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Homework: Tips for Parents

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Dan Florell:  Well, welcome to another NASP podcast. On our podcast today, we have Peg Dawson. And we're going to be answering some questions regarding homework, especially what parents may be able to do to help out their children with homework. So, I'm going to let Peg introduce herself a little bit here.

Peg Dawson:  OK. My name is Peg Dawson. I've been a school psychologist for about 30 years, working in the schools for about half of that time, and now in a clinic setting where I specialize in children with learning and attention disorders. And as people know, kids with learning and attention disorders often struggle with homework. I'm also the parent of two sons who  struggled with homework as well as they were growing up. They're now adults. So, I certainly bring to this discussion both my experience as a professional and my experience as a mom.

Dan:  Oh, that's great. What we're going to do, then, is just kind of ask a series of questions that I think are real common questions that parents usually struggle with when they get their children and trying to have them complete their homework. And so we'll just kind of launch into those and have you comment on what you think about them.

Peg:  OK.

Dan:  Now, many parents are concerned that their children have too much homework in elementary school. What would you say a general rule of thumb regarding the amount of homework that's OK for elementary‑school students?

Peg:  Well, the American Federation of Teachers, I think, and maybe the PTA, sort of came up with guidelines several years ago, which I've seen quoted in a lot of different places, and which really make sense to me. And that is, the general rule of thumb is 10 minutes per grade level. So, if you're in first grade, the expectation is that you'll have 10 minutes of homework a night; in second grade, it's 20 minutes, and so on. And my experience, from working with families, is that if that rule of thumb is followed it should be pretty manageable for the vast majority of kids.

Dan:  And knowing that there is some deviation among students, too, I imagine, for those...

Peg:  Yeah, that's a good point. I mean, not everybody works at the same pace, and so what takes 10 minutes for a typical child may take a little longer for some kids and a little shorter for others. If you find that kids are rushing through homework, you may need to slow them down if it looks like they're just rushing to get it done and not paying attention to quality.

Dan:  Mm‑hmm.

Peg:  But, I think 10 minutes, plus or minus five or 10, is probably reasonable.

Dan:  Right, right. OK. Great. Now, is homework really effective, or even necessary, in really early grades such as kindergarten through second grade?

Peg:  Well, certainly, the research raises questions about the efficacy of homework at that age level. And in fact, boy, I would not recommend homework in kindergarten, other than maybe some of the fun activities that kindergarten teachers assign, like bring in something that starts with B...

Dan:  Yeah.

Peg:  That kind of thing. That's reasonable.

The research studies that have actually looked at the efficacy of homework in elementary school have not been particularly encouraging. And my feelings about homework  have actually changed over the years. Initially, I went just by research and said, "Why are we even assigning homework at an elementary level?"

My thinking has evolved a little. I think, it's a good opportunity to teach other skills other than the skills being practiced for homework. And those include being able to make and follow a plan, or being able to do something that requires some effort in a less‑structured setting.

I mean, in school, teachers are there to make sure kids are doing what they're supposed to be doing. Homework gives kids a chance to take a little more responsibility for independent work completion, and to get in the habit of knowing that they're going to have to do something every day that may not be the most fun thing in the world but that's expected of them.

Dan:  Mm‑hmm. So, kind of really establishing almost a mental set...

Peg:  Yeah.

Dan:  Versus actual content of homework, but more the kind of process of the homework. It would be more the utility, even in the younger grades, it sounds like.

Peg:  Right. Yeah. Sometimes I call that "habits of mind," that that's what homework may teach.

Dan:  OK. Good. Now, the emphasis on homework has seemed to increase from when many parents went to school. How can it benefit students rather than just being busy work? And I know you kind of commented a little bit on the habit of mind. Can you think of any other possible advantages to the homework, or even why the increase?

Peg:  Well, my guess is some of the increase comes from increased pressure on schools to make sure they get to a curriculum, because there's a much greater emphasis on the statewide achievement testing and benchmark achievements. I mean, No Child Left Behind, for instance. All of those put teachers under the gun to make sure that they cover an adequate amount of the curriculum. And they can't build in all the practice time in school, so it ends up being assigned for homework.

Although, I'd also have to say that the other difference I've seen in homework since, say, when I was a child ‑ and maybe even since my own kids were children ‑ is a little more emphasis on trying to make tasks interesting and multidimensional, and sometimes to involve families. So, a homework assignment might be to discuss with your parents what school was like when they were kids.

Dan:  Mm‑hmm.

Peg:  And that's a benefit. It brings parents and kids together. Especially if it's an appealing kind of task and not something that people see as drudgery.

Dan:  Right. Yes, I remember my own drudgery experience.


Dan:  Complete the 450 single‑digit addition problems.

Peg:  Right.  Exactly. That's what it sounded like, didn't it?

Dan:   Yeah. Yeah. It was getting on the drudgery end, and you kind of got the sense it was homework for homework's sake.

Peg:  Yeah...

Dan:  And so I'm glad that there have been some changes, hopefully, in a lot of people's homework, regarding this more project‑based, more multi‑discipline kind of approach.

Peg:  ... Which has its pluses and minuses. I mean, it definitely makes it more appealing. But, there's also a subset of kids out there who have a very hard time with more open‑ended assignments. And they therefore need more structure, and probably more support from parents, and maybe more understanding from teachers that there's a real difference between assigning a project for homework and assigning 450 math problems.

Dan:  Right. Now, when you refer to those kids, would they typically have more attentional issues, or more history of a learning disability, or they're just normal learners who maybe don't do very well in these kinds of more open type of assignments?

Peg:  Yeah. Boy, I'd say all of the above. It's certainly kids with attention problems. Although, some kids with ADD, it's those fun projects that they really can get into.

Dan:  Mm‑hmm.

Peg:  And so that's actually what they excel at. It's the very predictable math assignments they have trouble with. Certainly, kids with learning disabilities, they really require more support than sometimes parents and teachers understand. And then there are those kids who,  I see a lot of them. They don't necessarily have learning and attention problems, but they have this sort of notion that, "You know what? I put in six hours a day in school, and after that it's my time."

Dan:  So, not too unlike the adult world, in some cases.

Peg:  Yeah, that's right.


Peg:  Not all adults like to bring work home at the end of the day, right?

Dan:  I would say few, actually.

Peg:   Exactly.

Dan:  Well, now, why would you say it's important to establish a routine for homework?

Peg:  That's a good question. I think, one thing to understand about tasks that are effortful ‑ it doesn't mean they're necessarily difficult, but you sort of have to make yourself do them..?

Dan:  Mm‑hmm.

Peg:  The more those tasks can be built into a routine, the less effortful they are.

Dan:  Right.

Peg:  I mean, take brushing your teeth, for example. If every night, you sort of had to stop and think, "Do I want to brush my teeth, or don't I?" it's harder to get in the habit of doing that, and it therefore feels like more of a challenge. And I'm thinking there are kids out there who can't even stand the idea of brushing their teeth.

But, the more it becomes sort of second nature: "Here's what you're going to do." And I think of athletes who have stretching exercises they have to do before a game. That seems kind of tedious and not fun. So, it's just built in. Coaches build it into the first part of any sports routine, and then it just becomes second nature.

So, I think the same thing... Homework just becomes easier if you understand that every day, between four and five o'clock, that's what's going to be happening.

Dan:  Mm‑hmm. Yeah. And kind of setting up those expectations for the kids.

Peg:  Right. Right.

Dan:  OK. You establish a routine, if you're a parent, at home, and the homework is still taking a child maybe up to three hours a night to complete. What could parents do when the child is spending so much time on that homework?

Peg:  Yeah. And I know a lot of parents who really struggle with this. Step one is to figure out why they're spending so much time. And there are so many different possible answers to that.

Dan:  Mm‑hmm.

Peg:  I mean, it could be that they're being sent homework that they didn't finish at school, and they have to do that on top of homework. They could just be dawdling or distracted. There could be a TV on in the background, or they could be instant messaging  while they're doing their homework.


Peg:  One of the more challenging situations is when you have kids with perfectionist tendencies. So, everything has to be perfect. And they may be afraid to commit anything to paper for fear it's not going to be perfect, or they start writing and they don't like what they've done, and they rip up the paper and start fresh.

Or the homework could be too difficult, and that's what's taking them so long. They could have what I call a slow processing speed; they just are kids who take longer than the typical kid anyway.

And then, finally, it might be that they really are having too much homework assigned. This tends to be an issue more at the middle‑school level, where teachers may not be coordinating assignments so that three teachers are assigning a long‑term project at the same time, and that makes it difficult.

Once parents have an understanding of what the problems are, then they can decide, "Is it something I can handle at home, or is it something I need to talk with the teacher about?" For instance, if it's routine that the child is really struggling because they don't understand what they're supposed to be doing, then that's got to be a conversation with the teacher. If it turns out it's the distractions, then they've got to make a deal with the kid about arranging a distraction‑free environment. So, as I say, it depends on what the cause of the three‑hour homework sessions are.

Dan:  Is there a way that you would recommend parents to approach teachers regarding that? Because I'm sure you know, sometimes, being a parent myself, my reaction would be to go to the teacher and say, "Why are you doing this to my child?"

Peg:   Right.

Dan:  Which is probably not the most constructive? Do you have any advice on maybe how they could best do that?

Peg:  Yeah, that's another good question. In general, the best way is to approach the teacher by saying, "I've got a problem here at home maybe I could get your help with." And not set out a solution initially, but just say, "Here's what I'm noticing. My daughter is spending three hours every night on homework. And I've tried to talk with her. Here are the possible reasons that may be happening."

And the other general piece of advice when parents talk with teachers is if they say, "Here's what I'm doing. Here's what I'm willing to do. Is there a way we could work together to solve this problem?"

Dan:  Mm‑hmm.

Peg:  So that teachers don't feel it's all being thrown back on their shoulders. There really does need to be a collaborative problem‑solving process.

Dan:  OK. Good. Now, you said kind of a distraction‑free environment might be very helpful for some of the kids that struggle with homework. What general advice would you give, sort of a type of location that tends to be best for kids as far as completing their homework?

Peg:  It probably varies from child to child. One of the conversations I get in with parents and teenagers together, very often, is parents insisting that their teenagers not listen to their iPod while they're doing their homework, and teenagers saying, "But that's the easiest way for me to do my homework!"

So, it really comes down to parents and kids working together to figure out what the best possible environment is.

For a lot of kids, it needs to be supervised. So, in the kitchen while mom is making dinner or parents are cleaning up after dinner, as opposed to in the bedroom, where there are too many distractions. But, other kids need to get away to the bedroom, to get away from whatever distractions there are.

TV is one of the biggest ones.  I did a workshop a few years ago. Actually, I taught a class for, I think they were seventh graders, about homework. We filled the whole blackboard with reasons why homework is hard, and then I went back and had kids figure out which ones were the biggest problems, and maybe we could brainstorm some solutions. And what kids came up with was the distraction piece, interestingly enough: younger brother watching cartoons, or parents having an interesting discussion in the next room. All those things make it really hard.

So, it does make sense to sort of brainstorm with kids how to handle the distraction piece and what the best environment is, with the understanding that it may differ from child to child. And if parents and kids are stuck on that, then I often recommend that they do some kind of experiment. So, they try different environments and see how long it takes the child to get through the night with homework and how well they do their homework.

So, night one, it may be, "OK. I'll let you do it in your room. We'll see how it works. And I'm going to write down the start and stop times on the homework and take a look at the homework. And tomorrow night, we'll try it in the kitchen and see if you get through it faster." Because you can take simple measures like that and make some decisions about the best environment.

Dan:  Right. OK. Now, of course, the other thing, in addition to environment, would be, really, the child's own motivation, because no matter how much you pull that horse, you can't get them to drink unless they want to.

Peg:  Right.

Dan:  If they're not very self‑motivated to complete their homework, what ways could parents use to encourage them to complete it?

Peg:  First of all, so that's that daily routine, so they know what's going to happen at a set time every day, or if the schedule is that they've got sports practice a couple of days... Anyway, build in a weekly routine so that kids know what to expect.

But beyond that, probably the easiest and most effective thing is to build in some kind of reward for when they get their homework done. It's really unrealistic. And I've heard both parents and teachers sort of lean on this: "Oh, just think how much you're learning from doing your homework."

It's really unrealistic to expect the average child to see that as the reason for doing homework and to make it motivating. So, that means you've got to look for, to some extent, artificial incentives that don't have anything to do with the work being done, but you're using it to shore up the whole process and to hope that the habits of mind are getting instilled.

The easiest one is giving the child something to look forward to doing when they get their homework done. And how you word that's real important. Very often, parents will say, "You cannot turn on the TV until the homework is done." Which just sort of deflates you.

But if you say, "Here's what you're going to be able to do as soon as you get your homework done. There's that TV program you really like to watch. It's on at eight o'clock. We can watch it." Keep that program in mind as you get through your homework, so that it's there being held out as something to look forward to.

Dan:  Right, versus a negative, like you're not being able...

Peg:  Yeah, versus a negative. Yeah. You can't get that.

Building in breaks, if need be. Because kids' attention spans, A, are not as long as adults’ and, B, are particularly not long at the end of a long school day. So, to expect them to sit down and work for 45 minutes straight without a break may not be realistic.

So, if they have a break‑‑and I generally recommend breaks at natural break points, rather than, "OK. Work for 10 minutes and then we'll take a break." Although, sometimes you need to do that.

Dan:  Right.

Peg:  It might be, "Let's get these five problems done, and then you can take a break," so that that's giving them a goal that they're working towards rather than time they're putting in. So, those kinds of things...

Sometimes what kids need is just someone to sit there with them. I know parents are busy and that they feel like they're wasting their time, but if that's what it takes to, again, help install those habits.

What parents often find is, especially in the beginning of the year or the beginning of a new year with new demands, that that parent support seems pretty labor‑intensive. But, as the year goes along, kids need it less and less.

Dan:  Oh, OK.

Peg:  So, put in the time up front and then maybe payoffs down the road.

Dan:  Well, the involvement of parents in this kind of whole process of helping the child complete the homework, is it important to have the child kind of buy in to some of these external rewards? Or parents just go head and kind of dictate what sort of rewards?

Peg:  If you're going to use rewards, you certainly want to choose rewards that are attractive to the child. I had a youngster last year, it was so interesting. I mean, he was like eight or nine and the mom described knockdown drag‑out battles around homework.

I finally said to her, "Has there been any time recently when the homework session actually went well?" And she said, "Well, yeah. You know what? Last night it went well." I said, "What was different about last night?" She said, "Well, I finally broke down. My usual rule is you can't play video games during the school week, only on weekends. But, I finally broke down and said if he got his homework done, he could play half an hour of video games."

Later, when I worked with the child, I asked him about homework. He said, "You know what worked really well?" He just repeated what the mom had just said.

You certainly have to be true to your own values, but you also have to be aware that what may seem like a reward to you may not seem like a reward to your child. There’s this whole double‑edge sword of the technology of revolution that is different today than even when my kids were kids.

On the one hand, it provides so many distractions to kids that homework becomes less and less appealing. On the other hand, it can be used judiciously by parents as the reward for getting homework done.

Actually, if you control access to things like that so that they have some opportunity to play the things they want to play, things go more smoothly than if you decide to be arbitrary about no video games, no TV, those kinds of things.

Dan:  You've answered a lot of this question already, but parents do get frustrated with their kids resisting doing homework. Or many dual‑income couples out there that have to deal with their own job pressures and then coming home and fighting a battle over completing your fraction homework.

In addition to having a child kind of join in some of the reward decisions, are there other things you can think of as far as getting children to comply a little better so that it's not such the battle?

Peg:  Yeah. For the kids, it ends up being an extreme struggle over long periods of time. In addition to analyzing, is it does he not understand the homework what's going on here? I think there's a role for the school to play in all of this. I think, eventually, parents may have to turn back to the school to get them to offer supports around homework.

I can remember hearing Russ Barkley, who's probably the world's leading expert on ADHD, talk about homework and parents and say, "You know what? Homework is not worth destroying the parent/child relationship." He really felt schools needed to make adjustments and modifications for homework. And there are all kinds of adjustments schools can make.

They can modify the quantity of homework for some kids. They can make a deal with parents that parents sort of decide how much the child can tolerate on any given night. So, there's a home/school communication where mom may write in, "We really could only get through five math problems last night. We worked for 45 minutes on it," that kind of thing.

And I think there's a place also for the school to handle the consequences. I don't mean consequences in terms of failing grades, because if the kids are struggling with homework, they don't care about failing grades. But, they may care about whether they get to go out to recess or get to come home at the end of the school day the same time everybody else does.

Again, you have to understand what you're dealing with. You don't want to be dealing with using this as a consequence for kids who aren't doing homework because they understand it or because of other deep problems. But, for the child who, especially around home may be used to getting his own way...

Dan:  Yeah.

Peg:  And we see if we remember those kids, too.

Dan:  Just a few.

Peg:  Then if they understand that they can get their own way home but they're going to miss recess tomorrow or they're going to have to go to the homework club after school for the next two weeks, to see if they can get in the habit of getting homework done. That can be very effective with some kids.

My general recommendation is, if you've tried these other things in terms of giving kids something to look forward to, building in incentives ‑ and it can be pretty elaborate.

Sometimes it helps kids to work towards a bigger reward. I remember when my son got to seventh grade and suddenly the homework became much greater in quantity than it had been prior. We were dealing with him putting it off as long as he could and complaining bitterly about it.

I finally put in place a system. I said, "OK. If you can do your homework without complaining more than once, you get a point. If you can finish it by 9:00 at night, you get a point. When you've had 40 points, then you get to buy that video game you want." I figured it would take him about six weeks to earn the reward. That was just enough to get us over the hump.

So by after that, he didn't stop complaining but at least he was more used to doing homework and he was down to his schedule. But, if you've tried all of those things then I think working with the school to address the problem is probably the next best step.

Dan:  Mm‑hmm. You had talked a little bit about kids and having it being a little different if kids just don't know how to do the work versus taking a long time to complete the work. What should parents do then, if their child always is complaining, "I just don't know how to do this?"

Peg:  Right. Two things: One is see if just a little additional explanation from them is sufficient. This works better with some parents. I mean, usually what it is is math that they don't understand. Sometimes parents can help kids with math, but nowadays the way math is taught is so different from most parents experienced, that sometimes they can't or kids resist it. "Mom, that's not the way they taught me at school."

Dan:  Right.

Peg:  If they're finding night after night that that's what's happening, they need to talk with the teacher about extra, additional instruction in school. Maybe that just the teacher needs to sit down with the child before he goes home or after the homework is assigned and just make sure he understands what he's supposed to do. That may be all it takes.

But, if it's a chronic problem and it looks like the child's not just resisting to be defiant, but really doesn't understand, then I would ask for more help from the teacher, which could be the teacher doing some assessment to figure out if that's the case or the teacher referring the child to, say, a teacher assistance team or, if it's bad, as far as special education evaluation.

Dan:  That was one of the questions I had. What warning signs, when a child's coming home with homework, that a parent might have that a learning disability or some other concern may be trumping just normal attitudes and behaviors of kids regarding homework? Is there some sort of things that parents can look for to raise their awareness that maybe things aren't going smoothly?

Peg:  Yeah.

Dan:  There may be something underlying it more than just resistance?

Peg:  The parents that I see, and very often it's parents who are making the referral to me, rather than the school. What I learned from them is that there are several things. One is if they try to teach the skill to the child, the child seems to get it but then it's gone the next day again. Whatever the explanation is doesn't stick and that worries me. That's suggesting maybe some kind of processing issue going on.

Another is if the child is just having real difficulty retaining the information, not grasping concepts, but retaining information. For instance, if the assignment is to learn basic sight words and spend 10 minutes a night doing a flash card drill and the parent finds that the child is really having trouble holding onto those words.

Or their instruction is, read for 10 minutes, and they find that if a child sees the same word five times on the page each time they have to stop and sound it out. That's a clue that they might be forgetting information. Not grasping concepts and forgetting information that it seems like they've had enough exposure to, they shouldn't be forgetting it, those are two warning signs.

The third is, and this is a little more subtle because people tend to misinterpret it, if the child is really, really resisting the work. Even if they're not saying, "I don't get it" and they're saying, "I don't want to do it." You have to ask yourself why are they that resistant, especially if they're not a child who is spoiled or used to getting their own way all the time.

And again, I see parents of all kinds, I see the parents that say, "I'm not real good at making my child do chores, no wonder he's resisting doing homework." But if you get a child who is willing to do other effortful tasks but just keeps resisting homework then that would certainly send up a red flag for me. Maybe there's a reason that they're resisting that has something to do with how they're learning, or not learning.

Dan:  OK. There are a lot of families that have more than one child and as they all get into school age, oftentimes they each have homework. And many times there's one, at most, two parents available to help these children out. Is there a way that adults can somehow get their kids to do homework with more minimal assistance, just because maybe there are three kids and only mom's home at the five to six o'clock period?

Peg:  The most effective way I've seen to handle that is to create a family homework time. Use the dining room table and have the kids spread out on the dining room table. Everybody sits down and does their homework. And if you can build in the notion that the older kids can help the younger kids when a problem comes up.

Some of the research that I've seen, for instance, why children from Asian backgrounds do so well in school, when they actually look at what's going on, what they are finding is: A. Learning and school achievement are very important to the families of those kids. But B, because it's important families do just that, they arrange homework time where the expectation is you are all going to be working on your homework and we'll help each other get through it.

I've also had single moms who use that same time to do their work. If they're paying bills or if they've got other paperwork or other things that they have to do they sit down. And you are then modeling, here's what it looks like as an adult, we carry out tasks that look like homework.

They can get something done that they need to do at the same time that their kids are working on homework. And if they need to be interrupted to answer a question or to provide a little support then they're right there and then they can get back to their own work.

Dan:  And I would imagine, it would also model, like you were saying, that routine to be established, it's a lifetime routine. This is not just a wait until I get out of school routine, but to be a professional and to work you also have to do this type of homework and things when you get home.

Peg:  Yes, exactly.

Dan:  Great. You've almost exhausted all my questions, I'd like to give you a chance to sum up, and just in your experience what the most common problems that parents experience in getting their children in homework, and any other points that you'd like to drive home here at the end.

Peg:  I think that's a really interesting question about what the most common problems that I've encountered are. And I'd have to say it's resistance to doing it. And I think this goes back to what I said earlier; there are so many fun things for kids to do when they're not in school now.

I remember many years ago, my father, who is now deceased, we were talking about my work with kids with attention disorders and he said to me, "I think I might have had attention problems when I was a kid." And I said, "But you did pretty well in school." And he said, "Well, look at it this way, when I got home from school in the afternoon there were three things I could do. I could do my homework, I could read a book, or I could go outside and play in the woods behind my house." That was it.

My father grew up in White Plains, New York, an affluent suburb of New York City. Can you imagine the options the kids in White Plains now have when they get home?

Dan:  It's just infinite almost.

Peg:  Yes, and therefore we expect kids to make good choices in a way that we never expected kids, one or two or three generations to do, because there weren't that many options. I think, that's what makes it hard; there are so many appealing fun things to do. In a sense it's almost like Christmas when you get home from school, and how can you ask kids not to play with the toys under the tree?

Dan:  Right, you have your 24‑seven access to all cartoons on TV; you've got the infinite YouTube and social networking sites, cell phones.

Peg:  Yeah, and what that does is that then puts tremendous pressure on parents to control access to those things. And that's tough for parents who are under stress themselves. They're having trouble organizing and maintaining their own lives, and then to have to go out and do that limit setting on kids. Especially since every kid has a friend who has more leeway and more freedom than they do, and it's usually their best friend.

Dan:  Of course.

Peg:  And so parents have been having to fight, "That's not how we do it in our house." And if you're tired anyway that's really tough. I think, that's probably the biggest challenge that parents are up against.

I think there are three key messages and if parents can give their kids these key messages it will help. One is that homework is important and they expect kids to complete it in the same way they expect kids to brush their teeth before they go to bed at night. Homework falls into that category.

Secondly that they'll give their kids as much help as they to get it done, or as much support as they need. Because, some kids are just overwhelmed by the work itself. It's not that they can't do it, it just looks too daunting to them. So, if they know the parent is going to be there to help them get through it when they get stuck that helps.

Thirdly, and this is real important, you can't give them the message that you are going to give them as much help as they need without also giving the message that you are not going to do their homework for them. It's that balance, and typically what we say is you provide the minimum support necessary for the child to be successful.

Dan:  No doing the art project for him before it’s due.

Peg:  Yeah, or the science project. And I hear from parents all the time, especially the ones who resist doing their kids’ science projects, then they go to the science fair and they say "I know that kid who won didn't do that all by himself."

Dan:  Right.

Peg:  That's tough.

Dan:  Thank you Peg, I think this provided a lot of really good information for parents on a very common issue that all of us have who have kids going to school.

This has been a NASP podcast; stay tuned for more upcoming podcasts on very relevant areas.