The Homework Battle: How to Get Children to Do Homework
By Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
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.
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.
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, 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 to do 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?” (Remember, as long as you carry their concerns, they don’t have to.)
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. And 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 his grade 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.”
''Homework is a very hot topic,'' Georgiene Dempsey, the principal of the Springhurst Elementary School in Dobbs Ferry, said in a telephone interview.
''Parents sometimes have the idea that if they see more homework, the more they think the child is learning. Research shows that homework has no value in itself until fifth grade. Its only value is creating a habit for children to sit down and do homework. When is homework too much? All of us are in this craziness together.''
Overall there has been no significant increase in homework, according to a study released by the Brown Center on Educational Policy, a research center on educational issues at the Brookings Institution, a nonprofit research organization in Washington. The study, released as part of the 2003 annual Brown Center Report on American Education, said the exception was homework for children ages 6 to 8. Based on data from the Population Studies Center at the Institute for Social Research at the University of Michigan, the study reported that homework in that group increased to 2 hours and 8 minutes a week, from 52 minutes a week, between 1981 and 1997.
Try telling Westchester parents, especially those in high-powered schools, that homework hasn't increased significantly if at all.
''Students are so much more active outside of school now -- with soccer, sports, dance -- that even if homework might be the same amount, it's more difficult to manage,'' said Anne Wallace, the director for guidance at the middle and high schools in Rye Neck.
But there is a growing revolt, exemplified perhaps by parents in Ardsley who are circulating a petition to take to the school board about the difference between the district's stated homework policies and the amount of homework students actually have to do, asking simply that the current homework policy be enforced.
''Seventh- and eighth-graders are supposed to have an hour and a half a night,'' said Jason Sapan, a father of two children in the district, one of whom is a seventh grader at the Ardsley Middle School. The last straw was when his daughter was still not done with homework at 11 one evening. ''I don't think this helps in their education. It takes the joy out of kids who are exceptional, and overwhelms those who are struggling.''
Margot Steinberg of White Plains, whose children are in the Ardsley district, said: ''The kids get so much homework, they're not getting something out of it. They're doing it to get it done.''
The reasons for an increase in homework are several. ''Because of the standards and testing, kids these days are asked to write, and organize information in a much more complicated way than in the past,'' said Lisa Freund, a former special education teacher who now tutors students after school. ''They're given research projects in fifth and sixth grade, using the Internet, so the assignments are qualitatively different than they used to be. Part of my job is to free the parent from being responsible for what goes on after school.''
Douglas Both, the principal of the John Jay Middle School in the Katonah-Lewisboro school district, said state and federal standards are a factor. ''The higher standards require more information, and we can't cover everything,'' he said. ''What we're having to do is ask kids to do more at home, to have active instructional time at school. We're also dropping subject matter down a grade. We're teaching algebra in sixth grade. In order to prepare for more interactive classes, kids have to do more at home.''
STUDENTS see several stages of homework, said Paul Folkemer, assistant superintendent for instruction and curriculum in Scarsdale. ''Because of the English language arts exam, and also because of math and science, fourth grade is seeing a significant change in the amount of work,'' he said in a telephone interview, but the big changes come in middle school. ''In seventh grade, it's the first time students have five major subjects, and we group for mathematics. Many have advanced math, and foreign language.''
As Mr. Both said: ''The issue comes up every year. A lot of our middle school kids come from self-contained classrooms in fifth grade. All of a sudden, they move to the middle school with 10 to 11 teachers and subjects, English social studies, math, science, and reading, art, technology, home and career, music, and physical education.
''It's more subject matter specific, and students feel responsible to four to five different people every night. It's harder to track how much homework a child has in a given night. We work hard at it here, but teachers can't always address, 'How much are you giving?' Kids are trying to please a number of adults. And sixth-graders overwork their assignments. With five subjects, they become overwhelmed. We try to caution parents to stay out of homework. We have to wean them off it, just as we try to wean children from that kind of support.''
Some say that it's not so much the homework as the extracurricular activities that are to blame.
''We purposely don't do much after school because of homework,'' said Jamie Pearlman, a Mount Kisco resident whose two children attend Chappaqua schools. ''I didn't want her to go to bed at 10 or 11.''
The ways that teachers, schools, students and families choose to deal with homework are as varied as the players themselves.
Many parents who extol the virtues of their challenging public schools also complain that homework assignments, especially long-term projects, intrude on weekends, vacations, family meal times and children's sleep time, play time and down time.
Extracurricular activities are particularly at risk. Some Conservative Jewish congregations have scaled back their twice-a-week afternoon Hebrew school programs to once a week, because parents were reluctant to make that kind of time commitment for their children.
Other stresses are obvious, too. Dr. Karen Benedict, assistant superintendent for curriculum in Katonah-Lewisboro, said: ''People's lives are very busy. There are lots of dual parents who are working, and family time is valued. When students have to spend a lot of time on homework, family time is reduced.''
Beyond that, many conversations about homework include the assertion that ''my parents never did my homework for me,'' even Mom, who in a boomer's family might not have worked outside the home. Yet homework is now an issue not just for parents, but also for those who care for the children of working parents.
''The first question parents ask when they come here is, 'Is your homework all done?''' said Pam Koner, who runs the Homework Club in Hastings-on-Hudson. It is a private after-school program that has as one of its goals the completion of homework. ''At 6 at night, the last thing most parents want to do is homework. In the last six to eight years, the amount of homework has stayed the same -- but it feels to me that intellectually, things have been bumped up. Third-grade work is now in second grade, and it can be challenging for some of these kids.''
Despite any coping mechanisms, conflicts about homework -- between parents and children, or parents and educators -- are not unknown.
A White Plains parent, Barbara O'Keefe, said in a telephone interview: ''My youngest child, a freshman in high school, has more difficulty. I have to become a policewoman.''
Style differences, and students' own abilities and affinities for subject matter, can also come into play.
''One of mine can't start homework until 8 p.m.,'' Ms. Steinberg said. ''In my family, math goes quickly, but writing pieces are a nightmare.''
These forces have led to thriving tutoring industries in some communities. Some parents hire homework tutors to supervise or assist their children, reluctant to leave the task to nannies or non-English speaking housekeepers. And if tutors were once used to help struggling students, now it's not uncommon to find tutors engaged to help ''A'' students maintain their class standing.
''We know that there are a lot more tutors,'' Mr. Both said. ''In a community like ours, everyone is looking for that edge.''
Many districts have embraced after-school (and even before-school ) centers.
''Some kids have more help than others at home, so we try to build in more support at school,'' said Marjorie Holderman, principal of the Dobbs Ferry Middle School. The school is open before classes start in the morning as well as after school.
The Boys and Girls Club runs similar programs at its Mount Kisco, Yorktown and Tarrytown sites.
''The amount of homework children are getting has been increasing,'' said Barbara Cutri, the director. ''An hour is not enough to get all the homework done, beginning in third grade. Parents' expectations are that they want the homework done. We're an after-school program, and the main focus is on fun activities after school. We're not an education center, and want to give kids a break -- but kids are not going home with all the homework finished.''
Colleen McNamee, a regular at the Mount Kisco Boys and Girls Club, said she prefers to do her homework on her own. ''My Mom won't even know some of this stuff,'' she said. ''Homework takes over everything.''
Although private schools are known for tough academics, being liberated from state requirements means that homework has a different flavor.
Bob Cook, head of the upper school at the Harvey School in Katonah, said high school students usually have 30 to 40 minutes per subject each night. ''I've been in prep schools for 27 years, and I don't see that the amount of homework has changed much,'' he said. ''We limit homework on three- to four-day weekends, and over long vacations, there's no written homework, except for AP classes. That's really family time. And my department heads get together to make sure kids don't get make work. We tell teachers that if they don't have homework on a given night, don't give it for the sake of giving homework. In our middle school, the students get one night off per week per subject.''
Granted, homework doesn't have to be an overwhelming experience. And, educators say, it certainly shouldn't be in elementary school.
Mrs. Dempsey, who taught in Scarsdale for 17 years, said: ''I had a second-grade teacher this year, a terrific teacher, who said she was going crazy because the first hour of every day is spent with homework, and many of the kids haven't been doing their homework. I said there's another way. I told her, 'Don't give homework.'''
When Mrs. Dempsey was in Scarsdale (she left in 1987) the district's unofficial custom was not to give homework until the third grade, a practice that has since disappeared.
''I believe children should be reading every night, but not a multitude of math problems or reading assignments,'' she said. ''I can see how homework helps children when they're having struggles -- like doing math facts for a second grader, as opposed to 21 drill problems every night. If kids have worked hard in school, they should be out playing.''
In the high-powered Chappaqua schools, there is no regularly assigned kindergarten homework, although teachers may sometimes give assignments, mostly as a means of getting students accustomed to the idea of homework. First graders are supposed to have short assignments. It's not until second grade that students are expected to get regular language arts and math assignments, with daily reading part of the routine.
In response to a perception that there is too much homework, many of the county's middle schools have tried to find solutions.
Gail Kipper, the principal of the Farragut Middle School in Hastings, said that a few years ago, a committee of parents, teachers and administrators developed a pamphlet and policies about homework that is distributed at the fall open school night. Each grade hallway in the school, for example, has calendars with assignments posted.
''There should be no more than two major tests in a day, and long-term assignments are to be staggered,'' Ms. Kipper said.
At the Dobbs Ferry Middle School, coordination among the teachers is vital, said Ed Feller, a sixth-grade English teacher and team leader. ''We meet daily to discuss projects that we've given, so we stagger due dates.''
One solution has been to use technology. ''In middle school, kids want to break away from mom and dad, and parents want to hold on to that connection,'' said Peter J. Mustich, the superintendent of the Rye Neck school district, where the middle school recently began posting homework assignments on teachers' Web pages. ''Parents and students can look at the homework assignment, students can do the worksheet online.''
Some educators, and parents of children who are in college and beyond, caution that the homework umbilical cord needs to be cut sooner, not later. What seems like an innocent practice of helping a fourth-grader with a science poster can set a dangerous pattern. Between faxes and e-mail technology, it's not uncommon for college students to send term papers home to their parents for comments or editing, meaning that the homework issues can go on indefinitely.
In many households, homework stress is constant. Patty Warble, a mother of five grown children, speaks both as a parent and as a professional, because she is the executive director of the Bedford-Lewisboro-Pound Ridge Drug Abuse Prevention Council, as well as a staff member for the Tarrytown-based Student Assistance Services Corporation, a private nonprofit substance abuse and prevention organization.
''There's more pressure on kids to succeed, and homework becomes a power struggle,'' she said. ''Parents need to disengage from the power struggle. The idea is 'whose problem is it?' Let the people at the school who are the professionals handle it.''
Still, that's not necessarily an easy lessons for parents to absorb completely.
''When parents take over, it sends two messages,'' said Ms. Wallace, guidance director for the middle and high schools in Rye Neck. ''One is 'I'm supporting you, this is important.' And the other is 'I don't think you can do this on your own.' As parents, we don't want to see them fail.''
Assignment: How to Cope
WHILE homework will never go away, experts say there are ways to reduce stress among the various parties: students, parents, teachers and other educators. Homework has to get done, and done on time to meet teachers' requirements -- but exactly how and when can be different for different people. Before they buckle down, some children need to decompress after school, maybe by taking a half-hour to instant-message friends, nap on the couch or work off excess energy by jumping on a trampoline. If children and parents understand this about one another, it can reduce a lot of family stress on homework, just as it may well pay for a parent to understand that her work style is different from her daughter's.
Some other tips follow.
1. Once you get past the earliest elementary grades, remember that it's your homework -- not your parents'.
2. Establish a regular routine to do homework, so that you have the habit of doing your work at the same time, and in the same place, most days.
3. Pay attention to due dates for long-term projects, and keep to that schedule.
4. If you're struggling, or an assignment is taking you longer to complete than anticipated, do as much as you can and discuss your problem with your teacher.
1. Support and supervise your child's efforts, but remember that it's not your homework. Your role should be that of a monitor or coach, not a partner.
2. Step back. Your value as a person isn't dependent on how your daughter does on her seventh-grade science lab or what your son gets on his fourth-grade poetry folder.
3. Provide a quiet time and study area for your child, to establish good study habits and encourage independence.
4. Expect regular assignments, and contact the teacher if there are problems or if homework doesn't arrive home regularly.
1. Be sure that you're assigning work that students can do on their own, based on what they've learned in class, and that the assignments are clear to them. If parental input is expected on a long-term project, or extra credit assignments and challenge activities, define parents' role during open school night or at some other appropriate time.
2. Monitor the ease or difficulty of homework assignments for your students.
3. Check and return assignments promptly. Think about the value of homework. Maggie Worell, a third-grade teacher at the Hillside Elementary School in Hastings-on-Hudson, and a 35-year veteran of the profession, said: ''Homework should address the needs of diverse abilities. So teachers make adjustments for students.''
1. Set clear homework guidelines, and be sure the classroom teachers follow them.
2. Have a definite time limit for each grade. Ten minutes times the grade level appears to be one common standard.
3. Homework isn't about introducing new skills or concepts, but about reinforcing what happened in the classroom. Make sure that teachers understand that policy.
4. Keep in touch with parents. Find out if they're satisfied with the quality and quantity of homework assignments, and be prepared to adjust your policies if community expectations change or evolve. Merri RosenbergContinue reading the main story