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.”
Be a facilitator rather than a force to be reckoned with. You can plead, yell, threaten, and bribe your children, but none of this negative and mutually exhausting behavior will make your kids do anything. Instead, aim to facilitate the homework process as much as possible so that each day’s homework time goes smoothly.
Encourage your child to inform you about their homework progress. Don’t ambush your child with tons of questions about their homework the minute school lets out. Instead, encourage them to tell you what they need to do each day when it’s homework time. Let them know you’d also love to hear any interesting facts that arise out of their assignments.
Help your child figure out what is hard and what is easy homework. Talk about your child’s assignments each night and help them determine what will be the most challenging. Have your child do the hard work first so they’ll be most alert when facing the biggest challenges, and leave the easy stuff for the end.
Find out if there are specific areas they're having difficulties with. Discuss the different subjects your child is taking and find out which they enjoy and excel at, and which they may have more trouble understanding or completing. For the difficult subjects, ask them if they would like to consider having more hands-on help with those issues (from you, a sibling, or a tutor, for example).
Be engaged, but not overly so. If homework is meant to be done by your child alone, stay away. Being overly involved in helping your child with homework, for example, may prevent your child from actually learning from the assignment. Allow your child's homework to help them learn independently, a skill they'll value throughout their life. Be available in case they need your help, but don’t stand over their shoulders while they complete assignments.
Do your own “homework” at the same time your kids do theirs. To help inspire your children to complete their homework, one neat trick is to do some homework of your own to show your child that you're being responsible and completing essential chores too. You'll serve as a great example to your child, showing them that the same things they're learning are directly related to what you do as an adult. If your child is reading, grab a book or the newspaper and read next to them. If they're working on math, sit down with a calculator and balance your checkbook.