Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship and setting up a daily routine surrounding homework provides a perfect opportunity.
Children ages 5-10 are in the process of establishing critical learning habits, including how they approach homework, that will extend throughout their school years. For most students and their parents, homework is a nightly reality. Children whose parents are involved in supporting learning at home and are engaged in their school community have more consistent attendance, better social skills, and higher grade point averages and test scores than those children without involved parents.1 Indeed the best predictor of students’ academic achievement is parental involvement.
Yet, there are challenges. “I don’t want to do homework. I haven’t had any time to play!” might be a frequent complaint you hear from your seven-year-old. Our children may engage us in power struggles when they have other goals in mind. Their goal – “How can I play longer?” – is typical.
A study by the National Center on Families Learning found that 60% of American families struggle to help children with their homework.2 Additionally, more than 25% admit that the reason is that they are too busy, up from just over 20% in 2013. Parents also identified not understanding the subject matter (33.5%) and pushback from their kids (41%) as reasons for having trouble with homework help.3
While getting a regular homework routine going might be a challenge, it can be a joyful experience and promote valuable skills for school and life success. The steps below include specific, practical strategies along with effective conversation starters to support a homework routine in cooperative ways without a daily struggle.
If you have a kindergartner or first grader, they will be brand new to the homework experience and you will have an opportunity to establish positive habits that will stay with them for years to come. If you have a second, third, or fourth grader, they will be bringing brand new academic challenges home like reading with competence and learning fractions. In addition, third and fourth graders may be expected to complete long-term projects by working on them over time. This will take a whole new level of planning and organization. These homework assignments can become a challenge if regular routines are not established.
Today, in the short term, establishing effective homework habits will create:
- greater cooperation and motivation;
- greater opportunities for connection and enjoyment as we each implement our respective roles and feel set up for success;
- trust in each other that we have the competence to complete our responsibilities with practice and care;
- reduced frustrations from a lack of organization, space, or resources; and
- learning about our child’s school curriculum.
Tomorrow, in the long term, homework helps your child:
- build skills in collaboration and cooperative goal setting;
- build skills in responsible decision making, hard work, and persistence;
- gains independence, life skills competence, and self-sufficiency; and
- develops positive learning habits that contribute directly to school success.
This five-step process helps your family establish a routine for homework. It also builds important skills in your child. The same process can be used to address other parenting issues as well (learn more about the process).
These steps are best done when you and your child are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child thinking about establishing a homework routine by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt your child’s thinking. You’ll also begin to better understand their thoughts, feelings, and challenges related to homework so that you can address them. In gaining input, your child:
- has the opportunity to think through the routine and problem solve through any challenges they may encounter ahead of time;
- has a greater stake in anything they’ve designed themselves (and with that sense of ownership, comes a greater responsibility for implementing the routine);
- will have more motivation to work together and cooperate because of their sense of ownership; and
- will be working with you on making informed decisions (understanding the reasons behind those decisions) about a critical aspect of their learning – their homework.
- Allowing your child some choices in establishing a homework routine will add to your child’s sense of control and motivation. Questions you could ask to better understand your child’s preferences include:
- “How do you want to spend your time after school?”
- “Would you like a snack first?”
- “Do you want to change into play clothes first?”
- “Do you want time to rest or run outside and play?”
- “Considering all of the activities that typically take place after school, when is the best time for you to do homework?”
- Experiment to figure out your plan for homework. Since the homework experience for younger children is new, you want to take a week and try out different times to see what works best with your child’s energy. Your child, for example, may say that they want to get homework done right after school only to find that they’re mentally worn and need a break. So, ask key questions and assign a first trial week. If one way doesn’t work, try out an after-dinner time and ask again: “Does this time work better?” We all have different energy cycles and times when we feel better able to focus, so work on discovering that rhythm with your child, and you’ll go a long way toward setting them up for success!
- Once you agree upon a time that makes sense for all, your attempts to keep that time sacred and consistent for homework will be important to ensure it becomes a habit and routine. If you are consistent, it can serve as a predictable, non-negotiable process. Your child knows what to expect and when to expect it.
- Take note of the time when your child has said it’s the best time to do homework. Set a timer to go off at that time. Instead of you calling, “Time for homework!” which may incite a battle, an inanimate, dispassionate object is alerting them. You can use a kitchen timer outside or inside.
If, by chance, your child has decided to do homework right after school, be certain to provide a healthy high protein snack first (peanut butter crackers, cheese stick and apples). You may even consider having this snack ready for the car ride home.
If you cannot offer a choice in the time of day homework is completed, then find another choice your child can make. For example, you could allow your child to decide on what space they use, or what snack they will have to accompany homework completion. Adding some level of choice to the process will prevent power struggles and help your child take ownership.
- Set up a space. Take some time to determine a consistent space for homework completion. You may look for:
- a well-lit location (or get a task lamp to light up a preferred spot);
- close proximity to your family’s living space or kitchen (wherever you’ll typically be so that you are never far to offer support);
- a hard work surface that can get dirty. (Your child may need to color with markers, use glue sticks, cut, and more. Make sure your surface is durable.)
- Work with your child to get the homework space ready. You’ll want to set up the space with:
- School supplies including loose leaf paper, crayons, glue sticks, scissors, pencils, pencil sharpeners, a children’s dictionary, and any other items you anticipate they might need.
- No clutter. In fact, a disorganized environment can distract from a child’s focus. So eliminate clutter, organize tools, and only have the essentials at hand. Invest in a few supply holders to keep tools neat and ready.
- A binder, bin, or other receptacle designated for school papers that are brought home and stay at home.
The goal of the homework space is to provide a well-equipped, consistent place for your child to fully focus on the work at hand. In this way, they’ll know what to expect. You won’t have to struggle over frustrations when they can’t find a school tool. And they’ll learn to take greater responsibility for their learning as they work with you to organize this space.
Make it fun! Designing a homework spot together can be an enjoyable experience. Allow your child to pick out their own organization bins and school tools. Perhaps they could make a sign with their name on it to designate the space. Or create a poster with an inspirational saying like, “Good things come from hard work!” Take a little time to label your new supply holders not only with names but also with stickers or drawings to allow your child to personalize it. All this can be motivating to a child.
- Create a family homework rule. Be sure and discuss (at a family dinner, for example) how the family can respect homework time. Consider if you want all siblings to do homework at the same time or not. If you want everyone to to do homework at the same time, consider what would need to be in place to make that happen. Either way, agree upon a homework rule that each will respect the person who is focused on his or her work and will be quiet in that area of the house.
Step 2. Teach New Skills
As parents, learning on which developmental milestones a child is working can help a parent know which tasks might be more difficult. Here are some examples as they relate to homework:4
- Five-year-olds like to help and follow rules. They typically see only one way of doing things (so if you suggest another, it might be difficult for them to understand and follow). They also may fear making mistakes so it’s important to send the message that “Everyone makes mistakes,” and “Mistakes are essential to learning.”
It’s a common challenge of homework time for a child to fear making mistakes. Homework is practice, it is intended as a time to try out an answer, get it wrong, and try again. Hang up a sign near your homework spot to remind your child, “Mistakes are part of learning.”
- Six-year-olds may be more apt to question your rules and refuse to proceed with the routine. But they are ambitious and eager to do well, so recognize small steps toward competence.
- Seven-year-olds crave routine and structure, so they may not be able to deal well with a chaotic household distracting from their focus.
- Eight-year-olds are highly social and thrive in cooperative learning groups. This could be a great time to introduce a study partner/friend where buddies complete homework together discussing the issues and supporting one another. (This would not work for every child, so it is important to know your child and their ways of learning and focusing!). Eight-year-olds also might simply enjoy talking about what they are working on with you more than in past years.
- Nine-year-olds are highly competent with fine motor skills but can become easily frustrated. They may need directions that contain one instruction. They require patience and can be hard on themselves.
- Ten-year-olds are growing rapidly so they require more movement. They have a strong sense of right and wrong and awareness of fairness issues. They can feel more competent with homework though challenging work may trigger anger and/or frustration.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child up for success. Teaching also involves modeling and practicing the positive behaviors you want to see, promoting skills, and preventing problems.
As a parent, it is easy to be confused about how best to support your child’s homework. Here are some specific ways you can define your role while ensuring your child has full ownership over their learning process.
- When your child calls you over to ask about a problem, ask prompting questions such as:
- “Where did you find this lesson in your book?”
- “Where else could you look to find the answer?”
- “What other ways can you think about your answer?”
Share your curiosity and interest in the subject, but do not provide an answer.
Parents do not need to be subject matter experts EVER! If you find that you are struggling to get the right answer for yourself, take a step back. Realize that you are stealing a learning opportunity away from your child. Instead ask yourself, “How can I provide the guidance and support for them to answer the question or solve the problem (even if they get it wrong)?”
- Lead your child to resources. Homework frequently looks like a worksheet that follows a chapter. And that chapter had all of the new concepts laid out that are being exercised on that worksheet. Because young children have not yet figured out basic habits of learning, they likely won’t know to go back into the book to search for the answers that are so often spelled out for them. Guide them right back to their text. Take a look together. Here are a few key tips:
- Focus on keywords so that they too can learn to spot key words.
- Attempt to read together. Young children who are learning to read may require help reading and understanding directions.
- Use your finger to underscore the text you are reading.
- Ask your child which words are most important when you are talking about a problem.
- Have your child underline or highlight those words in the instructions or in the specific question they are trying to answer so that you have a focusing point. Children need support in figuring out what is most important in making sense out of text of any kind.
- Research together. If you cannot find the source of the problem in your child’s books, then do some online research together. But be certain that you allow your child to drive the process. You might ask, “What should we look up or search for together?” These are the first seeds of strong research skills.
- Teach the essential “brain break.” Breaks do not represent weakness or a lack of persistence. In fact, our brains work better if we take frequent breaks.
Show proactively what a brain break might look like. Pretend play through it. Parent: sit with your pencil and paper and say aloud, “I am really starting to feel frustrated.” Then, move away from your seat and breathe deeply and loudly. Get a drink of water. Walk outside and breathe in the fresh air. Take your child with you to do this alongside you.
You might ask, “What else makes you feel better and comforted when you are frustrated?” Brainstorm a brief list of spaces, places, things, and actions that offer comfort when frustrated. Leave that list in your school tool homework space. It will serve as an ongoing resource when brain breaks are required.
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills, Confidence, and Develop Habits
Homework practice can take the form of cooperatively completing the task together, or trying out a task with you as a coach and ready support. Practice grows vital new brain connections that strengthen (and eventually form habits) each time your child practices.
- Use “Show me…” When a child learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say: “Show me you know what’s next when our timer goes off.” This can be used when you are in the after school routine and need that alert to move on to homework.
- Do a “brain break” dry run. In the midst of homework one night, maybe at a natural breaking point, play “brain break.” Practice moving away from homework. Get a drink of water. Walk outside and sniff the fresh air. Then, go back and ask, “Do you feel refreshed and ready or do you need a little more time?” If your child responds they need more time, then what would make them feel better? Perhaps a hug on a teddy bear or a couple of runs around the house might do the trick. This practice is super important if you plan to use it as a tool when your child is really upset.
- Recognize effort by using “I notice..” statements. For example, “I noticed how you got to work this afternoon when the timer sounded without my asking. That’s taking responsibility!”
- Proactively remind your child to help them be successful. The challenges we tend to have in our homework routines seem to recur day after day. We don’t need a crystal ball to predict. We know exactly what they are and when they going to happen. So, just before they do, remind in a gentle, non-public way. You may whisper in your child’s ear, “Remember what we can do next to figure out the problem? What is it?”
The best way to turnaround a misbehavior is by recognizing when and how your child makes good choices and acts positively in similar circumstances. Children need to learn what to do as well as what not to do.
Resist the temptation to nag. Children often need more time to perform tasks that challenge them even if we believe they are simple and don’t require much time. Be sure to wait long enough for your child to show you they are competent. Your waiting could make all the difference in whether they are able to do what you need them to do.
Step 4. Support Your Child’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child several new positive learning habits so that they understand how to perform them. You’ve practiced together. Now, you can offer support when it’s needed by reteaching, monitoring, coaching, and, when appropriate, applying logical consequences. Parents naturally offer support as they see their child fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Promote a learning attitude. Show every confidence that your child can learn anything with time and practice (because they truly can!). Your comments and reflections will matter greatly in how competent they feel to meet any learning challenge.
If we groan that it’s homework time, surely our children will groan too. Become aware of your own reactions to homework. Be sure that the tone and attitude you bring to homework is one of digging in, being curious, and learning.
A research study noted whether mothers’ comments during homework completion were controlling or supporting autonomy and competence.5 The researchers concluded that those children who brought worries about their ability to perform had a heightened sensitivity to their mothers’ comments. Moms who supported their autonomy – “I know you can do it!” – and demonstrated that they believed in their child’s ability to do the work predicted increased achievement over time. However, those mothers who were more controlling in their comments – “I need to check your work. That’s not right.” – predicted less engagement and lower achievement in their children.
- Ask key questions when your child struggles. You could say, “It looks like you feel stuck. Is there another way you could approach the problem?” or “How are you feeling about homework tonight?”
- Coach on communications. You might notice your child struggling and getting stuck even with your support. You might then say, “Seems like you are having trouble figuring this problem out and cannot find the answer in your resources. This would be a good time to ask your teacher about this problem. You might say, ‘Mrs. Johnson, I struggled with this one. Can you help me?’”
- Stay engaged. It can be motivating for a child when a parent does their own paperwork alongside them keeping them company. Working together, after all, is much more enjoyable than working alone.
- Allow for and reflect on real world consequences. If you see a mistake on your child’s worksheet, don’t correct it. You’ll be taking away a valuable learning opportunity. You could leave it alone altogether or ask once, “Do you feel like this is right or are you struggling with it?” If your child confirms it’s the answer they want to give, then allow them the experience of their teacher correcting it. It’s an important learning opportunity. It may open a door to extra support from their teacher.
- Apply logical consequences when needed. Logical consequences should come soon after the negative behavior and need to be provided in a way that maintains a healthy relationship. Rather than punishment, a consequence is about supporting the learning process. First, get your own emotions in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your emotions are in check you are able to provide logical consequences that fit the behavior. Second, invite your child into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your child is not holding up their end of the bargain (unless it is a matter of them not knowing how), then apply a logical consequence as a teachable moment.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
Though adults tend to forget, our attention is our child’s sweetest reward. It’s easy to get caught up in the busyness and business of getting homework completed and checking it off the list for the day, for example. But if your child is working hard to complete their assignments, it will be worth your while to call it out. After all, your recognition can go a long way to promoting more of the same positive behaviors and expanding your child’s sense of competence and responsibility. Add to your child’s motivation to work hard by the following simple steps.
- Recognize and call out when it is going well. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When children are completing their homework tasks on time, for example, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I noticed you completed your homework today on your own in the time we agreed upon. Yes! Excellent.”
Be specific. “Good job” seems to not carry much meaning. However, a specific compliment about a pointed behavior – “You put your game away when the timer went off and got out your work. Love seeing that!” – can promote more of the same.
If you focus only on outcomes – “You got your worksheet done” – you miss the chance to influence the process. Better to say – “You took a brain break and came back and worked through that challenging problem.”
- Recognize small steps along the way. Don’t wait for the big accomplishments – like the entire homework routine to go smoothly – in order to recognize. Remember that your recognition can work as a tool to promote more positive behaviors. They need to happen along the way. Find small ways your child is making an effort and let them know you see them.
- Build celebrations into your routine. For example, “We’ll get our business taken care of first with our homework, and then, we’ll run around outside or take a bike ride.” Include hugs in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Avoid stickers, gifts, or other physical rewards as bait for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on children. When you remove the candy, for example, have they internalized the skills and also the sense of responsibility for performing them? There’s less of a chance if you’ve offered a “bribe.” Focus on your attention as the best reward.
Engaging in these five steps is an investment that builds your skills as an effective parent to use on many other issues and builds important skills that will last a lifetime for your child. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children to become more self-aware, to deepen their social awareness, to exercise their self-management skills, to work on their relationship skills, and to demonstrate and practice responsible decision making.