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PARENTING : Getting Into the Habit : Homework is crucial to learning, educators say, and should become part of a child's routine early on.

October 21, 1994|ROBIN GREENE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Robin Greene is a frequent contributor to The Times

Mention the word homework to any child who has spent a day in a stuffy classroom and you're bound to hear moaning and groaning. Mention the word to the child's parents and they're likely to join the chorus of complaints.

Let's face it. Most youngsters hate homework, and most parents hate having to make them do it. Yet homework is vital to education. It not only reinforces class lessons, it teaches independence and study habits and prepares the child for the future.

In fact, the very process of doing homework--setting aside time every night to complete a given set of assignments--is almost as important as the lessons the child is studying.

"Most teachers will tell you that homework is there to reinforce what they've already taught in the classroom," says Sue Wasserman, professor of elementary education at Cal State Northridge. "But it also allows teachers to find out what they need to reteach."

Given its overall importance in education, she adds, "You can't just start (homework) in junior high and high school. Some of these patterns and behaviors have to be established early." What's more, she believes, parents need to be involved.

Leslie Leb, a Studio City mother of 16-year-old Simonne and 11-year-old Trevor, learned this lesson long ago. "From the time they were in nursery school, I made sure my children did their homework," she says. At this point, she reports, "They know their homework is their responsibility."

As important to good study habits as parental supervision are a daily routine and a quiet place to work.

"The child should have a place with everything accessible at approximately the same time so homework is not done at the last minute," Wasserman says. "The parent and child should work out a schedule."

Older children can be given greater responsibility in structuring homework time. "I suggest that parents make the child a partner in this," says Kathleen Rattay, principal of Granada Hills High School. "Tell the child: 'I understand you have an hour or two of homework. How are you going to budget your time?' "

Rattay recommends keeping youngsters away from distractions while they're doing assignments: no phone, no radio, no TV. "I can't watch TV and study, but kids think they can," she says. "They can't either."

Of course, the needs of individual students at each grade level are different. Leb, for example, says her daughter is usually more agreeable than her son about doing homework.

"Trevor will come home from school and play for an hour," Leb says. "He just needs to get the energy out before he can start."

At the youngest ages, Wasserman says, homework assignments such as coloring, cutting and learning sounds allow parents to share in a child's schoolwork in a positive way. As children progress through school and their assignments become more complex and time consuming, Wasserman advises parents to stay involved in the process. While being careful not to do children's homework for them, Wasserman says, moms and dads can still help youngsters find and correct mistakes.

"There can be over-involvement," she concedes. "Some parents have a domineering attitude with such high expectations that no child could ever meet them."

She counsels parents: "Take the middle road of being there and not doing it all."

There is also an age-old problem that arises when parents try to help with assignments they don't understand.

"Talk to your child's teacher," advises James Cunningham, professor of education at Cal State Northridge. "There are teachers who will find books they can give to the interested parent so the parent can learn right along with their child."

But whatever a grown-up's mastery of a subject, Getting a youngster to do homework generally comes down to a series of negotiations.

"I would hope that homework doesn't become a battlefield," Wasserman says. "The important thing is for the parent to be there, to praise and to enable."

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