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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 18-year-old teen’s success. There are intentional ways to grow a healthy parent-teen relationship, and setting up a daily homework routine provides a perfect opportunity.
Teens and emerging young adults age 18 are in the process of adapting their early school-age learning habits to meet their 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 may be challenged not only by having to tackle new, more difficult content, but also figuring out how to work on the project over time. This can be a great test of patience.
For most teens, homework is a nightly and ongoing reality. And, research shows a parent or someone in a parenting role plays a key role. Teens who have a parent or someone in a parenting role involved in supporting their 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 teens without.1 Indeed, the best predictor of students’ academic achievement is parental involvement.
Yet, there are challenges. You may discover outdated and incomplete assignments crumpled in your teen’s backpack.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. 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.
Teens and emerging young adults are 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. Schoolwork and school goals can become your daily challenges if you don’t create regular routines with input from your teen 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;
- opportunities to learn about your 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 done best when you and your child/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 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 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 questions like:
- “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 getting your homework done?”
- Experiment to figure out a plan. Your teen has changed since their younger years along with the demands of their 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. Ask key questions and assign a first trial week. If one time doesn’t work, try out an after-dinner time and ask again: “Does this time work better?” Everyone has different energy cycles and times when they 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 are important to ensure it becomes a habit and routine. If you are consistent, it can serve as a predictable, non-negotiable process. Your teen will know what to expect and when to expect it.
- Take note of the time your teen says it 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 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.
- Your teen may 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.
- 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 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.
- 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 them. 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 set up 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 a parent or someone in a parenting role, it’s easy to forget that your teen is 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 your teen is working on can help you know which tasks might be more difficult.2,3 Here are some examples as they relate to homework.
- Fifteen-year-olds are in the final year of 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 organization 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 soon 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 or someone in a parenting role, 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 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?”
- “What other places could you find the answer?”
- “What are other ways to think about your answer?”
- Share your curiosity and interest in the subject but do not provide an answer.
- Plan and schedule. You can go ahead and anticipate that multiple school and life goals along with short and long-term schoolwork 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).
- Write out a list of school and life goals. This may need to be revisited quarterly as classes and priorities change.
- 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 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 your teen 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.
- Focus on keywords so that they 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 it 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, human brains work better if they are given frequent breaks. Your teen’s young mind needs 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.
- If you take brain breaks from your own work, what do you do? Share some success stories of how it’s worked for you!
- 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 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). Ask yourself how you can encourage them to take responsibility to meet with their teacher 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?
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 teen practices.
- Use “I’d love to see…” statements. 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 taking 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 me asking. That’s taking leadership!”
- 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 teen’s ear, “Remember what we can do next to figure out the problem? What is it?”
Resist the temptation to nag. 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 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.
- 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 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 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.
If you groan that it’s homework time, surely your 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.4 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.
Step 5. Recognize Effort and Quality to Foster Motivation
No matter how old your child is, your praise and encouragement are their sweetest reward.
If your 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 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 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. Well done!”
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 get your homework completed before dinner, I will let you have extra screen time 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 teen is 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.”
- 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 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 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.