swore my 3rd grade daughter’s homework was supposed to take a half-hour, at most, to complete. It was taking my daughter two, sometimes three hours.

Obviously, we had a bit of a disconnect here.

It’s not that she couldn’t do the work. It’s that she couldn’t find the work. Or she would start the work, get distracted by something else, then come back and forget where she’d left off. Or she would spread her homework all around her on the floor, and just ponder it, like an art installation.

When I told her to get cracking, she insisted that she was. When I told her an answer was wrong (or, more likely, she’d copied the original question down wrong), she’d complain that she couldn’t concentrate while I was “yelling” at her. When I told her she’d been at this much too long and she had to get her books off the kitchen table so we could eat or put everything away and go to sleep because it was past her bedtime, she’d cry.

Helping kids be more productive
The author and her family.Alina Adams

I thought I could handle this on my own. When I had a similar situation with her older brother, who used to insist that 3rd grade work was too hard, he couldn’t think of anything to write and reading was stupid (punctuated by throwing a book at my head), I fixed the impasse by telling him that, if he wanted to participate in his dancing school’s pre-professional program like he’d been invited to, he had to demonstrate that he could finish his homework in a respectable amount of time. Overnight, the assignments that were previously deemed “too hard” were now whipped off in under an hour. What do you know? A miracle!

Given the opportunity with my daughter, I tried the same tactic. I told her if she wanted to participate in the rhythmic gymnastics team program she’d been invited to — same deal. I figured all she needed was a little motivation and presto — A Second Coming.

Not so fast.

It turned out my daughter really did want to be more organized so she could complete her homework faster and rush off to practice. It was just… she didn’t know how.

Turns out neither did I. (With my older son, he’d figured it out for himself, and I patted myself on the back for being an awesome mom.)

This time, we needed expert help.

Enter, The Today Show, and educational therapist Susan Micari.

Micari took one look at my daughter’s book-bag and desk, and said this just wouldn’t do.

First, we needed a backpack intervention. Micari had my daughter take (or rather toss/pour) everything out, and start from the top. Instead of just shoving in books, papers, folders, pencils and toys on top of each other, Micari showed her how to separate her assignments into clearly labeled binders by subject. She rounded up her pencils, pens and all stray erasers into a single case. And she got her to keep her water-bottle outside the main storage area, to prevent accidental homework drowning. Now my daughter’s wheelie looks like it was packed by a Marine Corp veteran. And she can actually find what she’s looking for, too.

But the biggest overhaul was done on her desk. Previously, when my daughter spread her assignments out around her on the floor, she’d get so overwhelmed trying to figure out which one to do first, she’d paralyze herself. Alternatively, she’d attempt to do all of the assignments simultaneously, which resulted in confusion and half-finished work, followed by tears and frustration.

A newly re-organized desk space — More binders! More labels! A calendar! A lamp! — allowed her to tackle one thing at a time. She is now spared the challenge of working on one assignment while having another flapping menacingly in her peripheral vision. It helps her concentrate.

Apparently, most kids her age are very bad at estimating time. You ask her, “How long do you think this assignment took you?” and she will reply, “Six hours.”

Even on her worst days, it did not take six hours.

To help with that issue, Susan gave her a timer. My daughter is supposed to set it for 10-15 minute intervals, and try to finish a given assignment before the buzzer. In this way, she gets a more realistic idea of how long she’s been/should be working.

Finally, we had our miracle!

My daughter loves her timer. She takes it everywhere and uses it for everything. Not just homework, but getting ready for school, brushing her teeth, taking a bath, reading a “Just For Fun” book.

Not only does it keep her from dawdling but an added bonus is it takes the onus off me being the bad guy. I’m not the one telling her she’s taking too long with her worksheet, the timer is! And she’ll believe the timer before she believes me. The timer is impartial. The timer isn’t “yelling” at her.

The timer is also the one that monitors her breaks. According to Susan, kids need breaks in the middle of their work time. A little bit of fun elevates dopamine levels and actually helps them learn when they return to it. If I see that my daughter is getting run down, or as a reward for completing something difficult, I give her free time to play. Fifteen minutes is considered optimal.

And the best part is, I’m not the one buzzing when it’s over. With me, my daughter is prone to negotiating, “Just a few minutes more!” Or she’ll complain, “That wasn’t fifteen minutes, you counted wrong!”

Having a timer that she sets herself eliminates that battle, as well.

It’s now been almost a month since we found the solutions to the problems we were having. In that time, my daughter has gotten much more efficient at completing her homework assignments, and the two of us have had many fewer conflicts about when, where and how they should be done.

Plus, she’s made it to gymnastics practice. Mission… Accomplished.