Homework Help for Reluctant Children

How parents can create a nightly homework ritual that works for everyone

October 15, 2018

It’s hard to fault the child who resists doing homework. After all, she has already put in a long day at school, probably been involved in afterschool activities, and, as the late afternoon spills into evening, now faces a pile of assignments. Parents feel it, too — it’s no one’s favorite time of day.

But despite its bad rap, homework plays an important role in ensuring that students can execute tasks independently. When it’s thoughtfully assigned, homework provides deeper engagement with material introduced in class. And even when it’s “just” worksheets, homework can build the automatic habits and the basic skills required to tackle more interesting endeavors. Finally, homework is a nightly test of grit. Adult life brings its share of tasks that are both compulsory and unenjoyable. Developing the discipline to fulfill our responsibilities, regardless of whether they thrill us, begins in middle childhood.

So how to help the avoidant child embrace the challenge, rather than resist it?

The first step, especially with kids 13 and under, is to have them do their homework at a communal space, like a dining room or kitchen table. If other children are in the home, they can all do their homework at the same table, and the parent can sit nearby to support the work effort. This alleviates some of the loneliness a reluctant child might associate with assignments. The alternative — doing homework at a bedroom desk — can result in the child guiltily avoiding the work for as long as possible. Like all forms of procrastination, this has the effect of making the entire process take much longer than it needs to.
 

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When parents turn the homework ritual into a series of conversations about what needs to be done, how, and for how long, children feel less “alone” with their nightly work, they relish the company and support of their parent, and they work better and more efficiently.

Many parents are under the impression that they shouldn’t have anything to do with their children's homework. This comes from schools emphasizing that homework is a child's responsibility, not the parents'. While it is absolutely true that parents should not do their children's homework, there is a role for parents — one that's perhaps best described as “homework project manager.” Parents can be monitoring, organizing, motivating, and praising the homework effort as it gets done. And yes, that means sitting with your child to help them stay focused and on task. Your presence sends the message that homework is important business, not to be taken lightly.

Once you’re sitting down with your child, ask him to unload his school bag and talk you through his various assignments. Maybe he has a school planner with all his homework listed, or a printout from school, or perhaps his work is listed on the classroom website. Many children attend an afterschool program where, in theory, they are doing homework. They’ll often claim that they’ve done all their homework, even though they’ve only done some. Together, make a quick and easy “Done/To Do” list. Writing down what she has finished will give her a sense of satisfaction. Identifying what she still needs to do will help her to focus on the remaining assignments. Over time, this practice will help your child build an understanding that large tasks are completed incrementally.

Next, ask your child to put the assignments in the order he’d like to do them. Encourage him to explain his thinking. Doing this helps a child feel in control of the evening’s tasks and prompts him to reflect on his work style. Discuss the first task of the night together. Ask your child to think about the supplies he is likely to need, and ensure they’re at the ready. This “pre-work” work helps a child think through a task, understand it, and prepare to execute it with gusto.

Last but not least, introduce a timer to the evening’s proceedings. Challenge your child to estimate how long the first assignment will take. Then ask, “Do you want me to set the timer for the full amount of time you think you’ll need, or a smaller amount?” Then, set the timer with the understanding that the child must work without interruption until the timer goes off. Even questions are verboten while the timer runs. The goal here is to enable the child to solve problems independently, through concentration. This not only builds concentration powers, it builds creativity, critical thinking, resilience, and resourcefulness. In my experience, the theatricality of being timed helps relax children who would otherwise feel daunted by a mountain of homework.

As each piece of work gets done, parents can add meaningful positive reinforcement. Exclaiming, “Another assignment done! And done well!” helps your child feel like what they are doing matters.

By turning the homework ritual into a series of conversations about what needs to be done, how, and for how long, children feel less “alone” with their nightly work, they relish the company and support of their parent, and they complete the work much more efficiently and at a higher standard than they might otherwise.

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Helping the Homework Resisters
  • Have children do their work at a communal table. Stay nearby, to alleviate the loneliness that some kids feel — and to prevent procrastination.
  • Ask your child to unload her backpack and talk through assignments.
  • Help your child make a "Done/To Do" list.
  • Ask your child to put the assignments in the order he’d like to do them. Encourage him to explain his thinking — fostering a sense of control.
  • Use a timer. Challenge your child to estimate how long an assignment will take, and ask if she wants to set the timer for that full amount of time, or less. 
  • Your role: To monitor, organize, motivate, and praise the homework effort as each piece is done. 

About the Author

Heather Miller
Heather Miller, who received her master’s degree from the Harvard Graduate School of Education in 2000, is the director of LePage-Miller, an education firm based in New York City. She is the author of Prime Time Parenting, a guide to parenting in the digital age, with a focus on developing evening routines that work for kids and parents. Learn more.
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