a guest post by Tracy McConaghie, LCSW, RPT/S
Homework time is dreaded by many families. Children come home from school and instead of enjoying a relaxing afternoon and evening with the family, parents find themselves in power struggles trying to get a reluctant child to complete their work, or consoling an anxious or tired child who does not feel they can do what is assigned. Many families report assignments that should take less than 30 minutes can take hours when homework emotions run high. The pressure parents feel about homework, coupled with children’s resistance can often lead desperate parents to yell or punish. While this is an attempt to get through to children and take charge of a difficult situation, in reality it results in even less cooperation, less buy in, and less connection with children.
Managing homework successfully depends in part on the age of the child. However, one principle applies to all students: homework needs to be about the child’s development as a person who can discover their own capability and responsibility. When parents take over, homework loses this benefit. Parents’ fears about their child’s success or failure and their own success as a parent add to the emotions many children already feel about homework and explosive homework times are the result. The key is to offer support but turn the work over to the child. The amount of support and involvement may be high during kindergarten, and should decrease each year until there is little involvement during middle school and virtually none during high school.
It is important to talk about what grades and accomplishments your child wants, not what you want them to achieve. Internal motivation is key, and children do not develop it when they are focused on pleasing their parents with their school work. Instead, they will benefit from you celebrating with them and helping them feel their own pride in what they can do.
Try the following strategies and watch homework time improve:
- Empathize with your child’s feelings about homework. How do you feel if after a long day of work you have more work to do when you get home? Your answer is probably tired, frustrated, annoyed and maybe even worried you do not have what it takes to complete it. It is likely that children who complain about homework are having many of the same feelings. When we are tense about getting everything done and feel pressured to make our child finish homework efficiently, we are unlikely to be empathetic. In that case, when our child says “I don’t want to do my homework!” or “I am not going to do it!” we respond with words like “oh yes you are!” or “I don’t want to go through this again tonight – just get to work” or “well, you have to so just deal with it.” Those words may be true, but children do not respond to them with a willing and interested attitude in their work.This works much better:I don’t blame you; I didn’t like homework when I was in school either.
You must be tired after your day at school.
You were really looking forward to relaxing and playing, so you are mad there is more work to do.
What is the worst part of homework for you?
These kinds of empathetic responses do a world of good. They connect you with your child which gives you more influence. They remove power struggles because you are agreeing with your child’s feelings. They also model mature, healthy ways of expressing feelings.
- Empathy lays the foundation for a successful homework session, but it does not get the work done. The next step is to make a plan. A good homework plan is proactive (decided in advance) and collaborative (decided with parents and children together). Even early elementary children can be a part of these decisions. When children are involved it increases buy in, improves cooperation and creates a sense of capability and responsibility.With early elementary children, parents can create the main points of the plan and ask children to help with some of the choices. For example, parents can decide TV and computer will not be turned on until homework is done. Parents and children can decide together how much of a break there will be between school and homework, and what will be done during that break. Children can decide where they will do their homework.For older children, consider turning the plan over to them: “what is your plan for your homework tonight?” You may still decide to use the limit of what cannot be done until homework is done, but leave more of the decisions up to them.
- Some children need more supervision and assistance than others. This is especially true in the case of ADD and anxiety. For any child who needs more assistance to complete homework successfully, try the following step by step plan:Step One: Check in with your child in a friendly, connecting manner before starting homework time. Keep in mind they have had a long day at school, and they will benefit from a peaceful, loving connection with you especially if it was a stressful day.Step Two: Help your child determine what needs to be done for homework. The emphasis here is on HELP THEM determine this. You can do this by asking them questions and looking through the backpack or binder together. Ask your child to write the night’s assignments on a note card or piece of paper. Write it yourself if handwriting is exhausting or frustrating for your child – but have them tell you what to write.
Step Three: Help your child number the assignments in the order he or she would like to do them, and write an estimate of how long each assignment will take. It is important to reassure your child that it is OK if they do not finish the work in the amount of time they guess – the time is simply to help them have an idea of what the plan for the night is and have general guidelines to keep them on track. Done repeatedly, this also develops the skill of self awareness and planning. Determine with your child if having a clock or timer in the homework area would be helpful or too stressful for them.
Step Four: Help your child get started, then leave them until the estimated time for the assignment has passed. At that time, check in and use questions rather than instructions
How’s it going?
Did the amount of time you guessed turn out to be the right amount of time?
What is your next step?
The use of questions rather than demands or instructions is so important. Questions put the onus of responsibility on the child, where it should be, and develop important thinking and awareness skills in children because they have to determine the answer for themselves.
Continue this process until the homework is complete. Offer encouraging observations to your child about what you noticed they did skillfully during that homework session.
- Use the power of exercise – Physical exercise activates the attention and focus center of the brain. It reduces impulsivity and elevates mood. It is ideal for children to have a burst of exercise before they start homework, and many would benefit from mini exercise sessions between assignments. Imaginary jump rope, jogging in place, jumping jacks, and push-ups against the wall can all be done indoors at the homework area.
- Homework Refusal – Some children are in a pattern of defiance and power struggles with homework. This makes homework a very volatile time in a family’s day. If you are in intense arguments with your child and trying to force them to complete their homework, you are at least half of the problem. That is good news! Now that you know, you can do a lot about this. I have had children who refuse to do their homework in my office many times. Each time, I ask them alone what they would do if their parents decided they would not force them to do their homework but would leave it entirely up to them to decide whether or not they would do it. In nearly every case, the child tells me they would do their homework. They do not like the idea of telling their teacher they did not do it, they do not want the consequences in class that their teacher uses, or they do not want to be embarrassed in class. However, they cannot access these motivations because they are too busy resisting their parents. If you remove that resistance, big change can happen.It looks and sounds like this: “I have decided I am not going to make you do your homework anymore. I want to have a nice time with our family in the evenings and I don’t think fighting about homework is good for us. You can work it out with your teacher if you decide not to do the work, and I have faith in your to figure it out. I know you are capable and can decide what is best. I am not comfortable with the TV or computer being used if you decide not to do your homework, but other than that it is up to you.”Using questions is another powerful way to shift the energy:
Oh, you have decided not to do your homework? What does your teacher do when students come to class without it?
What will you say to your teacher when she asks you for your homework?
Will it have any effect on your grade if you do not do it? What grade do you want to make in that class?
**Important note: these questions are only useful if they are delivered calmly, and with genuine curiosity and openness. The same questions delivered with sarcasm or anger will put you back into a power struggle/refusal cycle.
When you apply these new principles, it may take some time for your children to adapt and start doing their work for themselves. Focus on communicating your belief in them and being curious about what they want for themselves. If your child is performing poorly even after you use these strategies, it is time to take another step to determine what is getting in the way of your child’s ability or motivation. This may mean a full psycho-educational assessment to check for unknown learning or processing disorders, a visit to a therapist to assess emotional issues, or a conference with the school to problem solve.
Tracy McConaghie is Licensed Clinical Social Worker, Registered Play Therapist/Supervisor and Certified Positive Discipline Lead Trainer. Tracy and her husband Andrew own McConaghie Family Counseling in Alpharetta, GA. She specializes in treating children with anxiety and explosive behavior, as well as helping families through divorce and providing parenting classes and parent coaching. Learn more at www.mcconaghiefamilycounseling.com and visit McConaghie Family Counseling on Facebook.