Are you trapped in a nightly homework struggle with your child? The list of excuses can seem endless: “I don’t have any homework today.” “My teacher never looks at my homework anyway.” “That assignment was optional.” “I did it at school.” If only your child could be that creative with their actual homework, getting good grades would be no problem!
Pre-teens and teens often insist they have no homework even when they do, or tell parents that they’ve completed their assignments at school when they haven’t. If your child’s grades are acceptable and you receive positive reports from their teachers, congratulations – your child is doing just fine. James Lehman advises that students who are doing well have earned the privilege of doing their homework whenever and however they see fit. But if their grades reflect missing assignments, or your child’s teachers tell you that they’re falling behind, you need to institute some new homework practices in your household. For those classes in which your child is doing poorly, they lose the privilege of doing homework in an unstructured way. For the classes they are doing well in, they can continue to do that homework on their own.Trying to convince your child that grades are important can be a losing battle. You can’t make your child take school as seriously as you do; the truth is, they don’t typically think that way. Remember, as James says, it’s not that they aren’t motivated, it’s that they’re motivated to do what they want to do. In order to get your child to do their homework, you have to focus on their behavior, not their motivation. So instead of giving them a lecture, focus on their behavior and their homework skills. Let them know that completing homework and getting passing grades are not optional.If you’re facing the rest of the school year with dread and irritation, you’re not alone. By following the tips below, you can improve your child’s homework skills and reduce your frustration!
5 Strategies to Get Homework Back On Track
Schedule Daily Homework Time
If your child often says they have no homework but their grades are poor, they may not be telling you accurate information, they may have completely tuned out their teacher’s instructions, or need to improve some other organizations skills, for example. The Total Transformation Program recommends that whether your child has homework or not, create a mandatory homework time each school day for those classes in which you child is doing poorly.
Use the “10-Minute Rule” formulated by the National PTA and the National Education Association, which recommends that kids should be doing about 10 minutes of homework per night per grade level. In other words, 10 minutes for first-graders, 20 for second-graders and so forth. It will be most effective if you choose the same time every day. For example, you might schedule homework time for the classes that your child is doing poorly in to begin at 4:00 p.m. every school day. If your child says they have no homework in those subjects, then they can spend that time reading ahead in their textbooks, making up missed work, working on extra credit projects, or studying for tests. If they say “I forgot my books at school,” have them read a book related to one of their subjects. By making study time a priority, you will sidestep all those excuses and claims of “no homework today.” If your child has to spend a few days doing “busy work” during the daily homework time, you may even find that they bring home more actual assignments!
Use a Public Space
It’s important to monitor your child’s homework time. For families where both parents work, you may need to schedule it in the evening. In many instances it may be more productive to have your child do their homework in a public space. That means the living room or the kitchen, or some place equally public where you can easily check in on them. Let them know they can ask for help if they need it, but allow them to do their own work. If your child would like to do his or her homework in their room, let them know that they can earn that privilege back when they have pulled up the grades in the subjects in which they are doing poorly.
Use Daily Incentives
Let your child know that they will have access to privileges when they have completed their homework. For example, you might say, “Once you’ve completed your homework time, you are free to use your electronics or see your friends.” Be clear with your child about the consequences for refusing to study, or for putting their work off until later. According to James Lehman, consequences should be short term, and should fit the “crime.” You might say, “If you choose not to study during the scheduled time, you will lose your electronics for the night. Tomorrow, you’ll get another chance to use them.” The next day, your child gets to try again – observing her homework time and earning her privileges. Don’t take away privileges for more than a day, as your child will have no incentive to do better the next time.
Work towards Something Bigger
Remember, kids don’t place as much importance on schoolwork as you do. As you focus on their behavior, not their motivation, you should begin to see some improvement in their homework skills. You can use your child’s motivation to your advantage if they have something they’d like to earn. For example, if your child would like to get his driver’s permit, you might encourage him to earn that privilege by showing you he can complete his homework appropriately. You might say, “In order to feel comfortable letting you drive, I need to see that you can follow rules, even when you don’t agree with them. When you can show me that you can complete your homework appropriately, I’d be happy to sit down and talk with you about getting your permit.” If your child starts complaining about the homework rule, you can say, “I know you want to get that driver’s permit. You need to show me you can follow a simple rule before I’ll even talk to you about it. Get going on that homework.” By doing this, you sidestep all the arguments around both the homework and the permit.
Skills + Practice = Success
Tying homework compliance with your child’s desires isn’t about having your child jump through hoops in order to get something they want. It’s not even about making them take something seriously, when they don’t see it that way. It’s about helping your child learn the skills they need to live life successfully. All of us need to learn how to complete things we don’t want to do. We all have occasions where we have to follow a rule, even when we disagree with it. When you create mandatory, daily homework time, you help your child practice these skills. When you tie that homework time to daily, practical incentives, you encourage your child to succeed. (1)
homework must be done in a public place in your home
Parents often feel it’s their job to get their kids to do well in school. Naturally, you might get anxious about this responsibility as a parent. You might also get nervous about your kids succeeding in life—and homework often becomes the focus of that concern. But when parents feel it’s their responsibility to get their kids to achieve, they now need something from their children—they need them to do their homework and be a success. I believe this need puts you in a powerless position as a parent because your child doesn’t have to give you what you want. The battle about homework actually becomes a battle over control. Your child starts fighting to have more control over the choices in his life, while you feel that your job as a parent is to be in control of things. So you both fight harder, and it turns into a war in your home.
Over the years, I’ve talked to many parents who are in the trenches with their kids, and I’ve seen firsthand that there are many creative ways kids rebel when it comes to school work. Your child might forget to do his homework, but not hand it in, do it sloppily or carelessly, or not study properly for his test. These are just a few ways that kids try to hold onto the little control they have. When this starts happening, parents feel more and more out of control, so they punish, nag, threaten, argue, throw up their hands or over-function for their kids by doing the work for them. Now the battle is in full swing: reactivity is heightened as anxiety is elevated—and homework gets lost in the shuffle.The hard truth is that you cannot make your children do anything, let alone homework. Instead, the idea is to set limits, respect their individual choices and help motivate them to motivate themselves.
You might be thinking to yourself, “You don’t know my child. I can’t motivate him to do anything.” But you can start todo it by calming down, slowing down, and simply observing. Observe the typical family dance steps and see if you and your mate contribute to your child’s refusal, struggle and apathy. If you carry more of the worry, fear, disappointments, and concern than your child does about his work, ask yourself “What’s wrong with this picture and how did this happen?”
Guide Your Child—Don’t Try to Control Him
Many parents tell me that their children are not motivated to do their work. I believe that children are motivated—they just may not be motivated the way you’d like them to be. Here are some concrete tips to help you guide them in their work without having to nag, threaten or fight with them.
Ask yourself what worked in the past: Think about a time when your child has gotten homework done well and with no hassles. What was different? What made it work that time? Ask your child about it and believe what he says. See what works and motivates him instead of what motivates you.
Stop the nightly fights. The way you can stop fighting with your kids over homework every night is to stop fighting with them tonight. Disengage from the dance. Choose some different steps or decide not to dance at all. Let homework stay where it belongs—between the teacher and the student. Refuse to get pulled in by the school in the future. Stay focused on your job, which is to help your child do his job.
Take a break: If you feel yourself getting reactive or frustrated, take a break from helping your child with homework. Your blood pressure on the rise is a no-win for everyone. Take five or ten minutes to calm down, and let your child do the same if you feel a storm brewing.
Set the necessary structures in place: Set limits around homework time. Here are a few possibilities that I’ve found to be effective with families:
- Homework is done at the same time each night.
- Homework is done in a public area of your house.
- If grades are failing or falling, take away screen time so your child can focus and have more time to concentrate on his work.
- Make it the rule that weekend activities don’t happen until work is completed. Homework comes first. As James Lehman says, “The weekend doesn’t begin until homework is done.”
Get out of your child’s “box” and stay in your own. When you start over-focusing on your child’s work, pause and think about your own goals. What are your life goals and what “homework” do you need to get done in order to achieve those goals? Model your own persistence and perseverance to your child.
Let Your Child Make His Own Choices—and Deal with the Consequences
I recommend that within the parameters you set around schoolwork, your child is free to make his own choices. You need to back off a bit as a parent, otherwise you won’t be helping him with his responsibilities. If you take too much control over the situation, it will backfire on you by turning into a power struggle. And believe me, you don’t want a power struggle over homework. I’ve seen many kids purposely do poorly just to show their parents “who’s in charge.” I’ve also seen children who complied to ease their parents’ anxiety, but these same kids never learned to think and make choices for themselves. I’m a big believer in natural consequences when it comes to schoolwork. Within the structure you set up, your child has some choices. He can choose to do his homework or not, and do it well and with effort or not. The logical consequences will come from the choices he makes—if he doesn’t choose to get work done, his grades will drop.
When that happens, you can ask him questions that aren’t loaded, like,
“Are you satisfied with how things are going?
“If not, what do you want to do about it?”
“How can I be helpful to you?”
The expectation is that homework is done to the best of your child’s ability. When he stops making an effort and you see his grades drop, that’s when you invite yourself in. You can say, “Now it’s my job to help you do your job better. I’m going to help you set up a plan to help yourself and I will check in to make sure you’re following it.” Set up a plan with your child’s input in order to get him back on his feet. For example, the new rules might be that homework must be done in a public place in your home until he gets his grades back up. You and your child might meet with the teacher to discuss disciplinary actions should his grades continue to drop. In other words, you will help your child get back on track by putting a concrete plan in place. when you see this change, then you can step back out of it. But before that, your child is going to sit in a public space and you’re going to work on his math or history together. You’re also checking in more. Depending on the age of your child, you’re making sure that things are checked off before he goes out. You’re adding a half hour of review time for his subjects every day. And then each day after school, he’s checking with his teacher or going for some extra help. Remember, this plan is not a punishment—it’s a practical way of helping your child to do his best.
When Kids Say They Don’t Care about Bad Grades
Many parents will say that their kids just don’t care about their grades. My guess is that somewhere inside, they do care. “I don’t care” also becomes part of a power struggle. In other words, your child is saying, “I’m not going to care because you can’t make me; you don’t own my life.” The truth is, you can’t make him care. Instead, focus on what helps his behavior improve. Don’t focus on the attitude as much as what he’s actually doing.
I think it’s also important to understand that caring and motivation come from ownership. You can help your child be motivated by allowing him to own his life more. So let him own his disappointment over his grades. Don’t feel it more than he does. Let him choose what he will do or not do about his homework and face the consequences of those choices. Now he will begin to feel ownership, which may lead to caring. Let him figure out what motivates him, not have him motivated by fear of you. Help guide him but don’t prevent him from feeling the real life consequences of bad choices like not doing his work. Think of it this way: It’s better for your child to learn from those consequences at age ten by failing in school and having to go to summer school than for him to learn at age 25 by losing his job.
When Your Child Has a Learning Disability
I want to note that it’s very important that you check to see that there are no other learning issues around your child’s refusal to do homework. If he is having a difficult time doing the work or is performing below grade level expectations, he should be tested to rule out any learning disabilities or other concerns.If there is a learning disability, your child may need more help. For example, some kids need a little more guidance; you may need to sit near your child and help a little more. You can still put structures into place depending on who your child is. Oftentimes kids with learning disabilities get way too much help and fall into the “learned helplessness” trap. Be sure you’re not over-functioning for your learning disabled child by doing his work for him or filling in answers when he is capable of thinking through them himself.
The Difference between Guidance and Over-Functioning
Your child needs guidance from you, but understand that guidance does not mean doing his spelling homework for him. Rather, it’s helping him review his words. When you cross the line into over-functioning, you are taking on your child’s work and putting his responsibilities on your shoulders. So you want to guide him by helping him edit his book report himself, helping him take the time to review before a test, or using James Lehman’s “Hurdle Help” to start him on his homework. Those can be good ways of guiding your child, but anything more than that is taking too much ownership of his work.
If your child asks for help, you can coach him. Suggest he talk to his teacher on how to be a good student, and teach him those communication skills. In other words, show him how to help himself. So you should not back off all together—it’s that middle ground that you’re looking for. That’s why I think it’s important to set up a structure; just put that electric fence around homework time. And within that structure, you expect your child to do what he has to do to be a good student.
I also tell parents to start from a place of believing in their children. Don’t keep looking at your child as a fragile creature who can’t do the work. I think we often come to the table with fear and doubt; we think if we don’t help our kids, they’re just not going to do it. But as much as you say, “I’m just trying to help you,” what your child actually hears is, “You’re a failure.” There’s an underlying message that kids pick up that is very different than what the parents intended it to be. And that message is, “You’re never enough,” and “You can’t do it.” Instead, your message should be, “I know you can do it. And I believe in you enough to let you make your own choices and deal with the consequences.” (2)
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