It’s official: Irish school-goers spend more time on homework than most children and teens around the world.
By the time the Leaving Cert rolls around, the average teen will have clocked up hundreds of hours of homework. And those aren’t always happy hours for children or parents – whose knowledge of Gaeilge and trigonometry mightn’t be what they used to.
“Every child has the potential to do brilliantly in school.” That’s the firm belief of educational innovator Dr Naoisé O’Reilly and the inspiration behind her award-winning Homework Club. The organisation offers after-school learning support to children between the ages of two and 18 and to adults of all ages. “It’s a very creative environment where we do thing differently,” Naoisé says. “Our system is personality based. I really get to know every student and their personality and what approach will suit them. People can learn to read and write with us in around four weeks.”
The Homework Club, which can also provide support in the home, also addresses any learning barriers that a child may face. Naoisé knows a thing or two about overcoming obstacles, having achieved a PhD despite her severe dyslexia. She understands the limits of the ‘one size fits all’ mainstream education system. “There can be issues at school or at home that can block learning, and we aim to deal with what’s really going on,” she says. “A bereavement such as the death of a grandparent can have a big impact. Someone might have an issue with their speech, where people at school don’t quite understand them. There are also different personalities that find it harder than others to fit in at school. Then, there are specific challenges like dyslexia, dyspraxia, ADHD, Aspergers which the Homework Club also provides support with.”
Through her work to-date with more than 500 people who use the Homework Club, Naoisé has huge insight into traditional homework, and advice on how to make sure it helps real learning:
1. Find the right time
“Find the best time for the child to tackle the homework,” Naoisé advises. “It’s not the same for everyone. Some children are tired and hungry when they get in from school and need a break. Others want to get the homework out of the way straight away.”
2. Avoid putting it off
“One of the things I notice is procrastination,” Naoisé says. “The reason we put something off is usually that we don’t know how to do it. It’s a really good idea to get the child to talk through their ideas and to have a rough sheet to write down the words and ideas they want to use. Quite often, there can be a fear of the blank page. Children might be afraid that they just can’t do something. Getting them to work on a rough sheet can be one way to get over that fear.”
3. Chat through ideas
For older children who have essays and projects as part of their homework, Naoisé believes it’s useful to talk through ideas with other family members.
“Use family time to chat about ideas and opinions about subjects like history, politics, and so on,” Naoisé advises. “If there’s a project that someone’s struggling with, having a chat around the dinner table can be very helpful. That can give the child lots of ideas.”
4. Find real world examples
Simple tasks like helping with shopping and cooking can improve a child’s reading and mathematical skills. Here’s Naoisé’s advice: “If a child doesn’t understand fractions or time, get them involved in practical things like measuring ingredients in a recipe. They could also be timing things when you’re cooking. That can really help a child to understand those concepts in the real world.
5. Keep an eye on the time
Naoisé isn’t a believer in spending hours on homework, particularly for younger children: “I don’t think that anything should take longer than 20 minutes. If something is really taking a long time and the child is struggling, I think the parent needs to write a note to the teacher and let them know that. I think it’s important to back up your kids on this and make the teacher aware of what’s really going on. There is a problem concentrating – especially for children with any sort of learning difficulties – after around 20 minutes. [At the Homework Club] we tend to do everything in ten-minute blocks. Certainly, after 20 minutes you’re flogging a dead horse. At that point, the child is tired and if they haven’t understood something, they haven’t understood and they need a break from it.”
6. Use goals and rewards
Naoisé believes that setting realistic, achievable goals can create more motivation around homework and that rewards can boost the sense of achievement.
“Some children do respond well to rewards,” she says. “The goal should be achievable and have the right level of challenge, so there’s a balance there. At one stage, when I was finding school very hard because of my dyslexia, my parents set up a reward system. It was achievable, but I had to work hard. If I did well in a project at school, I would collect rewards. They were kind of like Green Shield stamps. To this day, I still have a pencil case that I got when I was 10. It’s a Danish design and it rolls out and it’s amazing. It gave me a massive sense of achievement and I responded well to the system of rewards.”
7. Use the holidays wisely
The school holidays can be a really good time to catch up and to keep learning. “Whatever point the child is at at the end of the school term in June, they won’t necessarily be there the following September,” Naoisé warns. “If someone doesn’t enjoy reading or writing and finds them hard, they can regress over the summer holidays in the blink of an eye. That can mean that once the new terms starts, there’s the same battle upward. We want to avoid that.
“The summer holidays also give a great chance to catch up. Ideally children should be doing a little bit of enjoyable work every day.”
Dr Naoisé O’Reilly can be reached at The Homework Club. She is an educationalist and personality theory researcher who has developed methods to assist children and adults living with learning difficulties in Ireland and around the world. Dr O’Reilly is a keen artist and claims to have one of the biggest collections of coloured pens in the world!