Homework Hell? Part I: How to Turn It Around

by James Lehman, MSW
Homework Hell? Part I:  How to Turn It Around

Has homework time become the seventh circle of hell in your house, with you nagging your kids to do their assignments and fighting with them over each math problem? If you and your child are battling nightly over schoolwork, read on to hear the real solutions James Lehman offers to this frustrating problem, in Part I of Homework Hell.

Avoid getting sucked into power struggles with your child at all costs. Let me be very clear here: fighting over homework is a losing proposition for both of you.

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, my advice to you is to avoid getting sucked into power struggles with your child at all costs. Let me be very clear here: fighting over homework is a losing proposition for both of you. 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? In my opinion, 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. This week, I’ll be telling you about some powerful things you can do at home to change your child’s mindset about doing schoolwork. And next week, I’ll give you specific tips that will help your child get the work done—and help you leave homework hell behind.

  1. Start Early
    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.
  2. 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. By the way, when it’s homework time, it should be quiet time in your whole house. Siblings shouldn’t be in the next room watching TV or playing video games. If your child doesn’t have homework some nights, it still should be a time when there is no Facebook, TV or video games. They can read a book or a magazine in their room, but there should be no electronics. In our house, homework time was usually after dinner, from seven to eight o’clock. The whole idea is to take away distractions. The message to your child is, “You're not going to do anything anyway, so you might as well do your homework.”
  3. 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.
  4. Know Your Child’s Homework List
    I think 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. You might have to work to get your child’s teachers to do this, but you're going to get important information from them about your child’s progress. And the bottom line is that you want to hold your child accountable for doing their work. That way, when the report card comes home, you—and your child—won’t be surprised by the grades they receive.
  5. 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. (call out 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.
  6. 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.

In Part 2 of this series, James will give you some specific techniques to get your child off the starting block when it comes to homework, tips on how to motivate teenagers to do their work, and how to handle conflicts with after school activities and schoolwork.

 


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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."

READER'S COMMENTS

excellent article. I have have been doing most of the suggestions, however, I have a problem with one of the teachers. My son's English teacher will not work with me, saying he needs to learn on his own and if he fails, so be it. I contacted the guidance counselor who is not much help either. Any suggestions?

Comment By : Patti

Excellent suggestions. I look forward to the followup article! Patti, I suggest meeting face to face with the teacher and guidance counselor. If that doesn't work then move up the chain of command until someone is willing to help you with getting your child the education he deserves. My problem is managing my ADD son's homework, daughters homework and a toddler. My husband works evenings so I have it all to do on my own. If I don't stand right over my ADD son he doesn't do any work. My other 2 children are getting neglected as I try to drag homework out of the oldest every night. He has homework in every subject most nights. I'm loosing my mind!

Comment By : Suzanne

This is good but how to motivate the child is another issue. I am not home when she is home and have put parent blocks. Her biggest distraction right now are boys. Her emotions are all over the map. She refuses to listen and so I just go away. (14 year old chasing 18 year old boys) She gets hooked into them and falls for it. Although has shown great strength in non risky behaviour...Boys are the riskiest for her.

Comment By : Wondering wandering

Great advice...my wife and I are struggling with this with our oldest son right now. I look forward to putting these ideas into practice and seeing results. Thank you!

Comment By : Chris

We have been dealing with all these issues for a couple of years and they have been escalating as my ADHD son goes into puberty. We DO get caught up in the arguing but it's mostly about how it is all about HIM. (We adopted him @ 3) He is responsible for all of his work, turning it in, making it up if absent, communicating with the teachers etc. He chooses NOT to follow through, he chooses to live in an "oh poor me" world. We will begin professional counseling soon to help him with that spiral and address his inability to focus. He compares himself to his 16 yr old brother who doesn't let things fall because his motivations are free periods in school and sports. He thinks he can start "tomorrow" getting his work done, keeping up-to-date etc. It's never "today". His school counselor is awesome although most of the teachers haven't been much help. We will continue to use Dr. Lehman's techniques and look forward to part 2 of this article.

Comment By : Floundering in Colorado

In my opinion Homework Hell starts because the Child is not confident about the work and feels anxious. Think about how you feel when tasked with something that you have no idea how to to. My daughter was taking 4-6 hours per night just to do 15 or so math questions. I pulled her from the Private School she was in and now homeschool her. Now she does 30+ questions in under 20 minutes and this only took a couple of months of working on her times tables and properly explaining to her how to do the problems. The ground rules outlined above are also very important. Obviously home schooling is not the solution for everyone, but it showed me the root problem for my Daughter.

Comment By : Jason in San Jose California

This is the source of most of our home problems. My son always puts off his homework and then panics. Since he is in HS his teachers all say it is his responsibility to get the assignments done. One issue is the distractions of today's electronics. When he has an assignment with a partner they video chat to get it done. Of course, there is more going on than just work. Also, my son claims he needs music to help him focus. I've heard this from other folks but wonder if it is really helping or just another distraction.

Comment By : Distracted

Dear Distracted, I wanted to comment on the last portion of your post because I too find music to be helpful when I'm trying to focus on something. I am the type of person that can't concentrate in complete silence, but finds abstract noise distracting. Music is a noise that I can control... I have a hard time falling asleep without it as well.

Comment By : ridgeback522

the above comments all bring up valid points. No amount of structure is going to help the child who for whatever reason, doesnt truly understand the material they are supposed to be working on. Make sure to sit through at least one problem with you child if they appear to be struggling, its not always procrastination. And my son and I both need background noise to focus as do alot of people. Let him try it once and monitor it, if he does seem to be able to get it done and get a good grade, its probably helping.

Comment By : Power

If I walk away from my son he won't do his work! He can be distracted by anything and by evening his med. is worn off, but it's too late for more or he won't eat dinner or go to sleep! We try to tackle all we can over the weekend, which he hates, but it makes the week more tollerable. He's always been this way and I await the day when "the quicker you get it done, the sooner you get to have fun"actually clicks in his brain!

Comment By : PSm.

Hi, I am a grandmother of an 11 year old boy. He was on ADHD meds until about 8 or 9 between there, sometime during summer he moved with his dad and was weened off his meds. We all modified his diet and never had to take meds again. If your children are on meds since a young age and never taken off how do you know if they have out grown their ADD or ADHD? The meds could be their problems. GREAT ARTICLE!

Comment By : acctingmyway

* Dear Patti: Sometimes this happens where you run into a situation where behavior requirements will not change. We face this all the time in life-- whether it’s in school, your job, or obeying the traffic laws, we have to find ways to change our own behavior to comply with the rules and expectations. Even if you disagree with this teacher’s methods, it is important to tell your son that he is expected to be respectful and comply with all his teacher’s requests. You don’t want your child becoming defiant toward this teacher because he knows you are going to ‘get her in trouble’ with the principal, etc. You may be dealing with a teacher who believes that to learn how to stay on track, to be organized, and to learn good day to day study skills is as important as the lesson content. When you are working with this type of teacher it may be a good opportunity to tell your son that you will do your best to help him improve the skills he needs in this class. Try to follow carefully James’ tips in item #2 of this article: Make Night Time Structured Time. If he cannot stay up with the content of the class, see if there are tutors available, or a study group he can participate in. Its lots of work being a parent, isn’t it. I’m very glad you wrote in. We hear this type of question now and again on the Support Line. Good luck and please keep in touch. Don’t forget you can always call the trained specialists on the Support Line for ideas on how to implement the techniques of the Total Transformation Program.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I've got a 2nd grader and it helps to be in the room and, if possible, at the table, while it is getting done. It gives them the idea that you're all in it together helping, even if you are doing your own email or other work.

Comment By : homeschoolmom

For my son, it seems to work best if I am in the same room or within his sight--easily accessible in case he needs help. I don't really understand the reasoning behind "no electronics" on "no homework" nights. That almost seems like a punishment for not having homework.

Comment By : Wordmaster

Wordmaster: Thank you for your comments. The idea is actually to have a time during the evening when electronics are off-limits--not a "no electronics on no homework nights". So, for an hour (or however long your son takes to do his homework) electronics are shut off. Then, after homework is done, he is free to do whatever he wants. On no homework nights, there is still a quiet time where he can read books or do other non-technology things. This kind of structure works very well for many families, but of course, you have to use what works for you. Hope that clears up your concern!

Comment By : Elisabeth, EP Editor

Carole Banks hit the nail on the head in regards to Patti's message. You cannot force the world to change for your child just because you love them. Your child must change or suffer their own doing. I think we need to be careful with using the structured night as "the only” form of punishment where the child cannot advance to the next segment without completing the first. I think ultimately the real punishment is in the child failing at school and the risk of being held back a year. Sure, don't let your child play video games in substitution, but attaching this as the primary punishment for not doing homework is miss-relating the bad behavior. We should explain to them that by not completing their homework the consequences will be poor grades and eventually repeating the same year over...and... "you're still not getting dessert." I think too many parents attempt to protect their children with pillows around their delicate and fragile minds, but in doing so I think they can cause life-long narcissists and or breeding grounds for sociopathic behavior. I could be wrong about that last bit :-)

Comment By : Micah

My daughter is 14 this Oct and I just found out that she has not been completing her homework since the beginning of the year, occasionally over the last 2 years. She has been lying to me and it seems to be a habit. Her results haven't varied that much as she is an intelligent girl. What can I do to stop the lying and have the homework done?

Comment By : Ravi

* Ravi: Lying and homework are two issues we hear about very frequently on the Parental Support Line. We recommend a structure in your home in which the electronics and social privileges are on hold until your daughter has spent at least an hour working on schoolwork. Think of this is as a mandatory study time each day whether she claims to have homework or not. The lying is a separate issue that requires some discussion. Ask your daughter what her reason was for telling the lie. Reiterate your rules and expectations about lying and then talk about what she can do differently next time she is in a similar situation. Give a standard consequence for lying and keep it short, since you report that she lies very often. An example is that she loses the computer for 2 hours. This is an ongoing process that will need to be repeated, as there is no way to stop your daughter from lying—instead we want to work on the skills she needs to stop lying and hold her accountable when she does. We wish you luck as you continue to work through this. Take care.

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

We've instituted a limit on the amount of homework the kids have to do of 10 minutes per grade level. We are finding that lessons are learned more effectively and the amount of complaints, frustrations, cheating and stress has noticeably diminished since limiting the hours and hours of homework given by teachers. I've been reading a lot about homework and the standardized testing requirements, and one thing is abundantly clear. There is too much homework given in the first place, much of it is busy work, and the rest is only given to "pass the test" , not learn the material. Numerous accredited studies show that most homework is counter productive and is a major contributing factor to cheating, exhaustion, stress and depression. check out challengesuccess.org. Our kids know when its too much, and they should speak out, ie: complain. They don't want to cheat, but volumes of homework give them no choice. I say FIRST make the schedule reasonable, THEN enforce any behavioral issues.

Comment By : Loving Dad

Loving Dad makes some great points and I will follow his suggestion to check out the challengesuccess.org website. After homeschooling my children and them subsequently graduating from college, I am now a step grandmother to a great middle school boy. He has undiagnosed depression and is sliding into despair. His mother views any assistance or advice as interference and she can't see that the Homework Hell is resultant of this depression and stress.

Comment By : Grandma Jo

While all of this makes complete sense, it rests on the assumption that the child is rational and will comply with the structure that is imposed. If he/she were that rational then homework time in the first place wouldn't be a battle. Suppose it is impossible to develop the structure because when you do impose the limitations, the child becomes physically and verbally abusive? More punishment? More restrictions? Again, makes complete sense. But suppose when those restrictions/punishments are enacted, the child gets out of control and gets destructive? Again, more punishment? Again, punishment only makes sense if the child will accept it. What do you do when the child simply will ot accept it and becomes abusive? Call 911?

Comment By : lb

* To “lb”: Thank you for writing in. You ask some great questions. We wouldn’t advise adding more punishments or restrictions in an attempt to motivate a child to do homework. Consequence stacking usually isn’t an effective way to get a child to comply with expectations. Instead, we suggest having clear expectations around homework and realistic consequences, such as no access to electronics until homework is completed. Something to keep in mind is there is also a natural consequence to not completing homework: low grades and possibly failing the class and needing to retake it. In situations where a child’s acting out crosses the line and safety becomes an issue, we do advise calling the police. There are certain things to take into account when making the decision on whether or not to call the police. This can also be a very difficult choice for a parent to make; calling the police on your child isn’t easy. There are a few articles on Empowering Parents that discuss calling the police when safety becomes a concern. You might find these ones useful for your situation: Is It Time to Call the Police on Your Child? Assaultive Behavior, Verbal or Physical Abuse, Drugs and Crime, ODD Kids: How to Manage Violent Behavior in Children and Teens and When Kids Get Violent: “There’s No Excuse for Abuse”. Good luck to you and your family as you work through this challenging issue. Take care.

Comment By : D. Rowden, Parental Support Advisor

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