Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your child’s/teen’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/Teens ages 11-14 are in the process of adapting early school age learning habits to their more demanding workload. They are establishing critical learning habits, including how they approach homework assignments, that will extend throughout their school years. For most students and their parents, homework is a nightly reality. And, research shows parents do indeed play a key role. High achieving students are more likely motivated by parents and to have a well-structured and organized place in their home environment than those lower achievers.1 Children/Teens 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/teens without involved parents.2 Indeed, the best predictor of students’ academic achievement is parental involvement.
Yet, there are challenges. You may discover outdated and uncompleted assignments crumpled in your child’s/teen’s backpack. Or your child/teen may procrastinate on a long-term project until it becomes a crisis the night before it’s due. If we question their work, children/teens may engage us in power struggles when they have other goals in mind.
While getting a regular homework routine going might be a challenge, it can be a positive 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.
Children/Teens ages 11-14 years old will require managing a larger and more complex workload and need new study skills. This will take a whole new level of planning and organization. These homework assignments can become our daily challenges if we don’t create regular routines with input from our children/teens in advance, clarify roles and responsibilities, and establish a plan for success.
Today, in the short term, homework routines can 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/teen’s school curriculum.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your child/teen:
- builds skills in collaboration and cooperative goal setting;
- builds 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/teen. 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/teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Child/Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your child/teen thinking about establishing a homework routine by asking them open-ended questions. You’ll help prompt their 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/teen:
- 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/teen some choices in establishing a homework routine will add to your child’s/teen’s sense of control and motivation. Questions you could ask to better understand their preferences include:
- “When is the best time for you to do homework?”
- “What are things (like having a snack, taking breaks) that help you get your homework done?”
- Prepare for difficulties. Ask “I know you’ve missed completing assignments in the past. What helps you stay on top of homework and what gets in your way?”
- Experiment to figure out your plan. Since your child/teen has changed since their younger years along with the demands of homework, it’s an ideal time to revisit the question of when your child/teen feels they’ll be at their best to tackle homework in the hours after school. They could have greater complexities than ever before with extracurriculars encroaching on free time, so there may not be a whole lot of opportunity for choice in the timing. But if there is, try out different times to see what works best with their energy. We all have different energy cycles and times when we feel better able to focus, so work on discovering that rhythm with your child/teen, 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/teen knows what to expect and when to expect it.
Take note of the time when your child/teen has said it’s their 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 or collaboratively set an alarm on their cell phone or iPad.
If your child/teen has decided to do homework right after school, be certain to provide a healthy high protein snack first (peanut butter crackers, cheese sticks, and apples). The social stress and expectations of school may be draining and could wear on a child’s/teen’s motivation to continue to work hard through the evening. Be sure they have the fuel necessary (through proper nutrition and a good night’s rest) to get through their work.
If you cannot offer a choice in the time of day homework is completed, then find another choice your child/teen can make. For example, you could allow them to decide 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/teen 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 (they may need to make a mess; pick a durable surface)
- Work with your child/teen to get the space ready. You’ll want to set up the space with:
- School supplies including loose leaf paper, pens, pencils, pencil sharpeners, a dictionary, and any other items you anticipate they might need.
- No clutter. In fact, a disorganized environment can distract from their 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 or bin or other receptacle designated for school papers that are brought home and stay at home.
- The goal of your homework space is to provide a well-equipped, consistent place for your child/teen to fully focus on the work at hand. In this way, they’ll know what they can 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/teen 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/teen to personalize it. All this can be motivating.
When offering choices in designing a homework space that works best for your child/teen, they may prefer to set up their work space in their bedroom because of their developmental desire for greater independence and privacy. If they do this, be sure you make a point of stopping in a few times – not to check up on them or play “Gotcha!” – but to offer your support. Also, be sure you establish clear boundaries and distinctions between screen time for homework and entertainment/socializing screen time.
- 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 their work and will be quiet in that area of the house.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As parents, it’s easy to forget that our children/teens are learning brand new study skills including project management, organization, and planning. Though they may be assigned work they are capable of doing, they may not be prepared to manage the larger workload. Because so much is new, expectations are greater, and they feel like they should already know it all, they can become overwhelmed and frustrated. Learning about what developmental milestones a child/teen is working on can help a parent know which tasks might be more difficult. Here are some examples as they relate to homework:3
- Eleven-year-olds have lots of physical energy to expend, so they may need some time after school to move. They tend to desire staying up late, which can intrude on school goals, so set clear limits on screen times before bed and establish bedtimes based on reasonable sleep requirements. Eleven year-olds require 9 to 11 hours of sleep depending upon the individual.4
It’s a common challenge of homework time – particularly for middle school age students – to want to avoid failure and fear making mistakes. In reality, because 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/teen, “Mistakes are part of learning.”
- Twelve-year-olds are undergoing a significant growth spurt so they’ll also require nutritious food and their required night’s sleep. They thrive with leadership opportunities, so when you see those chances or can reframe assignments in terms of leadership, that’s ideal. Twelve-year-olds are gaining more sophisticated ideas about themselves, others, and the world, and will be eager to share those ideas with parents, so your listening ear is important.
- Thirteen-year-olds can become particularly sensitive to real or perceived criticism from you or from classmates. They can become moody. They are seeking their independence and are ready for more freedom. Look for ways to offer independence and freedom paired with the new responsibilities that accompany those chances.
- Fourteen-year-olds may feel and act like they “know it all,” but they still look to you to set clear boundaries and to offer guidance. They may distance themselves requiring greater independence. Our job as parents is to realize this and not take it personally. Be there to listen with an open mind when they are ready to talk. They may be highly resistant to what they might view as lectures from adults. They may be more willing to admit when they have made a mistake, however, which can be a great asset at homework time. They are eager to investigate the larger world, so assignments can be highly engaging if related to that interest.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your child/teen 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/teen’s homework. Here are some specific ways you can define your role while ensuring your child/teen has full ownership over their learning process.
- When your child/teen calls you over to ask about a problem, ask prompting questions such as:
- “What is your guess about the answer?”
- “Is there another place you could find the answer?”
- “Is there another way to 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/teen. Instead ask yourself, “How can I provide the guidance and support for them to answer the question or solve the problem themselves (even if they get it wrong)?”
Though you may make comments you feel are empathizing with your child’s/teen’s predicament, be careful! Criticizing the work assigned, the teacher who assigned it, or the school’s policies will become demotivating for your child/teen. After all, why should they work hard if you don’t agree with what’s been assigned?
- Lead your child/teen to resources. Though you may feel like you’ve redirected your child/teen multiple times to the resources in front of them, treating each experience as a fresh opportunity to search for answers can help both of you keep an open mind about the work at hand. Frequently, homework will relate to the resources they already have from school – whether it’s a novel or a textbook. So when they just can’t find an answer and ask for your help, 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 and review together. Because text is denser and more complex, children/teens may feel overwhelmed with information and struggle to focus on the most important points.
- Ask your child/teen which points are most important when you are talking about a problem.
- Have them 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.
- Research together. If you cannot find the source of the problem in your child’s/teen’s books, then do some online research together. But be certain that you allow your child/teen 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. Their young minds need processing time particularly as they are faced with taking in so much new information. In addition, the pressure of academic expectations can build. Their emotions may spill over at homework time when they are safe at home with you (and not needing to keep it together as much as at school).
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/teen practices.
- Use “I’d love to challenge you…” When a child/teen learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say: “I’d love to pose a challenge to see if you can focus on math homework for the next seven minutes. Let’s set a timer.” 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, practice a “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 they say they need more time, then ask what would make them feel better? Perhaps getting a snack or taking a walk might do the trick. This practice is super important if you plan to use it as a tool when your child/teen is really upset.
- Recognize effort. Frequently, we offer feedback on what our children/teens are not doing right, but how often do we recognize when they are working on getting better? Recognize effort by saying “I notice…” like: “I notice how you got to work this afternoon when the timer sounded without my asking – that’s taking responsibility!”
- Proactively remind. The challenges we tend to have in our homework routines seem to recur day after day. So just before they do, remind in a gentle, non-public way. You may whisper in your child’s/teen’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/teen makes good choices and acts positively in similar circumstances. They need to learn what to do as well as what not to do.
Resist the temptation to nag. Children/Teens may require more time to work on an assignment than we feel is necessary. But they need the time they need. Be sure to wait long enough for them 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/Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your child/teen 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/teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Promote a learning attitude. Show every confidence that your child/teen 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 they 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/teens who brought worries about their ability to perform had a heightened sensitivity to their mother’s comments. Moms who supported their autonomy – “I know you can do it!” – and demonstrated that they believed in their child’s/teen’s ability to do the work showed increased achievement over time. However, those mothers who were more controlling in their comments – “I need to check your work. That’s not right.” – fostered less engagement and lower achievement in their children.
- Ask key questions when your child/teen struggles. You could say, “It looks like you feel stuck. Is there another way you could approach the problem? How are you feeling about homework tonight?”
- Coach on communications. You might notice your child/teen 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. Are there resources we haven’t thought about? This would be a good time to ask your teacher about this problem. How might you ask for help?”
- Stay engaged. It can be motivating for a child/teen 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/teen’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/teen 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/teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your child/teen 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 still our child’s/teen’s sweetest reward (though, at times, they may not show it). 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. But, if your child/teen is working hard to complete 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/teen’s sense of competence and responsibility. Add to your child’s/teen’s motivation to work hard by the following actions.
- Notice. It may seem obvious, but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When our child/teen is buzzing through their homework tasks and on time, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed: “I notice you not only completed your homework but turned it in as well – 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. Find small ways your child/teen 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 take a bike ride.” Include high fives, fist bumps, and hugs in your repertoire of ways to appreciate one another.
Avoid gifts or other physical rewards for performance. These actually have a de-motivating effect on children/teens. When you remove the extra screen time or money, 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. This is an essential strategy in discipline for skill building.
Engaging in these fives 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/teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for children/teens 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.