HEART OF LIVING: Homework Struggles to Homework Success

Illustration ©2013 William L. Brown


Dear Emory,

School is about to start again soon, and I’m dreading the endless homework battles. One of my kids will sit down with their school papers but spend endless hours staring dreamily into space, stopping to pet the dog, jumping up to check out any noises coming from outside. My other child fights me every step of the way: “I hate my homework!” “I hate school!” “I hate you for making me do this stupid homework!”

What can I do? Do you have any ideas?

Defeated on Dale Drive

Dear “Defeated,”

From what you are describing, it sounds as if both of your kids are in a power struggle with you. Your “dreamer” is passively showing you that you can “make” her sit down but you can’t “make” her do her work in a reasonable fashion.

Your “fighter” is actively resisting you, making it as hard as possible to get him to do his work.

I can understand why you are dreading the same experience again this year, and I have some suggestions to change your family’s approach to doing school work at home.

• Who do you want to be the boss of you and your homework? Ask your children this question. They will probably say, “Me! I want to be my own boss.”

Then you might tell them a few juicy (but appropriately edited) stories about the good, the bad and the terrible bosses you have had in your past, and ask them to think about, “What kind of a boss do you want to be for yourself?” “Will you be the kind of boss who yells or uses insults to make the worker feel bad?” “Will you be the kind of boss who is sloppy, and doesn’t care if the job gets done well?” Or will you be the kind of boss who is nice and friendly, but also serious about doing a good job?”

These are questions that can help your child become more aware of their choices. First, you are encouraging your kids to choose for themselves what kind of self-discipline, what kind of work effort, and what kind of responsibility they want to bring to their schoolwork. Secondly, you are helping your children understand that there are both friendly and unfriendly, effective and ineffective ways they can motivate themselves—and that how they do this is also a choice they can make for themselves.

Of course, there are bound to be times when you notice your children’s “homework boss” seems to be off-duty, at least temporarily. These are times when you might ask, “Are you on the job as your own homework boss? Or is this one of those times when you would like me to step in and be your homework boss for you? I’m willing to be your boss, if you really need me to do this. But I’d much rather stay out of your way and let you be your own homework boss. It’s up to you.” This type of question invites your children to notice their own self-discipline—or the lack thereof—and decide once again whether they choose to be responsible for their own work or whether they want to be managed by you.

• When do you want to do your homework? Invite your children to plan a time to do their homework when their energy levels are pretty good and when they are more likely to be more interested in doing their work. Many children, for instance, find it easier to do their homework in the morning before school when they are well rested and getting prepared for the school day, rather than at the end of the day when they are tired and want to focus more on play and relaxation.

• How much time do you want to give yourself to do your homework? When children are given a task to do in their classroom, they are also given a time limit. Having a time limit helps children focus their self-discipline and stimulates their effort.

Teachers will say, “This math sheet should be done before music class.” Or, “You have 20 minutes to complete your spelling quiz.” In contrast, when children do their homework at home, there are usually no time limits at all. The sense that “homework always takes a long time,” quickly becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, as children feel like it takes a long time, they unknowingly procrastinate and work much more slowly than they do at school.

Therefore, it makes sense that homework can be done much more swiftly and with more satisfaction when children know My folks only give me 30 minutes to get my homework done, so I’d better really work at it!

You and your kids can also help estimate how long homework should take by timing how long it takes to do one math problem or write one sentence. Then multiply and estimate how long the assignment might reasonably take to complete. (Example: 1 math problem=2 minutes, therefore 10 problems will take 20 minutes. Add 5 minutes stretching, looking around, patting the dog time, for a reasonable estimate of 25 minutes.)

• Would you like your homework time to get harder or easier as you work? You can suggest to your kids that they do the hardest tasks first, leaving the easier tasks for the end.

• Do you have everything you need? Be generous with school supplies! Stock the essentials in advance: pencils, markers, erasers, glue, scissors, etc. Have on hand the supplies often need for special school projects, such as poster boards, construction paper, etc.

• Where do you do your best work? Younger children often work best side by side with an adult, older children may work best near you in the same room, then in the next room, eventually alone. Parents and adults help by minimizing distractions, turning off the TV, limiting music and younger children’s activities.

• How do you know when you are paying attention? Children often think that paying attention and feeling interested in their work is like magic—it just happens. Help children learn that paying attention is a choice, and that many tasks become interesting after they’re started. Sometimes it is an easy choice and sometimes it is hard, but it is always a choice to pay attention and get interested. Explain that everyone, adults and children, are distracted many times while they are working and that this is normal. Successful students are the ones who make the choice to return to their work and pay attention. When we re-focus, we often say things to ourselves to help ourselves get back into our work, such as “Back to work!” or “I’m going to buckle down and finish this so I can go play!”

• Work when you work, and play when you play. Many homework problems stem from mixing play and work together. As a result, a simple homework assignment that could be done in 10 or 20 minutes stretches out for much longer, as your child doodles, dawdles, yawns, stretches, complains, is distracted, etc.

When you help your children notice the difference between homework time that is only working time, and playing time that is only playing—they will discover that homework can actually get done very quickly, freeing up much more time for play.

About the Author

Emory Luce Baldwin
Emory Luce Baldwin is the co-author of "Parenting With Courage and Uncommon Sense." In addition to being a Takoma Park mom for more than 25 years, Emory is also a family therapist in private practice and a parent educator with the Parent Encouragement Program (PEP). Well over a thousand parents have learned from her how to have healthier, happier, and better functioning families — while enjoying her good humored yet practical approach to the ups and downs of family life. Emory’s family therapy offices are located in Takoma Park and at the Parent Encouragement Program in Kensington. You can read more about her at her website: www.emorylucebaldwin.com

1 Comment on "HEART OF LIVING: Homework Struggles to Homework Success"

  1. Miriam Mishkin | September 26, 2013 at 12:36 pm |

    Love this! Great questions to guide them to self-monitoring and correction.


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