Homework battles: psychologist suggests how to reach a truce

Some children resist doing homework. They do not want to start. If they start, they do not want to finish. So, parents often find themselves fighting a daily homework battle.

Drew Edwards, adjunct associate professor of psychology at Wake Forest University and author of “How to Handle a Hard-to-Handle Kid,” offers suggestions to help make homework less stressful for children and parents.

First, Edwards suggests parents work with a child to develop a good system for making sure homework assignments get home. A daily assignment sheet or an assignment notebook works well to enable the child to keep track of all assignments. He recommends that parents check it daily.

“It is important to get in the habit of writing it down and bringing it home,” he said. Writing assignments down is also a good reminder to bring the right books or other materials home to complete the assignment.

Then, parents can help a child find the best time and the best place to do homework.

“There is no one best time or place for everyone,” said Edwards, a child clinical psychologist who frequently helps children and their parents work through homework difficulties. “Every child is different. This may be a process of trial and error.”

The best time could be right after school, in the afternoon after a short break, or after dinner. If parents are unsure, pick one time and stick with it for two weeks. Keep track of how well it seems to work. If it does not seem to work well, change to another time.

The homework place is as important as the homework time, he said. “Ideally, it should be a place that is not too isolated, but not too much in the thick of things, either.”

Sometimes, a dining room table is the best solution, but another room in the house without too many distractions might also work well. Some children can work well in their own rooms, but many need closer supervision to stay focused.

Once a place and time have been set, parents can help a child decide what homework to do first. A child may want to start with the hardest and move to the easiest or start with the easiest and move to the harder assignments. Or, perhaps the child wants to attack the subjects in a certain order, such as reading, math, or writing. Offer suggestions, but let the child decide, Edwards said.

When working on one subject, put the books and materials for the other subjects out of sight — on the floor or in a book bag. “Starting to look at all that other stuff can make a child feel overwhelmed or just makes it more difficult to focus on the subject at hand,” he said.

Next, make sure a child understands the assignment and has all the necessary materials.

For some children, getting to this point with homework is enough. Others need more parental monitoring, Edwards said.

For those who need more help, a parent can help a child break an assignment down into smaller parts. For example, if a math assignment includes 20 problems, suggest that the child do three first and then ask the parent to look at them.

“Avoid getting in the habit of sitting with the child through every step of the way,” Edwards said. “Homework is supposed to be an independent process.”

He says it is a mistake for parents to expect perfect work on homework. It is important for a teacher to know if a child has learned concepts or not. If a parent corrects homework or does homework for a child, it “doesn’t give the teacher the opportunity to see what a child knows.”

Coming back periodically to check on the child – every 10 minutes or so – is good. “When a parent checks in, if the child is making progress, comment favorably, even if he is not as far along as you thought he should be. Instead of finding fault, provide positive feedback about effort,” he said.

To combat the “I don’t have any homework” routine, Edwards suggests setting aside 45 minutes to an hour, Monday –Thursday to be spent doing learning activities. If the child does not have a school assignment to work on, the parent can create an assignment that goes along with the subjects the child is studying in school. The regular routine helps a child get into the habit of doing homework. And, if the child actually has homework and is not bringing it home to do, understanding that they are going to spend that time working on an academic activity anyway may encourage them to start bringing assignments home to work on during that time.

If parents can help kids get into the habit, it becomes part of their routine, he said.

“Letting a child know that you understand their frustration can help encourage them,” Edwards said. “Saying ‘I know you don’t like it’ can help.”

Constant haranguing and doing work for the child are two of the most common mistakes parents make, Edwards said.

School is important, but so is the parent/child relationship. Edwards discourages parents from letting homework become something that devastates that relationship.

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