What is it about homework that wears families out? Even newbie grade-schoolers, who love doing it at first, often lose their enthusiasm and start stalling. And after a long day, you just want your kiddo to knuckle down so you can get dinner on the table or start the bedtime routine.
But playing cop rarely works — micromanaging and nagging only make kids feel stupid or frustrated. A better solution: Think of yourself as a coach and cheerleader. To help you get there, we asked teachers and parents to share their A+ strategies for solving the most common headaches. Their work-like-magic tips are guaranteed to bring harmony back into your homework routine, whether your child is a kindergartner or a fifth-grader, a whiner or a procrastinator!
1. Do It as Early as Possible: Best for Everyone
On days when there are no afternoon activities, give your child a time frame — say, between 3 p.m. and 5 p.m. — to get down to business. This gives her some control over her schedule (some kids need a longer break after school, and others need to start right away to keep the momentum going). The only rule is that 5 o’clock is the latest time to start. If you work, that means homework duties will fall to the after-school caregiver. This way, the bulk of it can get done before your kiddo’s too pooped — and you can just review and wrap things up once you get home.
2. Create a Call List: Best for Forgetters
From kindergarten on, kids need a list of three or four classmates they can call on when they forget an assignment, says Ann Dolin, M.Ed., a former teacher and author of Homework Made Simple. The study buddy can read your child the spelling words over the phone, or his mom can snap a pic of the worksheet and text it to you.
3. Build Confidence: Best for the Intimidated
When kids don’t get something right away, they may feel like they’re stupid and start to shut down, says Sigrid Grace, a second-grade teacher in Almont, MI, and a member of Scholastic Parent & Child’s advisory board. You can short-circuit negative thinking by sitting down and figuring out the first problem together. That alone can help him remember how to do the rest. Then heap on the praise: “You did a great job on that one! Try the next one now.”
Another strategy: Have your child show you similar problems he worked on in class. That may jog his memory so he can retrace the steps. Plus, it helps you see what he’s already learned.
4. Cut It in Half: Best for the Overwhelmed
That’s right — you can make an executive decision to lighten your child’s load for a night, if:
She doesn’t understand the assignment.
The assignment is vague or touches on a topic she’s not ready for.
She’s exhausted from a long day of school, gymnastics, and an argument with her best friend.
If your child is completely lost, you can excuse her entirely. In the other cases, shorten the assignment, says Cathy Vatterott, Ph.D., a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor of education and author of Rethinking Homework. What you can’t skip is informing the teacher. “Have your child write a note explaining,” says Vatterott. If she’s too young, write it yourself (with her input) and have her sign it. If you don’t hear back from the teacher in a few days, or your child is still clueless on the next assignment, follow up with an e-mail.
Most teachers will be understanding if a student does this once in a while, says Grace, but if your child frequently fails to finish her assignments, there will probably be a consequence.
5. Change the Scene: Best for Daydreamers
Something as simple as a special place to work can boost a child’s motivation and, in turn, his confidence. “I let one kid at a time use my office if they are having trouble,” says Jennifer Harrison, of Sacramento, CA, mom of a 7- and an 11-year-old. “Being in the spot where Mom does grown-up work seems to help them focus. Maybe because I tell them that it’s my place to concentrate.”
6. Keep the Positive Feedback Coming: Best for the K–2 Set
Little kids need instant feedback, so it’s okay for parents of young grade-schoolers to correct mistakes, says Grace. Then emphasize what your kid’s done well. After he’s finished, take his paper and say “Hmm, I’m looking for something . . .” After scanning it for a minute, say “Aha! Look how well you wrote your letters in this part!” or “This sentence is even better than the one you came up with yesterday!” If you praise specific improvements, your little learner will become more inclined to try to do a good job the first time around.
7. Leave the Room: Best for Whiners
“Kids who drag things out are often doing so for your attention — they’re enjoying the interaction on some level,” explains Grace. “Avoid joining in. And if you must stay in the room, have your child work in a spot that’s farther away from whatever you’re doing.”
8. Beat the Clock: Best for Procrastinators
Sometimes a pint-size foot dragger just needs a jump-start. If that’s true for yours, try Dolin’s “Five Minutes of Fury”: Set a timer for five minutes, shout “Go!” and have your child work as fast as she can until the timer goes off. At that point, she can take a short break or keep going — and many kids continue. “Racing against a timer gives kids an external sense of urgency if they don’t have an internal one,” she notes (besides, it’s fun!). But it’s not an excuse for sloppy work, so tell her to go over it before she puts it back in her folder.
9. Plan, Plan, Plan: Best for 3rd- to 5th-Graders
Many teachers will break down big projects into a series of deadlines so that children learn to budget time. If your kid’s teacher doesn’t, show your child how to “scaffold” the assignment yourself, says Dr. Vatterott. Together, divide the project into steps, then help her estimate how much time each will take. Get a weekly or monthly calendar (like Martha Stewart Home Office With Avery Dry Erase Monthly Planner; $8, Staples.com), and then write down which steps she’ll tackle when — and for how long. To get the most out of your calendar, include everything — from basketball practice on Mondays to the reading log every night so you both can plan realistically. If you know which nights are going to be a problem, “Ask for the week’s assignments at once and figure out your own schedule for completing them,” suggests Dr. Vatterott. “Teachers will often work with you on this, but most parents are afraid to ask.”
10. Let ’Em Vent: Best for Everyone
When your routine is upended — and your kid hasn’t even started his homework — ease frustration by letting him complain. Listen, empathize (“Wow, that is a lot of work”), and state his feelings back to him (“You sound upset”). Once your child feels understood, says Dolin, he’ll be more likely to accept your suggestions — and better able to focus on what needs to be done.
Plus: Your Way vs. The Teacher’s
Your child’s tearing up over a long-division worksheet and you actually remember how to get the answer. But the teacher’s instructions are different. Do you show your kid your method — so at least she’ll have the correct answer?
Hold off, says Dr. Vatterott. Your process may confuse her even more. You can help your child by talking to her about what she remembers from class and steering her to the textbook. If she’s still lost, just have her write a note to the teacher explaining that she doesn’t understand.