Setting Up for Homework Success
I am always doing that which I cannot do, in order that I may learn how to do it.
– Pablo Picasso
“I am not doing my homework. No way!” said E. If you have school-age children, certainly a similar refrain has been asserted in your household – possibly on numerous occasions and maybe even every night after school. Education Week recently highlighted a study by the National Center on Families Learning who found that 60% of American families surveyed struggled to help their children with their homework.1
Additionally, more than 25 percent* admit the reason is that they are too
busy, up from just over 20 percent in 2013. Parents also identified not understanding the subject matter (33.5 percent) and pushback from their kids (41 percent) as reasons for having trouble with homework help.2
Though educators may debate the merit of homework, it is a reality for most children and their parents. And some times homework is not enjoyable for kids. The tasks are typically reinforcing and practicing new material delivered during the school day. They may be challenging for a child who has only done the work along with his classmates and teacher’s assistance to try applying new concepts on his own. He may have low to no motivation, feeling embarrassed to be uncertain and making mistakes in front of his “all-knowing” parents.
Though schools focus mostly on ensuring kids get their homework accomplished, parents are thrown into the world of homework with little to no communication about the teacher’s hopes or expectations for their role. Entering first grade this year, we heard from E’s new teacher, “There will be homework each night,” but that was the extent of our guidance. So we are left to our own devices to figure out what role to play and how to be the best support at home.
There are numerous ways that you can set your child up for homework success. Here are a few ideas.
Adopt a learning attitude.
We, as parents, bring our own attitudes about homework to our children’s experience. From my high school days, I can’t seem to shake the terror of reaching 9:00 p.m. the night before the due date of a long-term project. I had no clue how to tackle it and had barely begun. I have to really watch that my own sigh is not voiced when it’s time to get homework done. I know if my words and actions convey that homework is a drag, my son is certainly is going to view it in the same way. That attitude will add to our collective struggle to get it accomplished. Homework can be a critical step in the learning process for kids if viewed in that light. They’ve had support all day and now they have to take those new skills and apply them on their own. I remind myself of this and try to bring an attitude of confidence with an assertion that it’s essential to learning. This is the attitude I want my son to internalize so I know it’s the attitude I have to first model and project as he attempts the learning challenges before him.
Allow for choices and set expectations.
Before establishing a homework routine, ask your child’s preferences. You may want to ask the following.
How do you want to spend your time after school?
Would you like a snack first?
Do you want to change into play clothes first?
Do you want time to rest or run outside and play?
Considering all of the activities that typically take place after school, when is the best time for you to do homework?
E choose to do homework while I am preparing dinner and after he’s had a snack, changed clothes and had time to play. I was a child who liked to get my homework done immediately so that I could have the rest of the night free. Allowing choice will add to children’s sense of control and motivation to do the work during the allotted time. If, after a time, it doesn’t seem to be working, you can always re-evaluate together. Make adjustments. If you can be collaborative about setting up the time and space for homework, your child will be more likely to feel a sense of ownership over the process and less like they must battle you each night.
Use a timer.
Take note of when your child has said it’s his best time of the afternoon/evening 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 him. You can use a kitchen timer outside or inside. If you are consistent about the homework routine, it can serve as a predictable, non-negotiable process. Your child knows what to expect and when to expect it.
Set up a conducive space.
It doesn’t matter whether you have the perfect desk or not. What matters is that your child has a designated cleaned off, consistent space in which to do homework. And that he have the tools necessary to complete the work. Create that space in your living area or in a place near to what you will be doing. E’s place is set up on our dining room table. I can cook dinner next door in the kitchen and easily walk in and out to see if he needs support. Decide together on the tools you’ll need at the ready in advance. Here are some space considerations.
- Make certain that it’s a well-lit space. If not, then get a task lamp to utilize for homework.
- Provide a hard work surface on which to write. Make sure the surface can get dirty with glue, markers or other mediums used.
- Provide all likely homework tools (pencil, crayons, glue stick, markers, ruler, abacus, highlighter, dictionary, calculator).
- Eliminate distractions from the work space (books, other papers, magazines, toys).
- Create a folder or binder for all returned papers including graded homework. Keep it handy so that if it could help your child to refer back to a lesson, they can easily look up prior work.
- Make sure it’s a quiet space. Turn off televisions or radios. Create rules for siblings about playing in other spaces and respecting homework quiet time.
Consider your role in assisting.
How much do you want to help? What level of involvement should you have in completing assignments? What if your child just can’t figure out what they are doing? If learning is the ultimate objective of homework, then the majority of figuring out needs to come from the child. You can facilitate that learning by asking good questions, leading them to resources and as is our case right now, helping sound out words. Providing answers does not help a child learn. But what if you see a mistake? It may be wise to ask your child to reconsider her answer and ask questions about how she might rethink her answer. But what if she refuses to rethink her mistake? The best way to ensure that she learns is to allow her to make mistakes so that they can be corrected by her teacher. It may help clue her teacher into the fact that she needs more support in this area. Mistakes can be a critical part of the learning process.
And what if their homework exceeds your ability to help? I realize that someday math homework certainly will exceed my abilities to understand and contribute without fully re-learning calculus myself. So what do you do? Make sure that her texts, formulas and explanations are at the ready. Encourage your child to do her research. If you don’t understand something, get in the habit of looking it up. Researching it with her can show her how to find key points to apply to her work. If the work is continually challenging to her and to you, communicate with the teacher. Ask if the teacher feels she might need extra support. The teacher may provide comfort by letting you know that all students are struggling. Or else, he may suggest that your child receive tutoring or time with an intervention specialist to get the help she needs to be successful.
Communicate with the teacher during parent-teacher conferences.
Parent-teacher conferences are an opportune time to discuss homework. Ask how the teacher perceives your child is doing on homework. And ask if there are any recommendations she might make on how you can support homework at home? Including a conversation about homework in your parent-teacher conference can help give the teacher insight on what is taking place at home and also, give you valuable input on her expectations. For parents who want to read more on Parent-Teacher conferences, check out “Parent-Teacher Conversations.” For educators, check out The Harvard Family Research Project’s list of five resources to support educators in their conversations with parents on student progress.
And what if there is a frustration tantrum?
You hear a yell, “I just can’t do it!” Perhaps a pencil is flung across the room startling you out of your cooking revery. What do you do? If your child is passionately upset, then take a break. Move away from the homework space. Get a drink. Walk outside. Look at a favorite book. Cool off. She is not going to get anywhere with her homework in that state. Take as long as she needs to really cool down. Then, before returning to work, talk about what was frustrating her. Ask questions about her struggles so that before going back, you can consider how you might support her.
And what if he refuses to do homework?
If, after all of your diligent preparations and adoption of a stellar learning attitude, he still refuses to do his homework then, the response can be simple: “I’ve done what I can to help set you up for success. Now it’s up to you. It’s your homework, your grade. If you do not do your homework, you will need to accept the consequences from your teacher, whatever they may be.”
It’s never too late to start this process. If you are already struggling, introduce the conversation when you are not under pressure by saying, “It’s been tough each time you have to get homework accomplished. I want to help but I also need your ideas. How can we make homework time better?”
Homework is such a common struggle amongst parents because we do not have much support in understanding their role. Set your child and yourself up for homework success with these simple steps and see if the process can go smoothly most nights in your household. Homework can be a small way to practice working toward and achieving bigger learning goals. If you make it a positive experience, your children will be ready to take the risks necessary for their next developmental challenges.
1. Reid, K. S. (2014). Survey Finds More Parents Troubled by their Children’s Homework. Education Week, September 19. Retrieved on September 25, 2104.
2. National Center for Families Learning. (2014). Annual Survey on Parents and Homework. Google Consumer Surveys, August 12, 2014, to August 22, 2014, based on 1,039 online responses,