Homework is one of the best opportunities for kids to practice being self-starters. But how can parents encourage this self-reliance in their kids and avoid fighting over homework?
It had been nearly an hour since my eight-year-old had begun her vocabulary homework. With four pages still to go, she was on the verge of tears and sleepiness (read: crankiness) as we approached bedtime.
She was overwhelmed and in over her head.
The issue wasn’t an exorbitant amount of homework, but rather that she had left this assignment for the last minute. With a week to complete a unit in her workbook, she hadn’t planned carefully enough, and now was scrambling to get it done the evening before it was due.
This was the first year my oldest had received homework. Wanting to give her a sense of ownership over this responsibility, I had generally let her determine when and how to complete her work on time.
But as I sat beside her and saw her struggle, I wondered if I had done too little to coach her in time management. Not wanting to become a dreaded helicopter parent, I had probably overcompensated in the opposite direction.
The RIGHT Way to Help Kids With Homework, According to Experts
After this experience, I felt a little lost – wondering how much checking in with kids about their homework was too much and how much was too little. Where was the balance?
Searching for answers, I decided to dig into this topic. After identifying three experts in this field, I reached out to them and arranged interviews. Here’s what they told me:
In the early years, actively coach kids on organization and time management
The first thing I learned, not surprisingly, is that my approach to letting my daughter figure out time management on her own was all wrong.
The experts I spoke to pointed out that few young kids have executive functioning skills or the ability to plan ahead when they first begin receiving homework – often in early elementary school. This lack of organizational understanding can be a barrier to getting homework done.
Here’s what they suggest parents do to help their kids develop these skills:
- Set up a specific place for kids to do homework: Betsy Brown Braun, a child development and behavior specialist, believes that kids should have a special place where homework is completed other than the dining room table or kitchen counter. “Kids should have a place of their own – like a desk,” she says. “We want to set them up to respect homework.” This creates a physical place kids associate with doing work, and later with planning for doing work.
- Have a homework routine: Kids benefit from knowing there’s a certain time every day set aside for doing homework, according to Ann Dolin, owner of Educational Connections, a tutoring company in the metropolitan D.C. area. The hour doesn’t have to be the same every day – especially if afterschool activities vary each afternoon. But kids should have a general sense of when homework time takes place. And Braun suggests that parents should involve their children in deciding when this time should be: “Because that shows his responsibility in it,” she says. Knowing there’s a specific time to do homework gets kids in the habit of setting aside time each day to complete their work.
- Ask kids if they need a reminder: Braun suggests asking your child if they want a reminder when the agreed-upon homework time approaches. Ask if they’d like for you to set an alarm or simply tell them when it’s time. By taking ownership of being aware of when it’s time for homework, they’ll start to move towards taking ownership of managing their workload.
- Help kids get started – and then walk away: At this young age, some kids might feel overwhelmed by the idea of simply getting started with their work. Parents can help by making sure their kids understand the directions. But after kids have completed a few problems in an assignment, both Dolin and Braun agree that parents should then walk away and let kids independently complete the work on their own. Completing each assignment independently is, again, a stepping stone towards independently managing the flow of homework assignments.
- Make a rule that homework isn’t considered complete until it’s in your child’s backpack: A good habit to form early on is to make sure homework goes right into kids backpacks as soon as it’s done, Dolin says. This avoids any assignments being turned in late.
- Make sure kids have some downtime: After a long day of school and activities, kids need a bit of downtime before digging into homework. “Most kids need at least a half hour to unwind,” Dolin suggests. This downtime helps kids recharge and increases their ability to focus. Braun also emphasizes that parents need to watch out for overscheduling after-school activities and making sure these don’t supersede homework.
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Eventually, kids can independently manage their own time
Every child is different. But after a year or two of getting help from parents on these intermediary steps towards better time-management, most kids are ready to take on independently the full responsibility of homework management.
But how can parents know if their child is ready? “By asking a lot of questions”, Dolin says.
“How might you organize this? How long are you going to spend on this? Depending on their answers to these questions you can tell if they can be independent,” she says.
Questions about organization and time management also help kids begin problem-solving on their own. And once you’ve seen a consistent pattern of kids having a well-thought-out plan for completing their homework, you can begin to step back and let kids manage their own time.
Ways parents sabotage their kids’ self-reliance
Often without even knowing it, parents get in the way of their kids’ independence with homework and other responsibilities. Here are a few things to avoid in order to raise kids who are homework self-starters:
Don’t focus too heavily on the quality of the work: It’s natural for parents to want their kids to do their best school work. But leave the quality of the work up to the teacher, Dolin says. “I hear of so many fights about the quality of work between parents and students,” she says. “And then kids will start to avoid homework. The goal of homework – especially when kids are younger – is to practice skills and learn independence and responsibility.”
Braun agrees: “I don’t believe that parents should correct their kids’ homework. The quality of the homework is between the child and teacher. How else will the teacher know what the kid needs help on?” She also notes that parents often think they are helping their kids by getting involved in their homework, or not letting them fail. But parents don’t realize the message they’re sending – that their child is not capable or good enough.
Don’t create your own consequences for incomplete homework: Again, let that be between the student and the teacher. If a student doesn’t finish his homework, “he must deal with his teacher,” Dr. Frances Walfish, a family and relationship psychotherapist, says. “Don’t bail him out, criticise, or chastise him,” she continues. Let the teacher decide what the consequence will be and eventually he should begin to realize that it’s easier to get homework done the night before.
If a child declares that she won’t do her homework on a particular evening, parents can state – in a non-threatening way – that they will write the child’s teacher and make them aware of her decision, Braun suggests. But she warns that parents still need to be alert to tiredness, an uneasiness about getting started or other reasons why kids might resisting doing their homework – and address those reasons first.
Don’t do homework with your kids: “Don’t get in the habit of doing homework with your child too much. Parents get in the habit of doing the homework with the child and when it’s time for kids to do their homework on their own they haven’t had the experience of doing it alone,” Braun says. This gets back to the notion of making sure kids understand what they need to accomplish and then walking away to let them work on their own. “A seven or eight-year-old should be able to get his homework done on his own.” she says.
Don’t send the general message that your child isn’t capable: By constantly correcting kids – not letting them try and fail – and doing things for them that they’re capable of doing on their own, we are sending the message to kids that they aren’t capable, Braun says. But by “working to cultivate self-reliance early on you are putting kids in a position to make them self-starters in everything including homework.”
Coaching while also letting go
After that fateful evening of disappointment and frustration, I changed my tactic in helping my daughter plan her time.
“Let’s sit down and decide when you will have an opportunity to work on your vocabulary homework for this week.” I began to ask her every Monday evening. Play practice was on Thursdays, basketball on Wednesdays. That left Monday and Tuesday as the best evenings for her to work on her assignment.
Writing out the days of the week, we determined on which evening she would have more time to get her work done.
As the weeks progressed, she became more aware of how much time was needed and how long an assignment would take. Sure, there were a few hiccups along the way, but by the end of the year, she was just about ready to tackle homework on her own.
And now that’s she’s in fifth grade, that work has paid off. While every now and then she still discovers she hasn’t allowed enough time to finish a math assignment or didn’t read her book report book quite as quickly as she had hoped, on most weeks her homework is complete – and she gets to bed on time.