Now Is the Right Time!
As a parent, you play an essential role in your teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-teen relationship and setting up a daily routine surrounding homework provides a perfect opportunity.
Teens and emerging young adults ages 15-19 are in the process of adapting their early school age learning habits to meet the more demanding workload. They are in the process of establishing critical learning habits including how they approach research and study that will extend throughout their school years. In addition to managing daily homework assignments, fifteen-to-nineteen-year-olds will be assigned longer-term projects as well. These may include research, writing, coordinating with a group, and reading novels or longer works of nonfiction. Frequently, teachers leave the planning and organizing of those projects up to the students. In these situations, teens have not fully built project management skills so it can become a significant challenge for them as they not only have to tackle new, more challenging content, but they also have to figure out how to work on the project over time. This can be a great test of parents’ patience.
For most students and their parents, homework is a nightly and ongoing reality. And, research shows parents do indeed play a key role. High achieving students are more likely motivated by themselves, parents, and teachers who have regular homework that is well structured and organized in a bright home environment than compared with lower achievers.1 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 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 You may discover outdated and uncompleted assignments crumpled in your teen’s backpack. Or, your teen may procrastinate on a long-term project until it becomes a crisis the night before it’s due. If we question their work, teens may engage us in power struggles when they have other goals in mind.
Though the challenge of our involvement with this age group can be daunting, considering our young adult’s strong desire for independence, it’s well worth our effort and consideration. After all, we’ll be setting the tone for our relationship when they leave our household. We want them to feel secure in our attachment and trust that we’ll always support them even and especially during their toughest moments in school and in life.
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.
Teens and emerging young adults will require managing a larger and more complex workload and new study skills along with longer-term projects. This will take a whole new level of planning and organization. Layered in with the day-to-day school assignments, there may also be future academic goals they want to reach (like going to college) which will require planning and incremental action steps. School work and school goals can become our daily challenges if we don’t create regular routines with input from our 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;
- learning about our teen’s school curriculum; and
- added daily peace of mind.
Tomorrow, in the long term, your 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 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 teen are not tired or in a rush.
Step 1. Get Your Teen Thinking by Getting Their Input
You can get your 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 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.
- Declare learning independence! Begin by letting your teen or emerging young adult know that they are in charge of their own learning and you are there to be a support whenever they request it. You know that a consistent routine will help everyone in the family respect your teen’s time and schedule when it comes to getting down to work.
Because one of your teen’s top developmental priorities is declaring independence, articulating and recognizing that you will respect that priority is key to success with this age group!
- Allowing choice will add to your teen’s sense of control and motivation to do the work during the allotted time. Ask open-ended questions. You might just start by asking:
- “Considering all of the activities that typically take place after school, when is the best time for you to do homework?”
- “How can I be helpful in supporting you to get your homework done?”
- Experiment to figure out your plan. Your teen has changed since their younger years along with the demands of homework, so it’s an ideal time to revisit the question of when your teen feels they’ll be at their best to tackle homework in the hours after school. Do 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 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 teen knows what to expect and when to expect it.
Take note of the time when your teen says is best to do homework. Agree upon a timer that can go off at that time each day. 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 tablet.
If, by chance, your teen has decided to do homework right after school, be certain they know to have a healthy high protein snack first (peanut butter crackers, cheese, fruit, etc.). The social stress and expectations of school may be draining and could wear on a 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.
This is the age when teens feel like it’s necessary to stay up all night studying for a test particularly if they have procrastinated studying. Know and share the facts! Your teen is more likely to get a higher score with a good night’s rest than with a full night of studying and less sleep.
- Set up space. Take some time to help them determine a consistent space for homework completion. You may look for:
- A well-lit location (or get a 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 durable work surface that can get dirty.
- Work with your teen to get the space ready. They’ll want to set up the space with:
- School supplies including loose leaf paper, pens, pencils, pencil sharpeners, a dictionary, and any other items they anticipate they might need.
- No clutter. In fact, a disorganized environment can distract from a teen’s focus. So, work with them to 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.
- Work with them to consider whether it might make sense to have a water bottle at the ready to hydrate while working.
- The goal of their homework space is to provide a well-equipped, consistent place for your 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.
- 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.
Make it fun! Designing a homework spot together can be an enjoyable experience. Allow your 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 teen to personalize it. All this can be motivating as they make the space their own.
When offering choices in designing a homework space that works best for your teen, they may prefer to setup a workspace 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 – but to offer your support.
At the beginning of the school year, before you have to turn around a bad habit, talk about screen time as it relates to getting homework accomplished. Again, seek input. Ask, “What do you think our rules should be around cell phone use or friend communication during homework time? When is it appropriate and helpful? When is it distracting?” Talk about it to agree on a policy that seems reasonable to all.
Step 2. Teach New Skills by Interactive Modeling
As parents, it’s easy to forget that our teens are learning brand new study skills involving 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 teen is working on can help a parent know which tasks might be more difficult. Strategies can also be formed around developmental themes.3,4 Here are some examples as they relate to homework:
- Fifteen-year-olds are in the final year of the major physical changes that occur in puberty. They may feel a bit insecure and sensitive to criticism. They may be preoccupied with peer interactions and impressions. Homework and academic goals are less important than socializing. Studying with friends may not work well at this age because your teen may only focus on socializing and not on the work at hand. Though peers are highly influential, teens at this age still look to you for encouragement that they can handle the bigger expectations and work load. They may request your support with organizational and planning for longer term projects or studying. But, because they are still attempting to assert their independence, they want to own their work and only desire your active involvement when they seek it. Also, strong friendships can help motivate your teen to work hard in school so your coaching and support of their connections with friends can also make a difference with their academic goal achievement.
- Sixteen-year-olds are at the end of the awkwardness of their new physical being and are beginning to feel and appear more confident in themselves and who they are. They may have new important goals outside of school like learning to drive, getting a driver’s license, getting a part-time job, or trying out a romantic partnership. All these are critical steps for their exploration of adult life. But, these goals have to be balanced with academic goals. So, sharing and discussing possible strategies for juggling multiple goals along with how those goals can be managed effectively can help this age group.
- Seventeen-year-olds have more serious pursuits on their mind and may become highly focused on their academic and life goals as they consider the fact that their graduation is coming up and they’ll need to face life after high school. Some may be applying to colleges, and for those, that goal can require a lot of time and focus studying and applying to schools. It can become a highly stressful time, so your support during this time is critical to not only help them (as they request) organize and manage the process but also deal in healthy ways with the stress surrounding the process.
- Eighteen-year-olds and nineteen-year-olds are now considered emerging adults gaining the ability to vote and socially recognized as adults. Many will be entering college with a brand new set of academic goals and expectations. Because they are on the threshold of adulthood and perhaps facing living on their own for the first time, they may be eager to discuss the complexities of adult responsibilities. Most of all, they’ll need your listening and reflecting back. At times, they may exude confidence, while at other times they may feel highly insecure and run to you needing comfort and security. This is a time for redefining your relationship, so paying close attention to their needs, offering your assurance that they are ready and can do it on their own, all while allowing for their independence are some of your most important roles.
Teaching is different than just telling. Teaching builds basic skills, grows problem-solving abilities, and sets your 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 teen’s homework. Here are some specific ways you can define your role while ensuring your teen has full ownership over their learning process.
- Ask open-ended questions. When your teen calls you over to ask about a problem, ask prompting questions such as,
- “Where did you find this lesson in your book?”
- “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 teen. Instead, consider 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). How can you encourage them to take responsibility to meet with their teach after school or talk it over with peers?
Though you may make comments you feel are empathizing with your teen’s predicament, be careful! Criticizing the work assigned, the teacher who assigned it, or the school’s policies will become demotivating for your teen. After all, why should they work hard if you don’t agree with what’s been assigned?
- Plan and schedule. You can go ahead and anticipate that multiple school and life goals along with short and long-term school work and projects are enough to challenge an experienced project manager. Despite the fact that your teen longs for independence, they can truly use your support in managing their goals and plotting out their action steps to meet them. Pick out a calendar together (a physical calendar or planner is preferable to a digital one since the physical act of writing seals the schedule more firmly into the creator’s brain). Now, write out a list of school and life goals. This may need to be revisited quarterly as classes and priorities change. Next, place deadlines in the schedule, guesstimate together the amount of time needed to work toward goals, and place milestones or benchmarks in the calendar to help your young adult see how much needs to be accomplished each day or each week. This kind of planning and organizing can go a long way toward helping your teen achieve their school and life goals today while establishing valuable practices and habits for their future.
One of the best investments you can make for this age group, as mentioned, is a planner. Visit an office supply store together and help them pick out a favorite one along with highlighters, pens, file folders, index cards and any other organizational supplies you think might be useful. When you get back home, work on plotting out deadlines together for papers, projects, and studying as a model example for the coming year. Show your teen how adults operate in the work world.
- Lead to resources. Though you may feel like you’ve redirected your 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, teens may feel overwhelmed with information and struggle to focus on the most important points.
- Ask your teen which points are most important when you are talking about a problem.
- Have your teen 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.
- Note that symbolism and abstract meanings may be more of a struggle for this age group. Abstract thinking is being developed but it’s new so requires some exercise. Have patience and be aware that it’s normal and related to a development milestone.
- Research together. If you cannot find the source of the problem in your teen’s books, then do some online research together. But, be certain that you allow your 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. Our teens’ 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.
If you take brain breaks from your own work, what do you do? Share some success stories of how it’s worked for you!
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 teen practices.
- Use “I’d love to see…” When a teen learns a new ability, they are eager to show it off! Give them that chance. Say: “I’d love to see how you problem solve this in a different way.” This can be used when your teen feels stuck or is missing important steps.
- 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 your teen responds they need more time, then what would make them feel better? Perhaps getting a snack or talking a walk might do the trick. This practice is important if you plan to use it as a tool when your teen is really upset.
- Recognize effort. Recognize effort by saying “I notice…” statements, like “I notice how you got to work this afternoon without my asking. That’s taking leadership!”
- 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 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 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. 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 Teen’s Development and Success
At this point, you’ve taught your 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 teen fumble with a situation in which they need help. This is no different.
- Promote a learning attitude. Show every confidence that your 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 our teen 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.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 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 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. 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 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 teen’s paper, 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 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 teen into a discussion about the expectations established in Step 2. Third, if you feel that your 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 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, for example. But, if your teen 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 teen’s sense of competence and responsibility. Add to your teen’s motivation to work hard with the following actions.
- Notice! It may seem obvious but it’s easy not to notice when all is moving along smoothly. When our teens are buzzing through their homework tasks and on time, a short, specific call out is all that’s needed. “I notice you completed your homework today. 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 paper done” – you miss the chance to influence the process. Better to say – “You took a brain break, 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 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 teens. When you remove the 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. Your attention and recognition add to their feelings of competence. 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 teen. Throughout this tool, there are opportunities for 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.