Homework Hell? Part II: 7 Real Techniques That Work

by James Lehman, MSW
Homework Hell? Part II: 7 Real Techniques That Work

Many parents write in to EP about homework battles with their kids. They want to know what to do about a child who procrastinates or who just can’t seem to stay focused on the task at hand. This week James Lehman shares tried and true methods to get kids to sit down and do the work.

If you threaten your child with punishments or use power to get him to comply, he will simply become more aggressive and more defensive as he digs in his heels—and resists even more.

Homework becomes a power struggle as soon as you try to force your child to do his work and he pushes back. Many parents are trapped in this battle nightly: they’re pulling one way while their child is pulling the other, and in the meantime, no work is getting done at all. Often, when kids start resisting, parents try to use power to get them to do their homework, but for many kids, that will only make matters worse. In fact, you may find that if you threaten your child with punishments or use power to get him to comply, he will simply become more aggressive and more defensive as he digs in his heels—and resists even more.

In the first part of this series, I talked about how you can establish the right environment and mindset in your home around schoolwork. Today, I’d like to tell you about techniques you can use in the moment with your child. If you’re trapped in a power struggle with your child over homework, I’d like to tell you that you may be able to end it sooner if you follow some practical ideas.

  1. Keep a Close Watch
    For a lot of kids, sending them to their rooms to do their homework is a mistake. Many children need your presence while they work. We call that technique “proximity”. Some kids simply need to do their homework at the kitchen table. Your supervision and presence actually will keep them from being distracted.
  2. Get Your Child off the Starting Block
    Some kids have a hard time sitting down and starting assignments. There's a concept I explain in The Total Transformation Program called “Hurdle Help.” If you have a child who has a hard time getting started, part of Hurdle Help is that parents spend the first five minutes with them. So you get the book started, maybe help them work on the first math problem and make sure they understand the assignment. For many kids who are slow starters, Hurdle Help is very effective. This doesn’t mean you are doing their homework for them—this is simply extra help over the first hurdle that will get them going.
  3. Challenge Your Child
    Another way to get your child to do homework is to make a game out of it. Challenge them by saying, “Let's see how long it takes you to get your homework done tonight. And for every minute that you get it done earlier than X, you get to stay up an extra minute.” (Or you might say, “You get to be on the computer an extra minute” or “You get to play video games an extra minute.”) Then you get your child to try to beat his score from last night. Now, eventually you're going to reach a plateau, and that’s fine—let’s say it’s one hour. When that occurs, you say “every time you match one hour, you get extra minutes.” So your child is competing with himself and you’re making a kind of game out of it with a reward.

    If there’s a big project they have to do for school and you know it’s not going to take them the normal amount of time, you have to estimate how much time it's going to take together. Then your child has to work within that time frame. So if your child has a science project, you have to help her manage and structure her time. For instance, if her project is due in 30 days, ask her, “How much time are you going to spend on it a night starting now?” She might say, “15 minutes a night,” and you hold her to that, and keep up with the progress reports the teacher is sending home.
  4. The Mid-Evening Slump
    Many kids get tired halfway through homework time, and that’s when they start acting up. First of all, I think that if your child is doing an hour of homework, you should have him take a five minute break after every half hour. So if he's got two hours of homework, every half hour he can come downstairs, have a snack, and stretch his legs. And as the parent, you time each break. Your child has to check in with you when he starts the break and then he has to go back to his room when it’s over. You also want to have positive regard with your child when he’s discouraged. It’s okay to say things like, “I know it's a drag, but think of this—when you get your work done, the rest of the night is yours.” Or “Look, if you do your work all week, you’ll have the whole weekend to do what you want.”
  5. “The Weekend Starts When Overdue Assignments Are Done.”
    This is a great technique for older kids and teens. If your child has homework that is overdue, their weekend shouldn't start until those assignments are done. Your child needs to bring the books home and finish the homework from the past week, and then his or her weekend starts. And believe me, this is highly effective with kids because it's a “real time” thing: each minute they’re doing homework is a minute they could be hanging out with friends or playing video games. By the way, if they don't bring their books home, they should be grounded for the weekend. You can say, “I don't want to hear that you can't do it because you don't have your books. You’d better call around and find a friend who you can borrow them from, or you’ll be staying in this weekend.”
  6. Homework on Weekends
    A word about homework on weekends: the way that I structure the weekend is that Sunday night is a school night, not Friday. So if your child has homework for the weekend—and as long as he’s done all his work for the past week—he gets Friday and Saturday night off. Sunday night is a school night, but Friday and Saturday night should be free as long as the work is done. If there's a project or something big to do over the weekend, then you work out with your child on how to set it up. He may have to put some time in on Saturday or Sunday during the day. But other than that, your child should have the weekends off too, just like adults do.

    Again, if your child has an incomplete assignment from the week that the teacher sent home, he needs to do it. Then, as soon as he’s done, his weekend starts. No consequences, no punishments, just “Get your work done.” If he doesn’t or he refuses, then you can say, “Okay, no electronics for this weekend, then,” as well as being grounded.
  7. After School Activities vs. Homework
    Kids are involved in a lot of after school activities these days, and I understand that. Personally, my priority has always been “Homework comes first.” In my opinion, if the homework isn't done on Monday, then your child shouldn’t go to football on Tuesday. It’s fine if he misses a practice or two. You can say, “Here’s the deal: we're not going to football today. You need to get your work done first.” If your child says, “Well, if I miss a practice I'm going to get thrown off the team,” You can say, “Well then make sure your work is done, because I'm not going to take you to a practice if you're not doing your schoolwork. That's all there is to it.” I personally don't put football, soccer or any other extracurricular activities above homework and home responsibilities. I don't believe parents should be going from soccer to karate to basketball with their kids while homework and school responsibilities are being neglected.

If You Think Your Child Might Have a Learning Disability
If you have a child whom you feel is really struggling and frustrated with schoolwork, realize that it might not be because they’re bored or don't want to do the work; it could be a sign to have them checked for a learning disability. You should be talking to their teacher about their level of distractibility and their level of output in the classroom. If your child has a learning disability, they should get an Individualized Educational Plan, or IEP, that you set up with the school. And remember, try to see your child’s teachers as your allies in raising him. They are not the enemy. In my experience, most teachers are dedicated and caring, but I realize that this isn’t always the case. So as hard as it can be at times to bridge the communication gap, you have to find a way to work with teachers for your child’s sake.

All the advice I’m giving here is easier said than done, and I understand that. But ideally, we're trying to raise our kids to be responsible and accountable for their schoolwork, and we’re trying to avoid fighting with them over it every night. When I had parents in my office, I would take these concepts and show them how they could make it work for their families in their own homes. The families I worked with were able to turn “homework hell” around successfully time and time again.


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James Lehman, MSW was a renowned child behavioral therapist who worked with struggling teens and children for three decades. He created the Total Transformation Program to help people parent more effectively. James' foremost goal was to help kids and to "empower parents."


I like the points raised here and think they are good ideas. I am concerned about the Sunday night homework time though. Too often we have seen our son save too much for Sunday night and then he runs out of time or is up extra late right at the start of the week. We have instead said that Friday night is the homework night on the weekend. I think it is a good habit to form -- get any work on your plate done and then enjoy the weekend, rather than leaving that spectre ahead of you all weekend.

Comment By : Steve

My son is very bright but is not doing what he is capable of.Instead he talks poorly of himself and plays like he might as well just do 4th grade over.He makes ridiculous mistakes and his work is so sloppy it is no wonder.He knows he is loved.Idon't know how much is for attention,what I might be doing wrong,or what I should do.But his grades are suffering.

Comment By : michelle

I had a conversation with my child's teacher (Grade 9). She went from a B+ in grade 8 to a 45? No way. So now if there is an assignment and /or homework my child sits in the room with the teacher present and comopletes homework there prior to coming home! I like it that way....

Comment By : Might work out for you too.

My son is so very smart and it's something that even his teacher can agree with. But for some reason he seems to fight with me every step of the way. He has already repeated the 4th grade. It seems that we are headed down that same road again for the 5th grade. He will just write down whatever on he papers just to make it seem like it's done, but when I go to check it and have him redo the work it takes all night. I have spoken to his teacher about extra help. My husband and I clear off the computer desk for him and keep his baby sister away so that he can concentrate. It just feels like I'm pulling teeth, hair and even poking at the eye's. I've tried every type of reward you can think of as well as punishments. He just seems to be immune to them all. The words "I can't" seem to be written in stone in his mind. My husband says that I spoon feed him the answers to his work. I just don't know what else to do and I find it so sad that I care more about him passing then he does.

Comment By : Gina

After I adopted my son he tried to tell me he wasn't going to do his work. I explained to him that school is his job just like being a kid is his job, as we have jobs as adults. My job as a nurse is to make sure bills are paid and we have food on the table. I also explained that if he wasn't going to do his job then it was bed time. He challenged me on this one time after that and found himself in bed at 5pm. I haven't had a problem since then. I stuck to my word about bed time and followed through.

Comment By : Challenged

Dear Challenged, -Even if that one night may have been difficult, it sounds like the benefit was ten-fold! -Good job, standing your ground with the consequence of going to bed if he wasn't doing his homework, his "job". -My mom told me once, "I say what I mean and I mean what I say!" She was fair, consistent, & follwed thru!

Comment By : PhyllisBizeeMom

* Homework hassles plague almost every family! One important thing to remember is that your son is not likely to take his homework as seriously as you do, nor will he seem to care if he passes or not. Kids just don't think the way adults do. Instead, focus on completing assignments within a specific time each day, and allowing your son to earn a daily privilege when those assignments are completed. For example, let your son know he has from four to five pm each day to get his work completed. Don't let him drag it out all night. When it is done by 5, he can have an hour of video game time (or something else important to him). If he is not done by five, he does not earn time that night, but he can try again the next day. You may have days where his homework is not done, or it is not done well, but by keeping to the daily structure, your son's homework skills will improve. While it is hard for most parents to accept, James says it is important to allow children to fail if that is a natural consequence of their choices. If your son becomes the biggest, oldest kid in the fourth grade, that in itself may be a natural motivation for him to change his homework habits! Empowering Parents has many articles on homework structure that may help your family. See "end the nightly homework struggle" to get started; you might also check out James' article on building self-esteem in children to help with the "I can't" attitude.

Comment By : Megan Devine, Parental Support Line Advisor

What do you mean kids should have weekends off "just like adults do"? I might be off work on weekends, but as a single mother, my "work" never ends. I try to fit in down time, fun time and activities. I would expect homework to be done Friday night so she doesn't have to think about it any more until Monday afternoon. Luckily her 5th grade teacher assigns homework Monday through Thursday. This is excellent practice on her part. When an extended project needs to be done, my child will be able to complete it without having to use a lot of valuable weekend "down time".

Comment By : roxie009

Sorry Megan, but I have to disagree with the "biggest, oldest kid in the fourth grade" being a realistic option for many parents. In my school district, the "education biz" is about getting the kids through, no matter what. Kids who are just plain lazy are getting IEP's all the time so the school does not "fail" at getting them through. My teacher husband is regularly pressured to pass kids who should not. (We're talking about kids who are doing practically nothing, not kids who are "on the bubble.") The minute my son's math teacher suspected that he had a hard time focusing, he changed the assignments to just doing half the work, so my son could succeed. Hooray! Now my son has permission to do half the work, and still get full credit! This is not helpful for a kid for whom one of his big issues is that he expects full credit for partial work at home all the time! Fortunately, my son has taken that as a challenge to prove that he can do the whole page, instead of just the even-numbered ones. But, I digress. . . Many schools are passing kids just so they can appear successful, and many parents actually have to fight the system to have their kid held back even once. Mom and Dad have to follow through on all the other kinds of things you suggested. Mom and Dad know what motivates their children. When my son was "threatened" with being held back, he promptly started making friends in the class below him!

Comment By : Jan in AZ

This advice is great if it works. I have a 14 year old daughter that was held back in 8th grade because she failed too many classes. Most of the failure was due to her not completing and turning in her homework, the rest was not studying for tests. I would literally sit down with her for hours to make her do her homework. She was given rewards and punishments (including weekends doesn't start) but she could care less. Due to the economy I have to work in afternoons and nights when my 3 girls are home doing their homework. I have been trying to get a full-time day job, but I am having no luck. My husband and my 14 year old get along like oil and water so he is of no help, neither respects each other. So I am stuck w/the homework issue. This repeat year of 8th grade is a little better, but she still is missing homework in 2 classes and failing the tests. I told her at the beginning of the year I would not accept anything less than a C or she would be grounded. She knows she can't be held back another year, but she still doesn't take responsibility and I don't know what will happen in high school. This is also very hard for me because I was always an honor student (but I don't push this on her at all - happy to see her get C's, estatic if she gets better). Any suggestions?

Comment By : frustrated but loving mom

* Dear Jan in AZ: Thanks for posting your comment. I agree that it's frustrating when schools won't -- or can't -- hold kids accountable. It often does fall to the parents to pick up where the schools leave off. Some schools will allow a child to fail as a natural consequence, as was the case in an earlier comment. What do you think, parents? How have you worked with, or worked around, your school's response to your child's lack of educational performance? Have you found your child's teachers to be supportive and helpful?

Comment By : Megan Devine, Parental Support Advisor

* Dear 'frustrated but loving mom': James Lehman recommends that when we give a child something to do, we check in on them, make sure they’re doing it, and if they need it, remind them to get back on track. It sounds like you can’t do this because you’re not home. Allow your husband to do it, even if he’s not as good at it as you are. Usually people are glad to let someone else do the unpleasant work. If you’re doing it, he doesn’t have to. I’d recommend that you completely back out of supervising homework so he has the opportunity to step up. Let your daughter and he work it out between them. Share this article with your husband and follow James’ recommendations around homework. We hear over and over again that they do work and work very well when applied as he recommends. Consider getting whatever help the school provides. Usually when a child is failing, you can request and get a parent/teacher meeting to address your daughter’s needs. (Make sure your husband goes to this meeting). She may qualify for in-school help or tutoring. I’m glad you wrote in. Many parents are faced with similar struggles around work and supervision of their children. Remember you can call the trained specialists on the support line for ideas on how to use the techniques from the Total Transformation Program. Keep in touch.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I know for sure that doing the child's homework for them, or right along with them is a total loss. The children loose the ability to figure things out on their own. If you look at the homework page it will often have numbers in the top corner referring a chapter number and section when the lesson was explained. The best thing we can do is help our children know how to navigate the textbook for answers. It helps them feel smart and capable. If we feed the answers to them they turn off their brains and wait. I learned the hard way, my oldest daughter, who tested gifted and talented, never finished High School. My younger children, though not as "bright" know with work they can figure it out and are proud when they do.

Comment By : lessons learned

We have figured out what routine assignments happen every week, and space them out throughout the weekend, with breaks in between.Even if we just do them on Sunday, it makes the week much better if the spelling's done, the verse memorized, the journal written, all those little things that add up to nightly hours during the week! We still have homework, but it's not sooo bad, and bedtimes are possible at a decent hour.

Comment By : Mary

My son's school has an online gradebook that I can check every day. The teachers do not update it EVERY day, but often. Any day that my son has an F in any class, he is grounded. "But I turned that in today," or "He didn't update it yet," do not count. It must be on the computer, or in writing from the teacher, or he is grounded. He had to beg a teacher for a note on the Friday before Halloween, or he would be home on Saturday night. He did it, and was actually passing everything at the same time. He was grounded for nearly 6 weeks before that!! He turned around and missed assignments and dropped to an F again, but actually worked to get it back up, and got to go out front again yesterday. Very slowly but surely. . . I also give him a set limit of time that I am available to help him. If he dawdles, or is rude to me, he loses his chance for assistance.

Comment By : Jan in AZ

We have a 10th grader who has had all privilages removed and still refusses to get homework log signed or bring home books needed to do homwork. We are at our wits end and feel as if he could care less about us or his work.He is a smart boy who is very liable but is more interested in social partof school. But his behavior is what stops him from having a social life. what can we do to stop the constance battle?

Comment By : margare tin NC

* Dear Margaret, A lot of parents and kids struggle over homework. Removing all privileges does not tend to changes in behavior. And, don't wait for your son to care about school - kids brains simply do not work that way. You will need to use something he values in order to get compliance with what you value. If your son is simply not bringing books home, or does not get his log signed, you might tie certain privileges to those tasks. For example, let your son know that he needs to get his homework log signed each day, and bring home the appropriate books. When he can show evidence of these things, he earns half an hour of computer time that evening. It is not enough to just tell your son to do it; you will also need to help him problem solve - what does he need to do in order to remember these things? Does he need to set an alarm on his phone to remind him? Would another prompt work better? If he does not bring his log and books home, he does not earn his computer time, AND he will have to let you know what he is going to do differently the next day to help himself remember. You might check out end the nightly homework struggle in the EP archives for more ideas.

Comment By : Megan Devine, Parental Support Line Advisor

I have problems of lying from my 10 year old son. He will not get his agenda signed and when I ask him he says that there was a substitute. Found out from the teacher she was in all the week. Also found out he has not been writing all his assignments in the agenda (and the teacher signed and did not catch it - saying she relies on the kids to write everything). He said he did not like that subject (Language/Arts) and if I knew about the test/assignment, I'd have made him work on it. He knows he's almost at a C, but still did this. He cried when he learnt he was almost as a C and this episode happened after..... So it's like he can't put not doing his assignment and getting a C together. Please advise on what I should do.

Comment By : Radha

* Dear ‘Radha’: At times, homework can be as frustrating for parents as it is for kids. It sounds like having him sign an agenda isn’t working because the teacher is not able to look at it and see if it’s correct. Therefore, there is no point in asking that it get signed. It is still a good study habit, to keep track of what you need to do for assignments, so continue to require him to use this technique. You might just set aside a specific time of day for homework and a limited amount of time, such as 50 minutes for someone his age, that he has to spend doing homework. This is always study time. He cannot do anything BUT study so there is no incentive for him to say he has no homework. Try to offer encouragement and help getting him started. Tell him he will earn a privilege that evening if he works on his schoolwork during ‘homework time’. Be sure to understand his capabilities to determine if he is working up to his abilities. For example, a C grade is a very acceptable grade for some children in certain subjects that are particularly hard for them. Check in with his school teacher for help with this assessment. We will be able to give you more specific instructions on how to help your son with his homework when you call the Support Line. It’s helpful for us to know as much detail as possible and to take a look at your interactions with your son. We can really come up with specific, helpful ideas. Give us a call.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I disagree with the comments about sports having priority over homework. BOTH are equally important. Both our sons have played tackle or flag football for the past 7 years. My husband is one of their coaches. When a team member does not show up for practice, it throws the entire team off in getting ready for their weekly games. This is not fair to the other team mates and certainly is frustrating for the coaches who give so much of their time to the boys. If a child is going to participate in an after school sport, then it is the prime opportunity for the parents to help him understand the importance of managing their time. This lesson carries over into adulthood when we must multi task our entire lives.

Comment By : cindy

I think my child is ADD, it is so hard for her to stay focused. she is 3rd grade. i have to explain to her several times how to do something before she really gets it. its like she is not hearing me when i talk to her.in math i have to tell her several times how to do a math problem and sometimes she still don't get it. i have had her talk to a councilor but she seems to think there is nothing wrong but that she is lazy. i disagree. i don't know what to do i really think she needs mediciation so i don;t know what to do.she gets adverage grades, so somebody please help me.

Comment By : nelson282

* To ‘Nelson282’: It sounds like you have made some observations that lead you to be concerned about your daughter and you are not sure how to help her. You can always start by making an appointment with her pediatrician and discussing your concerns. If you think she might need more help at school in order to perform to her full potential, take a look at this article about how to approach the school system if you think your child has ADD, ADHD, or any other condition that might impact a child’s ability to fully succeed. It will give you many helpful tips for communicating with your child’s teachers and other school staff about your concerns. We wish you the best as you continue to work through this. Take care.

Comment By : Sara Bean, M.Ed., Parental Support Advisor

Thanks for the great tips! It is nice to have a plan clearly laid out in front of me. I disagree, however, with setting sports aside to do homework. We teach our kids that when they sign up for sports, they are agreeing to take on the responsibility for being on the team 100%. Most teams need all players at all games and practices or they will not learn how to play well together.

Comment By : Alissa

Hi, I have a first grade daughter and she is having a hard time with school. She gets 100s and then she fails some tests. It is very frustrating specially for my husband that is dealing with her.Right now, I'm away from home due to my job. I don't know what to do because i'm not home. My little one is lacking motivation. Please help

Comment By : Miriam

* To Miriam: It can be very frustrating to watch as your child has a hard time in school. It might be helpful to start out with some problem solving with your daughter about school. Try to remain calm, and ask what is going on for her. For example, you or your husband can say, “You did so well on your quiz last week. I’m wondering what was going on for you with your test this week.” From there, you can do some problem solving about what she can do differently to prepare for her classwork. Perhaps she needs extra study time for certain subjects, or a different way of preparing for some tests. You or your husband could also talk with the teacher to see if he or she has any ideas. I am including an article I think you might find helpful: Sinking Fast at School: How to Help Your Child Stay Afloat. Good luck to you and your family as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

Thank you Miss Rebecca, One other thing I did not mention is that I'm in the military and we're moving again within a year and this is my girl's 4th school in a period of a year and 3 months. I think she lost her motivation because of that. I'm very sad. Last week she failed a test and today she got a 100. We think she is doing fine and then she fails.

Comment By : Miriam

My son is very bright and everything he actually completes and turns in is A/B work...problem is getting him to turn the work in. His school does not use books, or place digital images of the homework online. They do not update grades or homework regularly either. I can request repeated copies of the work and make sure he completes it, but there is no way for me to ensure he actually turns it in. I have tried removing every priviledge and offering it back as an incentive. There just isn't anything he cares about enough to make an effort. The work is easy, he aces the tests, and I can understand why he has no interest in doing homework that he finds both unchallenging and uninteresting. Even adults with a monotonous, mind-numbing job have a paycheck to look forward to...but their job ends when they leave work and his continues long into the night as he receives more than 70 minutes of nightly homework (7th grade). He generally receives 20-40 minutes per class per night...which takes him directly from school to bedtime without anything to look forward to. I am at a loss for what to do at this point.

Comment By : rilea2005

Homework....don't we say adults should not bring their work home with them. These children are spending 9 months out of each year working a double shift plus working weekends. When is their time for family, scouts, sports. Just look around at the kids, they look exhausted and stress out. No wonder so many of them by the time they reach teens are depressed and turning to drugs and alcohol to make them feel good. All work and no play makes a dull LIFE!

Comment By : Robbie

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