Homework Hell? Part I: How to Turn It Around
By James Lehman, MSW
Has homework time become the seventh circle of hell in your house, with you nagging your kids to do their assignments and fighting with them over each math problem? If you and your child are battling nightly over schoolwork, read on to hear the real solutions James Lehman offers to this frustrating problem, in Part I of Homework Hell.
Avoid getting sucked into power struggles with your child at all costs. Let me be very clear here: fighting over homework is a losing proposition for both of you.
Parents get stuck in homework battles with their kids all the time. Either their children get distracted halfway through and want to give up, or they resist doing the work in the first place. As many parents know all too well, this resistance can often take the form of acting out behavior: kids will yell, start fights with you, or even throw a tantrum to avoid doing their work. Sometimes they start their homework and then throw their hands up in the air and say, “This is too hard,” or “I’m bored,” or “Why do I have to do this stupid stuff anyway?” As hard as it can be to not take that bait, my advice to you is to avoid getting sucked into power struggles with your child at all costs. Let me be very clear here: fighting over homework is a losing proposition for both of you. You will end up frustrated, angry and exhausted, while your child will have found yet another way to push your buttons. And wind up hating school and hating learning—exactly what you don’t want to have happen.
So why is homework time often so difficult? In my opinion, one of the major reasons is because it can be hard for kids to focus at home. Look at it this way: when your child is in school, he’s in a classroom where there aren’t a lot of distractions. The learning is structured and organized, and all the students are focusing on the same thing. But when your child comes home, his brain clicks over to “free time” mode. In his mind, home is a place to relax, have a snack, listen to music, and maybe watch TV and play video games. So for better or worse, kids often simply don’t view home as the place to do schoolwork.
The good news is that there are effective techniques you can use to end the nightly battle over homework. This week, I’ll be telling you about some powerful things you can do at home to change your child’s mindset about doing schoolwork. And next week, I’ll give you specific tips that will help your child get the work done—and help you leave homework hell behind.
- Start Early
I always tell parents that the earlier they can begin to indoctrinate their children with the idea that schoolwork is a part of home life—just as chores are—the more their kids will internalize the concept of homework as being a regular part of life. If your child is older and you haven’t done this, that does not mean there isn’t hope for him. It simply means you will initially have to work a lot harder to get him on track with his schoolwork.
- Make Night time Structured Time
When your kids come home, there should be a structure and a schedule set up each night. I recommend that you write this up and post it on the refrigerator or in some central location in the house. Kids need to know that there is a time to eat, a time to do homework and also that there is free time. And remember, free time starts after homework is done. By the way, when it’s homework time, it should be quiet time in your whole house. Siblings shouldn’t be in the next room watching TV or playing video games. If your child doesn’t have homework some nights, it still should be a time when there is no Facebook, TV or video games. They can read a book or a magazine in their room, but there should be no electronics. In our house, homework time was usually after dinner, from seven to eight o’clock. The whole idea is to take away distractions. The message to your child is, “You’re not going to do anything anyway, so you might as well do your homework.”
- Don’t Fight with Your Child
Make it very clear that if they don’t do their homework, then the next part of their night does not begin. And don’t get sucked into arguments with them. Just keep it simple: “Right now is homework time. The sooner you get it done, the sooner you can have free time.” Say this in a supportive way with a smile on your face. Again, it’s really important not to get sucked into your child’s fight. And when you establish a nightly structure, it will be easier to avoid power struggles over homework.
- Know Your Child’s Homework List
I think it’s very important to know what your child’s homework is—parents need to make sure it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. Having good communication with your child’s teachers is key, because your child will have homework every night as he or she gets older. If your child is not handing in their work on time, you can set it up so the teacher will send you any assignments that your child didn’t get done each week. You might have to work to get your child’s teachers to do this, but you’re going to get important information from them about your child’s progress. And the bottom line is that you want to hold your child accountable for doing their work. That way, when the report card comes home, you—and your child—won’t be surprised by the grades they receive.
- Establish a Token Economy in Your Home
Don’t forget, we want to pay kids in a currency that they desire. Extra carrots are not going to get much out of your child, but an extra fifteen minutes before bedtime or extending their curfew by half-an-hour on Friday night will. (call out This kind of system is called a “token economy”. The “tokens” become the currency, and in this case, the extra time playing video games, watching TV, and using the computer is the money. You want to withhold it or give it out according to how your child is earning it.
- Map out a List of Rewards and Consequences
Parents should have a list of rewards and consequences mapped out for all their kids. It should be a pretty big list, and might include things like going to the park, going to the movies, and going bowling. Have a section that lists the video games your child likes to play and the TV shows he likes to watch, because this is what he will be rewarded with. I have parents sit down with their kids and say, “All right, when you do well and I want to reward you, what kinds of things would you like to do?” Be sure to include activities that don’t cost money, too, like going to the beach, taking a ride in the car, or playing board games. Then, if your child is able to finish his homework on time for a whole week, at the end of the week he gets rewarded from the list you’ve compiled.
Keep in mind that our job as parents is to help guide and coach our children with their schoolwork, but it’s also our job to let them experience the natural consequences when they don’t get it done. That might mean that they get a poor grade, which is the result of not following through on their responsibilities. It’s so important to let your child experience the disappointment that comes with that, because that will help motivate them to try harder next time. And as a parent, when the report card comes along, if your child is not at some baseline that you’ve determined, (it might be that they should get nothing lower than a B, for example) then they should lose some of their privileges at home. That might mean they can’t study alone in their room until they bring their grades up, and you might have to watch them more closely when they do their work.
Remember, a major part of ending power struggles over homework lies in establishing structure, giving consequences and rewards, and getting your child to see that schoolwork is a regular part of home life. Once they accept that, you’ve already won half the battle.
In Part 2 of this series, James gives you specific techniques to get your child off the starting block when it comes to homework, tips on how to motivate teenagers to do their work, and how to handle conflicts with after school activities and schoolwork.
After the start of the second grade, I very quickly noticed some heavy struggles around homework come up. It was clear I was going to need to help my child with school. At the start of the year, my son’s second grade teacher gave all the parents special instructions for doing homework this year: set a timer for 30 minutes for homework time, and when that timer goes off, put the pencil down and walk away. If any tears or yelling happens before the timer goes off, put the pencil down and walk away. It was as though he was perfectly foreshadowing what we were about to see.
For a number of days in a row, when homework time approached in the evening, my son met it with resistance and frustration. I would see a range of reactions, from announcing that it was boring and he wasn’t going to do it, to kicking and yelling and crying over his homework. I noticed in myself how inflexible I was around homework time – I was frustrated that he wouldn’t just sit down and do the assignments that looked to me like they were easy enough to do with his eyes closed! It got to the point where I could not touch homework time – we just had to wait until my husband got home to do it with him, as he was somehow able to put more play and lightness to it and succeeded in helping our son get it completed. I could see that this was going to be an emotional project for the whole family and needed a new strategy fast.
I started on this issue in my own listening partnerships. I got listening about how frustrating homework was, how intolerable my sons behavior was, especially when it was always topics I know he is good at and have seen him complete with ease! I got listening around how when I was his age homework was easy for me, so why did it have to be such a struggle for him? And finally, how I don’t like that homework even exists! It cuts into our family time in the evenings, and more often than not is IS as boring as my son says it is.
Next, I made a point to do Special Time with my son before my husband got home to do homework with him. Honestly I was happy to do Special Time in place of homework with my son, it was much more enjoyable. We would wrestle, or pillow fight, or play his favorite video game depending on what he would choose. I started to notice that homework time seemed to go much easier when he would get this extra connection. I saw these as little victories along the way, but still I found that writing homework of any kind continued to be a frustrating struggle.
One evening my son pulled out his spelling and writing assignments and asked for my help. He was already upset about the subject of the homework before he even pulled it out of his backpack. I asked him to read me the instructions while I was cooking something in the kitchen. He became more and more distracted and agitated. I told him it was time to stop playing with what he was playing with and sit down to focus on homework. “Then come help me!!” He screamed. He screamed this again, and I put down what I was doing to come in closer to him. He kept yelling “Help me! Help me!” over and over again, and the closer I got to him while offering my help with my words, the louder he yelled it. He was kicking and screaming on the floor and I just continued to say “I am here to help you,” while he continued to scream for help.
This went on for some time and I continued to stay close, holding a gentle arm around his baby brother to make sure he did not accidentally get kicked. I acknowledged that homework was frustrating, that he works really hard all day at school. He screamed and kicked, and cried a small amount. After a while his system began to settle down and relax. He turned to a toy to play with and I let him take his time to play and relax while I went back to the kitchen to cook dinner.
By the time dinner was done, he had returned to the table and quietly completed his homework on his own. He was very proud of his work, and showed me each part. In these last few weeks, I have continued my connection tools all in combination, and it has meant that I have been able to help him with his homework. He now will often complete it before my husband gets home and we get extra time to play and connect as a whole family.
—Natalie Thiel, Certified Parenting by Connection Instructor
If you have challenges around homework or setting limits, consider our online Setting Limits and Building Cooperation course.