An Invaluable Tool in Supplementing the Basic 3 Rs: Relating : Working Out Family Rules for Homework

Times Staff Writer

Getting good grades is enough to give a kid fits these days. There’s competition from TV (“Miasma Vice,” some call it), other kids, junk food and the clatter of life on the threshold of the 21st Century.

It’s also enough to give parents fits. Psychologists such as Bruno Bettelheim say school and grades are one of the first real turning points in the parent-child relationship, and one of the most crucial. It’s during this stage, they say, that a few parents lose the fine-line distinction between discipline and punishment.

Sal DiFrancesca is a La Jolla psychologist who has seen, on the couch in his office, many of the parents and kids suffering the woes of poor scholarship. Many of these kid-parent pairs are bright, sensitive, aware and, he said, willing to change.


It’s just that neither has much of an idea how.

The problem bothered DiFrancesca enough to want to do something. He was even hassling with his own kids over schoolwork and how best to pull it off.

Doing it well--extraordinarily well--is, in his view, the biggest rub going.

“With my kids I ended up almost being the teacher,” he said. “I could see if this kept up there would be no end to it. It takes the average parent about five to 10 minutes of sheer frustration before they start to go crazy over the whole thing.”

In a goal-oriented society where achievement holds greater weight, it seems, than authenticity, kids are as eager to bring home good grades as parents are to reward them for doing so. This makes the competition, and the distractions, even bigger woes, he said.

Out of his concern for kids and parents has come a new book, labeled simply “Straight A’s.”

Is the title a problem?

In so branding his otherwise thoughtful effort, was DiFrancesca making a judgment? Are straight A’s an end in themselves--above and beyond knowledge itself?

‘Catchy Title’

“That was really just a catchy title,” he said. “Straight A’s are simply unrealistic for many students. I hope that doesn’t put pressure on students to think that’s what they’re expected to do. I feel if we can just provide students the belief that they can be good . . . they will be good.”

“Straight A’s” is divided into four sections: Practice getting good grades in your imagination (the visualization part); how to plan your homework; how to use a study schedule, and how to plan goals, step by step (followed by rewards). Each section offers a student guide and a parent guide, with appropriate language and instruction for each.


The book is available through the Learning Process Center, an educational program founded and run by DiFrancesca. The cost: $24.95, plus a $2 shipping fee. If that seems steep, DiFrancesca says “Straight A’s” offers the equivalent of $500 in “individual professional consultation,” which is, of course, what he does for a living.

Nancy Diaz, mother of a 9-year-old fourth-grader named Danny, used the book and considers it terrific.

“Danny was really struggling, I mean super struggling,” she said. “He was in the third grade then. He had great difficulty in reading. He was a year behind in reading, a year and a half behind in math. I took the program home and the results were really dramatic. Now he’s feeling good about school, knowing he can be successful.”

Boy’s Confidence Improved

Today, Danny makes almost all A’s. His reading and math have improved, as has his shaken confidence. A potentially devastating problem with dyslexia also has eased, his mother said.

Nancy and Danny have never met DiFrancesca. They learned about “Straight A’s” through the Learning Process Center, which from its Hillcrest base deals not only with learning impairments and their ultimate solution but also serves (and has since 1973) as a research base for inventing and honing educational technique.

Diaz said Danny got tired of hearing the nasal voice on the relaxation tape provided with the book. (The voice is DiFrancesca’s, the accent Connecticut Yankee.) So she substituted classical music and engineered the relaxation herself.


“Now he sees himself preparing for the next day,” she said. “He can see himself having a spelling test and doing it well. He can see himself protecting the goal and his teammates in soccer. It’s a pretty powerful weapon, to see ourselves doing it. It , of course, can be anything.”

The tape may have worked for Danny, but at least one local educator says that part of the book poses a “make-or-break” proposition.

Tape Criticized

Nancy Giberson, principal of Oak Crest Junior High School in Encinitas, had neither met nor heard of DiFrancesca. Having read “Straight A’s,” she sees it as a “good basic guide on how to improve homework.”

But the tape, a meditative relaxation aid, is, in Giberson’s words, a controversial “mind-control thing . . . . It flies in the face of a lot of the current trends in education. If the kid wants to use the tape, great. If he doesn’t, he’ll never buy the program” offered in the book.

Giberson said students desperately need help with homework these days, and in that sense the book is valuable.

“But whether it gets accepted,” she said, “depends entirely on how a parent feels about this mind-control thing (the tape). If the parent balks, I don’t know where we are. I thought it was good, though not necessarily an end-all to homework help. I saw the first part (of the book) as confusing, poorly organized. His ideas on goal-setting are good. So are those on students interacting with teachers, setting goals together. That identifies to students the process needed for improvement.”

The process DiFrancesca outlines goes like this: Students devote 10 to 15 minutes a night every night for four to six weeks. The program should take no more than eight weeks. He describes the four steps as follows:


- “Practice getting good grades in your imagination. The tape is provided to instill relaxation and visualization.”

- How to plan your homework. “Here students learn how to organize homework and get it done efficiently and properly.”

- How to use a study schedule: “Students learn how to organize study time, plan ahead and do homework efficiently.”

- How to plan goals step-by-step: “In this final step students learn how to set realistic school goals and practice step-by-step logical thinking skills to obtain goals. They also learn to think of solutions to school problems.”

“During these daily periods,” he writes, “parents will need to continue to help their child with specific skills such as reading, spelling, math and so on. Please do not suddenly stop helping your child because this program is being used.”

“Kids with problems don’t think of themselves having choices,” he said. “They think of themselves being doomed. Stuck. Somehow we changed that.”


A few parents think of themselves that way. A spiral of guilt and self-doubt sets in, leaving the child dependent, the parent frustrated, resentful and mad. DiFrancesca deemed a step-by-step approach the only good way of breaking a trend.

“One problem is, parents sometimes think this kind of stuff (studying, doing homework) goes on automatically, that they can’t teach it to the kid,” he said. “A lot of schools feel the same way. In general, parents want schools to take almost all responsibility for a kid’s education. But on the other hand, parents feel kids should be taught to make decisions, think for themselves, be logical, etc. Thinking skills is what I mean. It’s harder than you think, teaching thinking.”

Need for Rewards

Rewards are a necessity. He recommends using the step-by-step-reward method for something as simple as buying a hamburger or as trivial as a Saturday matinee. Have a goal and a way of getting there, and, he said, “keep it simple.” (Rewards in the book consist of a chart with stars, which may baffle those whose “toys” run the gamut from home computers to laser disc players.)

“Many students picture themselves failing,” he said. “If you get kids picturing themselves being successes, they’ll achieve. . . .

“A parent came in a few days ago and said her kid wasn’t doing much better in school but had a lot more confidence with friends, in cleaning the garage, fixing the bike, etc.”

The goal is independence. DiFrancesca said parents often end up as teachers, helping no one, least of all them.


“Parents nowadays are too busy,” he said. “They lead their own lives, and besides, that isn’t their role. If kids and parents get angry doing homework together, the kid’s gonna end up hating school and everything about it.”

‘Hurdle for Kids’

Victor Ferry is principal of Southwest Elementary School in Waterford, Conn. He’s a boyhood friend of DiFrancesca and one of 50 “nationally distinguished principals” honored recently at the White House.

“In today’s market, where both parents tend to work, such an approach is very useful,” he said, “maybe more so for single parents. I like the fact that Sal doesn’t advocate infringing on the child’s play time--just take a few minutes each day and get it done. Listen and be quiet. I like the fact the child sees himself being successful. That’s a huge hurdle for kids, and maybe parents shoulder the blame.

“Most of the time a kid comes home to an empty house. He has competition from TV, ballgames, other kids. There’re a lot of competing suggestions here. Lip service gets paid to a need for school, and then with so little follow-through from Mom and Dad. Just the time a parent spends outside watching stars with a kid is an indication of a willingness to care. To yell, ‘Go outside and watch the stars!’ is a whole different deal.

“There should be concern on the part of parents wanting instant results for a program like Sal’s. It’ll take a month to six weeks before any impact comes to light.”

Vera Ewers is a waitress at a Japanese restaurant. She heard about the program while waiting on DiFrancesca. He offered her a copy, and, she said, it worked like magic. Her kids even like the tape.


“I’ve noticed the pressure’s off me,” she said. “I’m not constantly pressuring them (14- and 15-year-old daughters) to do their homework. It’s given them confidence in school, confidence in their ability to do the work. It’s not as stressful as it once was. The strain has been lifted. And, hey, that’s worth something. Believe me, it is .”