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Parenting and school: Answers to your e-mails

After Week 3 of our “Raising Kids Today” series, Dr. Ruth Peters answers questions about homework and other education concerns.

In a special monthlong series called “Raising Kids Today,” the “Today” show is looking at issues surrounding parenting. In this third week, we have been exploring the role of parents in educating their children and dealing with schools. Here, psychologist and “Today” contributor Dr. Ruth Peters responds to the biggest issue raised in viewers’ e-mails getting kids to do their homework as well as a couple of other topics.

By far, parents most frequently wrote in about homework issues. We received many e-mails like this:

  • “Every day is a struggle. My 13-year-old son usually forgets the necessary books and handouts at school.”
  • “Neither of my children can tell me when any major assignments are due. By the time I find out about the homework, it's too late.”
  • “My son flunked 7th grade because he didn't do his homework.”

It is a particular problem for middle-schoolers. On the show, Dr. Peters helped a 6th-grader in Florida; here she details that plan to help parents and kids struggling with homework hassles.

Getting Organized During Middle SchoolKids in middle school quickly find out that it sure is different than the security and familiarity of the grade-school environment. The facility is typically larger, everyone has a locker, there’s at least six classes a day, with only a few minutes in between to chat with friends and manage to get to the next class on time.  Then there’s the homework and dealing with six different teachers.  Those are just a few of the reasons why sixth graders, especially, feel considerable stress and confusion.  Throw in some blossoming hormones as well as developing bodies, a fight here and there in the hallways, and the beginnings of adolescent peer-pressure difficulties, and it’s a recipe for disaster.

Middle school often comes as a shock to the system, and it’s the wise parent who is prepared to support and guide their kid through the transition from the relative stability and security of grade school to the somewhat chaotic environment found in many of our middle schools. The problem is often due to a child's lack of organizational skills, not being particularly interested in managing their time efficiently and perhaps not caring about their grades as much as they should. In response, parents tend to become concerned, generally reacting by nagging about homework completion and staying on track, grounding for slacking off, or just plain giving up on the kid.

To help these children, especially those hitting the middle school wall, I’ve developed a program consisting of study-skill training and organizational techniques that I teach to any kid I can get my hands on! In addition, I offer behavior-management guidelines for parents to use in motivating their children. I’ve found that both parts are necessary for children to achieve good grades in middle school — your daughter can learn brilliant organizational skills, but unless she’s motivated to use them on a consistent basis, she probably won’t. Plain and simple.

Interested in setting the stage for academic achievement? Okay, let’s get going! There are five steps to getting and staying organized.

Study-skill trainingSet up a daily assignment sheet. Whether your middle-schooler uses a day planner, PDA or just a sheet of notebook paper, it’s imperative that he write down, for all academic classes, all homework assigned that day or tests/quizzes announced. Preteens and teenagers are notorious for depending upon their memories, and aside from the sheer volume of work that may be assigned, they have lots of other stuff to remember (friends’ phone numbers, the latest gossip and the next soccer practice date). So, it’s important to mandate that all work is noted on the planner, for each class, every day. Many kids also have each teacher initial the planner at the end of each class — just to double-check that what they wrote down for homework and tests is accurate and complete.

1. Use a homework organizer folder.  Have the child put the daily assignment sheets in the right side pocket; all papers to be completed, filed or thrown away in the left side pocket; and all work to be turned in to the teacher in the center pocket — preferably in a clear file so that the child can easily determine if there are papers that still need to be turned in.

2. Review the assignment sheet at the locker. So far, so good? Great! Now, you have to convince your kid to use the planner while standing at the locker at the end of the school day.  Have your daughter pull out the assignment sheet and check it when deciding what books, notebooks and folders need to be brought home.

3. Complete homework and study for tests in a timely manner.  Some families find that it works best if the child has some downtime after school to shoot hoops, watch some TV or talk on the phone.  Other folks have greater success with the kids grabbing a quick snack and hitting the books right away. Whatever works best in your family — do it, it’s an individual decision.

4. Check that all work has been completed. Once the child reports that all written work, reading and studying are completed, be sure to check against the planner what has been completed, and make sure that all assignments are done well.  You may want to give your child a quick quiz on certain subjects to be certain that she really understands the material studied. If an assignment is not due the next day, write it down on a monthly calendar that your kid keeps on the study desk, and be sure to review this with her daily.  Plan to study at least one day ahead for quizzes and at least two days in advance for major tests.  Try to get book reports and projects completed at least one day in advance — this allows for emergencies to be dealt with (the printer running out of ink, necessitating a quick trip to the office supply store). Your child will soon learn that planning ahead pays off in terms of a better product and less stress.

5. Organize the book bag for the next day. Needless to say, you don’t need the kid running around in the morning trying to locate paper, pencils and completed worksheets.  That should be accomplished the night before when there is plenty of time and no pressure to hurry up, eat breakfast and catch the bus for school.  Packing the night before is a good habit to develop not only in terms of school work, but also for preparing for baseball practice, ballet and computer class.

Motivating the unmotivatedOkay, so now you understand the five steps inherent in organizing your middle-schooler. But there’s always the alert parent who questions “How do I get my child to do this? He’ll forget to write down his assignments, or even if he does write them down, he may not remember to check the assignment sheet at the locker, and leave the books at school.” Well, yes, that does happen, and all too often, when it comes to working with middle-schoolers!

Many kids do not see the value in completing all of their work every day, and some even purposely leave books, worksheets and folders at school so that they will not have to study that evening at home.  If your child is not internally motivated to complete homework and to study for tests, don’t fret — that’s normal.  It’s just very unpleasant and usually leads to nightly arguments, parental hand-wringing and kids placed on restriction!

What to do?  Well, I suggest bribing them to complete their responsibilities.  There’s nothing wrong with stating consequences (both positive and negative) for task completion or lack thereof.  As far as I’m concerned, doing one’s best at school is one of the primary jobs of childhood. Not all kids will be “A” students, but they should give it their best effort.

Using the following four consequences to jump-start your child’s motivation will most likely bring success, better grades and end the nightly homework drama in your household. If the child completes the daily assignment sheet, brings home all necessary books and materials, completes written work and studies for tests, and packs the book bag for the next day, then he should be rewarded with:

  • a money allowance (therefore, no cash is given for just showing up alive on Saturday)
  • a clothing allowance (please don’t continue to cave in and buy sneakers and shirts on a whim, now that your child is earning her own clothing money)
  • a privilege token that can be saved up and cashed in later to go the movies, bowling, concerts or paintball (poker chips work well)
  • outside play, and use of electronics for the remainder of the day (TV, video games, telephone, computer, etc.).

These rewards get most kids’ attention, and motivate them to write down and complete assignments in a timely fashion.

It’s important to help your middle-schooler with proven organizational tools that are simple to use, make sense and quickly lead to good grades. Motivating the unmotivated with rewards (or taking them away for irresponsible behavior) is a proven, effective technique that will work in most homes — but you must be consistent.  Once your kid gets the idea that you only “spot-check” the homework, you may see less getting completed and more time spent e-mailing friends or talking on the telephone.

Be consistent, stay involved, and use rewards and motivators that are important and interesting to your children.

Other questions from parents:

Q: My daughter doesn't seem ready for 1st grade. Is it okay to hold her back?

A: Before making this decision, please do your homework. Meet with the teacher to see how your daughter stacks up with what will be expected of her next year in 1st grade.

Does she seem to be within the average range in terms of academics learned, behavioral control and emotional maturity? Or is she lagging significantly behind in reading or mathematic skills? How's her knowledge of sound/symbol relationships (knowing the correct sound for both the vowels and the consonants), or does she seem to guess at the words she reads? Does she understand the concept of basic addition, using her fingers to guide her, or does it seem somewhat random? Can she sit at her desk appropriately and pay attention to the teacher adequately? Does she participate easily and comfortably within the classroom setting? Or is she unsure of herself, and afraid to risk error by answering teacher questions?

If the teacher consistently notes that your daughter is on the low end of the academic achievement range, or is extremely immature or uncomfortable with her peers, it may be a good idea to give her another opportunity to mature as well as to gather the information taught in the kindergarten classroom. If a child is "on the bubble," that is, could be passed on to the next grade, but will be one of the weakest in that class, I often suggest another year of kindergarten to bolster her academics and, just as important, her self-confidence and self-esteem. This decision is not quite as easy in the higher grades, when other children may take more notice of the child who is retained, and teasing may occur. Some children in the higher grades may benefit from retention, but often supplemental education (individualized tutoring) does the trick, especially during the summer months, and the child can be successful moving to the next grade.

Q: I have two children. One is academically advanced and the other struggles to keep up with his classmates. How do I properly support each child and not make them feel as if they're competing against one another?

A: I'm sure that you've run into this dilemma in other areas of your children's lives. Perhaps one is a great soccer player and the other is a whiz at playing the piano. Well, just as physical, musical and fine-motor skills are individualized for each child, so are academic and/or intellectual potentials.

The important concept is that each youngster is working to their personal, individualized ability. Try not to focus so much upon test grades or report cards but upon the amount of effort, organization and participation that each kid utilizes in terms of academics. If your whiz kid makes straight As but doesn't really have to apply much effort, that youngster may — when the going gets tough in the higher grades or more advanced classes — begin to falter. Your child who has to consistently work hard just to keep up with the class is learning frustration tolerance and perseverance skills that are immeasurably important for future academic success.

In a nutshell, downplay grades but applaud effort, focus on each child's individual strengths, and keep the "bar of expectation" reasonable for each youngster.

Copyright ©2005 by Ruth A. Peters, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Dr. Peters is a clinical psychologist and regular contributor to the “Today” show. Her most recent book,“Laying Down the Law: The 25 Laws of Parenting to Keep Your Kids on Track, Out of Trouble, and (Pretty Much) Under Control,” is published by Rodale. (See excerpts here.) For more information you can visit her Web site at

PLEASE NOTE: The information in this column should not be construed as providing specific psychological or medical advice, but rather to offer readers information to better understand the lives and health of themselves and their children. It is not intended to provide an alternative to professional treatment or to replace the services of a physician, psychiatrist or psychotherapist.