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Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent or someone in a parenting role, you play an essential role in your 13-year-old child’s/teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-child relationship, and setting up a daily homework routine 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 children/teens, homework is a nightly reality. And, research shows a parent or someone in a parenting role plays a key role. Children/Teens who have a parent or someone in a parenting role involved in supporting learning at home and 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 such involvement.1 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 You may discover outdated and uncompleted assignments crumpled in your child’s/teen’s backpack. Your child/teen may procrastinate on a long-term project until it becomes a crisis the night before it’s due. Questioning their work may result 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 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. Their homework assignments can become your daily challenges if you don’t create regular routines with input from your 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 you each implement your respective roles and feel set up for success;
- trust in each other that you have the competence to complete your responsibilities with practice and care;
- less frustration due to better organization, space, and resources; and
- opportunities to learn about your 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 done best 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 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 their 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. Everyone has different energy cycles and times when they 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 is 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 a 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 them. 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 to 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 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 a parent or someone in a parenting role, it’s easy to forget that your child/teen is 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 your child/teen is working on can help you know which tasks might be more difficult. Here are some examples as they relate to homework.2
- 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.3
- 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. Your 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 or someone in a parenting role, 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.
- 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, human brains work better if they are given 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 feelings 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.
- It’s a common challenge of homework time – particularly for middle school age students – to want to avoid failure and to 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.”
- You 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. Ask yourself how you can 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?
Step 3. Practice to Grow Skills 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…” statements. 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, children/teens get feedback on what they are not doing right, but how often do you recognize when they are working on getting better? Recognize effort by saying “I notice…” statements like, “I notice how you got to work this afternoon when the timer sounded without me asking – that’s taking responsibility!”
- Proactively remind. Often the challenges in a homework routine seem to recur day after day and may be predictable. You might know exactly what they are and when they are going to happen. 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?”
Resist the temptation to nag. Children/Teens may require more time to work on an assignment than you 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. 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 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.
- 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 feelings in check. Not only is this good modeling, when your feelings 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.
If you groan that it’s homework time, surely they will groan as well. 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.4 The researchers concluded that those children/teens 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/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/teens.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child/teen is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your child/teen is working to grow their skills – even in small ways – it will be worth your while to recognize it. Your recognition can go a long way to promoting positive behaviors and helping your child/teen manage their feelings. Your recognition also promotes safe, secure, and nurturing relationships — a foundation for strong communication and a healthy relationship with you as they grow.
You can recognize your child’s/teen’s efforts with praise, high fives, and hugs. Praise is most effective when you name the specific behavior of which you want to see more. For example, “You took a brain break and came back and worked through that challenging problem — that was a great idea!”
Avoid bribes. A bribe is a promise for a behavior, while praise is special attention after the behavior. While bribes may work in the short term, praise grows lasting motivation for good behavior and effort. For example, instead of saying, “If you work on your homework right after school, I will let you choose the game we play after dinner” (which is a bribe), try recognizing the behavior after. “You worked hard to complete your homework. Love seeing that!”
- 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 your 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.”
- 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 as ways to appreciate one another.
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/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.