Trevor’s mother sat down in my office last week exasperated that her 10 year old son was refusing to do his homework every night for the past three weeks. He was getting good grades, sleeping his typical nine hours during the night, and generally loved going to school. She had tried everything including letting him do his homework at the dining room table after dinner, allowing him to relax when he got home from school, and even bribing him with promises of a new Xbox game if he did his homework. Also, Trevor wanted to wait until 9:00 pm when his father returned from work to help him with his math homework; his mother acquiesced to this as well. Nothing was working.
The problem that Trevor’s mom presented is fairly typical in my clinical work with parents and their children.
Parents get stuck in homework battles with their kids all the time. Either their children get distracted halfway through and want to give up, or they resist doing the work in the first place. As many parents know all too well, this resistance can often take the form of acting out behavior: kids will yell, start fights with you, or even throw a tantrum to avoid doing their work. Sometimes they start their homework and then throw their hands up in the air and say, “This is too hard,” or “I’m bored,” or “Why do I have to do this stupid stuff anyway?” As hard as it can be to not take that bait, avoid getting sucked into power struggles with your child at all costs. You will end up frustrated, angry and exhausted, while your child will have found yet another way to push your buttons. And wind up hating school and hating learning—exactly what you don’t want to have happen.
So why is homework time often so difficult? One of the major reasons is because it can be hard for kids to focus at home. Look at it this way: when your child is in school, he’s in a classroom where there aren’t a lot of distractions. The learning is structured and organized, and all the students are focusing on the same thing. But when your child comes home, his brain clicks over to “free time” mode. In his mind, home is a place to relax, have a snack, listen to music, and maybe watch TV and play video games. So for better or worse, kids often simply don’t view home as the place to do schoolwork.
The good news is that there are effective techniques you can use to end the nightly battle over homework.
I always tell parents that the earlier they can begin to indoctrinate their children with the idea that schoolwork is a part of home life—just as chores are—the more their kids will internalize the concept of homework as being a regular part of life. If your child is older and you haven’t done this, that does not mean there isn’t hope for him. It simply means you will initially have to work a lot harder to get him on track with his schoolwork.
Make Night time Structured Time
When your kids come home, there should be a structure and a schedule set up each night. I recommend that you write this up and post it on the refrigerator or in some central location in the house. Kids need to know that there is a time to eat, a time to do homework and also that there is free time. And remember, free time starts after homework is done.
Don’t Fight with Your Child
Make it very clear that if they don’t do their homework, then the next part of their night does not begin. And don’t get sucked into arguments with them. Just keep it simple: “Right now is homework time. The sooner you get it done, the sooner you can have free time.” Say this in a supportive way with a smile on your face. Again, it’s really important not to get sucked into your child’s fight. And when you establish a nightly structure, it will be easier to avoid power struggles over homework.
Know Your Child’s Homework List
It’s very important to know what your child’s homework is — parents need to make sure it doesn’t get lost in the shuffle. Having good communication with your child’s teachers is key, because your child will have homework every night as he or she gets older. If your child is not handing in their work on time, you can set it up so the teacher will send you any assignments that your child didn’t get done each week. Many schools have a parent portal where your child’s teachers post each night’s homework assignment; take the time to go through this each evening.
Establish a Token Economy in Your Home
Don’t forget, we want to pay kids in a currency that they desire. Extra carrots are not going to get much out of your child, but an extra fifteen minutes before bedtime or extending their curfew by half-an-hour on Friday night will. This kind of system is called a “token economy”. The “tokens” become the currency, and in this case, the extra time playing video games, watching TV, and using the computer is the money. You want to withhold it or give it out according to how your child is earning it.
Map out a List of Rewards and Consequences
Parents should have a list of rewards and consequences mapped out for all their kids. It should be a pretty big list, and might include things like going to the park, going to the movies, and going bowling. Have a section that lists the video games your child likes to play and the TV shows he likes to watch, because this is what he will be rewarded with.
I have parents sit down with their kids and say, “All right, when you do well and I want to reward you, what kinds of things would you like to do?” Be sure to include activities that don’t cost money, too, like going to the beach, taking a ride in the car, or playing board games. Then, if your child is able to finish his homework on time for a whole week, at the end of the week he gets rewarded from the list you’ve compiled.
Keep in mind that our job as parents is to help guide and coach our children with their schoolwork, but it’s also our job to let them experience the natural consequences when they don’t get it done. That might mean that they get a poor grade, which is the result of not following through on their responsibilities.
It’s so important to let your child experience the disappointment that comes with that, because that will help motivate them to try harder next time. And as a parent, when the report card comes along, if your child is not at some baseline that you’ve determined, (it might be that they should get nothing lower than a B, for example) then they should lose some of their privileges at home. That might mean they can’t study alone in their room until they bring their grades up, and you might have to watch them more closely when they do their work.
Remember, a major part of ending power struggles over homework lies in establishing structure, giving consequences and rewards, and getting your child to see that schoolwork is a regular part of home life. Once they accept that, you’ve already won half the battle.