Time to Pivot
Learning to read our children's needs behind the homework battle
By Judith Jolma
Like pulling teeth. Our school year hit a brick wall -- and it was only November. From the first “Good Morning” until I folded into the sofa at 3 PM each day -- defeated. The kids had erected a unified front of resistance.
My usual sweet morning songs and kisses were met by grumpy pants who refused to get out of bed, would NOT clear their cereal bowl from the table, and absolutely could not get dressed. Every little thing was a battle each and every day. “I can’t find my math book,” my son whined. He was sitting at the table in front of his opened math book. “My hand hurts from petting the dog too much,” my daughter said, protesting her penmanship assignment. Each one of them had apparently forgotten how to read.
I have such hopes for this school year. A few months prior I had carefully schemed and plotted, mapped their academic needs, considered their learning styles, and painstakingly created a schedule packed with academic delight. But the children were less than delighted with any of it.
“Why is this so hard?” I asked myself, as I sat down to lick my wounds at the end of one school day (It was 10 AM and was the end of the school day only because the kids had mutinied and the day was over before lunch). In a moment of honesty, I embraced the truth: This is my fault. I attempted too much with our schedule and the kids feel overwhelmed.
Back in July while first planning the school year, I had been overly ambitious. I dreamed of all the things we could learn together: Latin, poetry, music, logic… of course, we couldn’t neglect the basics like math, grammar and penmanship. At the end of the first planning day, I had listed 16 subjects for my grade school, clan. Of course, I knew that was unreasonable so I whittled down the list while attempting to sneak in as much as possible. Despite the debris left on the chopping floor, too much ambition remained and the kids knew it. My typically affable crew of eager learners threw up the walls. Unable to articulate their emotions they did not say to me, “Mommy, this is too much work. We are not interested in Greek Myths. We need time to make-believe and climb trees.” Instead, they squabbled with each other, refused to do basic chores, and closed their minds to all academic learning.
Time to recalibrate. “Good morning, children!” I announced the next day. Today we begin winter break. No schoolwork until Christmas.” You can imagine the triumphant shouts as they jumped on the couch. “In fact,” I continued, “No one is allowed to go into the classroom until Christmas. The door is locked.” They giggled and flipped and ran a victory lap around the house. But I had a plot.
For the next month, I cooked with them and built geometric forts, read a ton, and ventured out for many field trips. The learning continued -- they just didn’t know it. Secretly, meanwhile, I took apart their classroom, packed away all the textbooks other than the most basics, and converted the space into a game room. I stocked the shelves with dice games that required arithmetic, word games like Mad Libs that got them playing with parts of speech and telling stories, geography games, history games, and lots and lots of strategy. I carefully chose each game to fit their skill and academic goals for the year without feeling like school. Then I wrapped the games, placed them strategically through the new game room, and finally gift-wrapped the door to the room. On Christmas morning, I took them to what used to be their classroom and let them open the door. “Merry Christmas! Your gift is a new game room to replace your school room.”
The homework battles ended that year but the learning did not. The moral of this story was in the lesson the children taught me. They were telling me in all their resistance that my plan for them was not meeting their needs. I’m so thankful for the mentors who taught me to observe my children carefully so that I could decipher their “bad” behavior and understand how to respond. To save the whole school year, I needed to set aside my own vanity and recalibrate.
The new approach worked! They were excited to jump out of bed to rush down to their game room. “Hang on,” I would have to say. “You must clear your breakfast dishes before you go play in your game room.” Happily, they cooperated. Far from suffering, their academics took off.
That was the year my son mastered his multiplication tables thanks to the dice game, my daughter learned to count money thanks to the Allowance Game, and everyone mastered parts of speech with Mad Libs. Beyond all that, we learned emotional control, critical thinking, and a love for learning. We even learned Latin roots thanks to the card game Rummy Roots!
So if you're facing homework battles, don’t be afraid to recalibrate. Be prepared to scrap all your beautiful homeschool plans, observe your children carefully and start over.
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