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Creating the right environment for homework

"Let's start the school year right," you're telling your child, now that she's had a month to adjust to all the transitions that September brings. "It's time to buckle down and establish good study habits. For starters, lose the iPod and the remote control. And while you're at it, color-coordinate your notebooks, keep an assignment checklist and label your folders."

At least that's what you'd like to say. What you're probably saying -- make that shouting -- goes more like this: "You've been Instant Messaging for two hours now! Get off that laptop and do your homework!"

Which brings us to the classic question about homework: Whose responsibility is it, anyway?

Certainly not the parents, educators will be quick to tell you. But they'll add a critical caveat to that: Parents must provide a home environment that's conducive to learning.

"The kind of environment kids need differs at every grade level," says Marilyn Price-Mitchell, co-founder of the National ParentNet Association. ParentNet is a nonprofit organization that helps schools and parents increase parent involvement at school and home. "But making sure children have strategies to help them learn at home is what's most important for kids' success."

What strategies? It often depends on the child, Price-Mitchell says. "Kids have different learning styles. Parents need to find out what works for their child."

Here's something that works for just about every child: getting organized. "Some students can't remember what the assignments are," notes Eric Cohen, director and owner of Mercer Education, a Bellevue-based tutoring and test prep company. "We tell them to get a three-ring binder and write assignments down." Parents should check assignments -- and make sure their child doesn't wait until the last minute to do them, he says.

Next, find your child a good workspace. "Where your child does his homework comes up a lot in parent discussions," Price-Mitchell says. "Should there be a computer in your child's room? Can you eliminate every distraction? These are things that are debated constantly."

Cohen says a quiet environment is crucial. That means no interruptions -- and no TV. "Kids need regularity and predictability. They should know this is homework time," he says. "It's harder for kids to understand something is expected of them when there's chaos."

Partner with your child's teachers, Price-Mitchell says. "What are the school's expectations? What are the other kids in the class doing?" And connect with other parents, she suggests. Compare notes. What kinds of time-management strategies do other families use in their homes? How do they set goals so the big pieces of homework get done?

At the same time, don't pester the teacher or make unreasonable demands on them. "Parents must understand that teachers are often overwhelmed," Cohen says.

Find ways to build your child's vocabulary, Cohen advises. "You might say, 'We're going to learn a word a day.' Or ask your child to come up with five or 10 new words in a reading assignment -- then look up the words together." Cohen says kids can't master words casually. "If they don't try to learn vocabulary in a conscious way, they won't really absorb it," he says.

Don't do your child's homework for him. "That doesn't help a child learn," Price-Mitchell says. Sometimes, when a child hasn't done his homework, parents panic and step in, she says. "The lesson the child learns is, 'When I'm failing, my parents will bail me out.'"

Very young children may need guidance with assignments. But encourage your child to do as much as possible without your help. "If hand-holding goes on forever, kids won't develop independence or the confidence to develop skills on their own," Cohen says.

Linda Morgan writes frequently on education issues for ParentMap.

Tips for turning kids into readers

Providing a supportive home learning environment means helping your children develop their reading skills, contends Eric Cohen, who finds reading strongly correlates with academic achievement and performance on standardized tests. How can parents help their kids become readers? Here are Cohen's suggestions:

  • Make sure the television isn't on -- not even as background noise.
  • Provide an environment where there are books around.
  • Encourage your child to read regularly, such as a half hour a night or a designated number of pages a week.
  • Take the kids to the library or the bookstore on a regular basis.
  • Read books together with your children. Then discuss them.
  • Look into joining parent-child oriented reading groups. Find them through bookstores, libraries or your child's school.
  • Have your child write a journal. See what works: it could be creative stories or book summaries.

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