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Homework Survival for Parents

by James Lehman, MSW
Homework Survival for Parents

You graduated from school years ago. But you’re still dealing with homework every night for hours on end, and it’s no fun. If your child refuses to bring work home, won’t do it at night or gives you endless grief when you try to help, Empowering Parents has some answers for you. Here, James Lehman explains how to get your child to do his homework so that you can stop the nightly tug of war and stop doing the work for him.

Homework is often a barometer of what’s going on in the child’s life, and it’s easy for parents to misinterpret the issue. Sometimes the child can’t do the work because of a learning disability. Very often, the issue really isn’t the homework. The homework is what we call the “incident.” The issue is an unwillingness to do the work.

"There’s a difference between a bribe and a reward. If you bribe your child to do his homework, the kid has the power. In a reward program, the parent has the power."

If the homework struggles you experience are part of a pattern of acting out behavior, then the child is doing it to get power over you. His intention is to do what he wants to do, when he wants to do it, and homework just becomes another battlefield. And, as on any other battlefield, parents can use tactics that succeed or tactics that fail.

It’s easy for parents to get into power struggles over homework. They’re concerned about their kids performing and getting a good education. Meanwhile, they work like dogs all day providing for the family. When they get home at night, they have to set up the evening, make dinner, do laundry, and help the kids with homework. The last thing they want to do is fight with their kids over it. So what tends to happen is parents take shortcuts, and it’s a trap they fall into. One shortcut can be doing the homework for the child. Parents do this especially with school projects. Another shortcut can also be yelling and fighting and screaming rather than putting an effective plan in place to get the work done. A shortcut can be bribing the child to do the work instead of rewarding him for doing it. We’ll talk more about that in a minute.

So how do you stop the battle and get your kids to do their homework?

1. Talk to your child’s teachers on a weekly basis. When you’re dealing with a child who has problems doing homework, you have to communicate with teachers weekly and on a detailed level. If it’s important to you that your child succeeds, then you have to work closely with the school. Because all you have otherwise is the kid’s word for it. Make sure that the amount of homework is appropriate for your child’s learning ability and style. Go to school conferences. Know what’s being assigned and how much. My son had ADD. I used to make him do all the homework, and it would take him longer, and it was difficult for him. Making him do the entire assignment was the theory base at the time. Then a new theory base came along that focused on getting kids to do what they can accomplish well in that time. If it takes the child the entire time to do two problems because he has ADD, and other kids can do all the problems, then that’s what he can do. He’ll learn just as much. Parents have to know what their kids are capable of. Don’t ask the teacher to give less than what’s necessary to learn the subject. But know if your child has some learning deficit, and talk to teachers about it.

Communicate with the school to determine what homework has been done and what hasn’t been done for the week. If your child has a chronic problem with homework, set up a system where, every Friday, the teacher informs you about what homework is owed for that week. Specifically, what pages in what books. Then, your child’s weekend should not start until that homework is done. If Friday comes along and it turns out that he has two more hours of homework to do, then he doesn’t get to start playing video games, get computer time or go out that night until that week’s homework is done.

2. Reward performance consistently. Every Friday that you get a note from the teacher saying that your child has done all the homework assigned for the week, your child gets a star or a check mark or a point. After so many stars, he gets a treat or reward, such as an activity he likes. It doesn’t have to be something that costs money. It can be going to the beach or the park with the parent or spending some time with the parent individually. If you’re setting up a system with a younger child, a reward can be that you take half an hour to sit down and play some games with your child that he likes.

Have a menu of rewards that your child will enjoy. Sit down and write up the menu with him. Don’t associate it with homework or anything else. Just find out what he likes to do. Your kid will probably say something like go to a concert or a sports event. Don’t discourage those things. Say, “Okay, that’s interesting.” Then keep going until you get a list of realistic things that your child will enjoy and work toward.

Remember earlier I said that one of the shortcuts we take as parents is bribing our kids rather than rewarding them for performance. It’s a subtle difference. A reward is something that has performance programmed into it. A bribe is something you give your child after negotiating with him over something that is already a responsibility. For instance, if my son got B’s or above, he got a certain reward, which was linked to what we could afford. It was a reward for his performance. A bribe is this: “If you do this tonight, I’ll do this for you on Saturday.” It changes the balance of power. In a reward program, the parent has the power. When you’re rewarding performance with stars or checks, and the child is completing the work and earning an activity or thing he likes, you have the power. If you’re bribing your child to do his homework, the kid has the power.

3. Withhold activities consistently, especially with older kids. Reward adolescents and teenagers with things that older kids like to do: going to the mall unsupervised, spending time on the phone, having a phone, spending time on the computer, having a computer in their room, going to parties, dances and sports activities. Withhold the things that are important to them if the work doesn’t get done. If the kid’s homework isn’t finished by Friday afternoon, the weekend doesn’t start until the homework is done. Don’t give in to, “Oh, there’s a football game, and they’re depending on me.” Too bad. If you can hold true to this rule once, and deal with the behavior, next week the homework will be done.

4. Have your child maintain a homework log. Monitor and maintain it throughout the week with the child. Check off what gets done, and let him know that if he’s dishonest, you’ll be talking with the teacher, and he’ll just have to make it up on Friday and delay his weekend if he doesn’t do it.

5. Don’t let kids do homework on the computer in their room if you can avoid it. Have them use the family computer if possible. If they do it in their room, the door to the room should be open, and you should check in from time to time. No text messaging, no fooling around. Take the phone away. It doesn’t matter who bought it, who owns it, etc. It’s in your house. Use of it should be controlled by you.

6. Use hurdle help, as described in The Total Transformation Program. Help them when they’re stuck. Help them come up with ideas. It’s okay to brainstorm with your child as long as he’s doing the work. Do not do the work for your child. The work is his responsibility. Not yours.

7. Stay the course. You’ve got to hold true to what you decide. Expect the child to resist and act out. But stick with it regardless. After he misses one or two football games, trips to the mall or nights out, he’ll decide it isn’t worth it, and he’ll do the work. Know what’s important to your child, and use the ability to have and use those things as a reward for getting work done.

8. Be prepared to let the child fail. Then manage their life around failure. Example: “If you get a D, your phone will be taken away until you bring it up to a B.” Communicate with the teacher. Don’t give the phone back until the grade is back up to a B. Don’t get stuck in the trap of, “But my son bought the phone, therefore he has a right to it.” He doesn’t. The right to use it is earned.

Put this plan in place with your child at a time when things are calm and going well. Not in the heat of an argument. Tell your child that you’re going to try something different this year with homework that will make it go better for everyone, then explain the system. You’ll find that adding this little bit of structure at home will do three things: 1.) make your life easier as a parent, 2.) make you more effective as a parent, and 3.) help your child to get the work done.

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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."


wow, it showed up in my email in my hour of need. THANKS!

Comment By : Bamedeo

I am very happy to read this i am from Mexico city and my two kids have add and the teachers do not understand what is add,it has been very hard for me.

Comment By : Angelica

Thanks for the help... send more!

Comment By : cbruceheather

All the things you suggest are just plain common sense. There are no new revelations here. What happens when all you talk about still fails, and the child is still stubborn, disrespectful and lies about school, friends, etc?

Comment By : essarex

Brief, to-the-point. Includes ideas that are proven to work -- by me. We've used the program, it was a tremendous help, and the ideas included here, especially about homework help, are making the evenings easier.

Comment By : mom2bbjandag

W/r/t checking in with teachers, I have an alarm on my PDA set for when to check in. For my middle-schooler, it's monthly. For my junior in high school, I told him I'm not checking in unless I see a pattern of problems. I set up a contact group within my email for each kid's group of teachers, so I can just easily shoot off a quick email stating I'm checking in. The teachers love the contact.

Comment By : mominthemiddle

This article really hit home with me because of the struggle the teacher deals with and the struggle I experience as a parent. Things are taken away - tv, computer, etc. Thanks for the excellent article.

Comment By : Marilyn Theel

Wow this email came just in the nick of time! Now I can work with my husband more to help our son. I am so thankful for this program.

Comment By : MomKim

I have been doing most of this with the older one, never dawned on me to try it with the younger one but now I will.

Comment By : femalemedic00

I don't have this problem right now, but it's great info. for future reference. I will pass it on to those in need.

Comment By : keepinitreal

Perfect information just as I would expect. Thank you very much, Keith Stateler

Comment By : stateler

I owned a preschool here in Leyte, Philippines.I have grown up children and I always try my best to spend quality time with them. Reading your articles is really great. It guides me and enlightened my mind.

Comment By : teacher rose

This is in reply to essarex. I would say that if you are trying the Total transformation techniques & they are not working than you may not be taking away the things or activities in your childs life that he/she feel are important. Once I found out what my child felt was important & not what I thought was important to them than the program worked really well.

Comment By : Lynn2

Great advise! My son is a first grader so I'm new to all this extra work!! But I'm going to do the weekly reward system...wish me luck!

Comment By : MamaGreene

This is a great article. In order for this theory to work, the following conditions must be met: 1) Both parents should be on board on the same page, 2) The message to the kids should be delivered in a calm, respectful, and caring manner consistently, 3) You should know your child well to adjust your tactics and be flexible. Every child is different and we have to watch for that.

Comment By : Josef

I am really glad for your articles. For although some may say they are common sense, I lack 'common sense' when it comes to dealing with my child. What your articles do is they spell out each issue and then describe specific steps that can be taken to solve it. You focus my attention on the things that I can do so that I feel empowered to change my behavior, which is a powerful example to my son. I don't have to be lost in my feelings about his behavior, I can respond by calmly holding him accountable for his actions in a way that increases his chances of desiring to change his behavior and that has given me hope. It's much better than doing things in a way that increases bitterness and strife. Thank you for your program.

Comment By : jklapp

i totally believe in the program! these are ideas that i know will work and have been pushing for for about 12 years, what is giving me hope is that my husband has always given back whatever i took before the conditions were met! but my husband actually bought the program, so i have hopes that he will finally get on board.

Comment By : the enemy

I found this article so great. I have a kindergarten 6 year old who acts out and refuses to do her homework. I'm going to try the reward system, see what she will work for. I know there must be something out there a 6 yr. old will want bad enough to do all "her" homework for!

Comment By : mojomc

Our 12 year old son's guidance counselor had told us just two months ago, that we couldn't take things away such as TV, computer and cell phone privileges and that this would just make our son angry. We felt powerless at this suggestion. Total Transformation reminds us all that these things are not rights but privileges.

Comment By : sejb

To essarex & Lynn2, We too have tried EVERYTHING! Nothing is working. Our daughter says she's interested in having a cell phone (what 13 year old isn't) yet she doesn't do or turn in homework consistently. When we give her the consequence (and we always do), she just shrugs it off as "oh well, another failure". We've tried later bedtimes, hanging out with friends, you name it we've tried it! She says she wants these things, but doesn't do what has to be done. We've gone as far as to say we get to choose her school next year which will be a repeat of the 8th grade and still nothing. These techniques work for "normal" kids. Severe underachievers are another story. Is there something that can be done to help them (and us)?

Comment By : About Given Up

What do you do when parents are divided when it comes to the importance of school. My husband can't see that he makes excuses for our sons poor grades, lack of interest in school etc. We can't even talk about our son without it becoming a big yelling match. This is starting to tear our marriage apart. (On the plus side, we don't do this in front of our son.) i really feel our son is headed for trouble, just because his parents are so divided.

Comment By : Dianna

I am with About Given Up. My 14 year old could care less about school and homework. We have tried incentives and have taken EVERYTHING away from her (for 2-3 months). Doesn't matter, she still refuses to do it.I have talked to her teachers and her counselor at school. Her counselor told me to let her have everything back and let her be in control of her destiny. So now instead of a few D's and F's she is getting all F's. I have told her that she will repeat 8th grade if this keeps up, but acts as if it is no big deal. This really kills me (especially since I was an honor roll student). I honestly do not know what else to do. She has been diagnosed with ADD and ODD but refuses to take meds. Does anyone have any suggestions?

Comment By : Brenda H.

* Dear Brenda H, You ask a very good question about consequences and it’s one we hear asked all the time. “My child doesn’t care about consequences”, etc. I have a few ideas for you. First, in the heat of the moment, when you have given a child a consequence for their behavior, it is normal for them to be upset and to “say” that they don’t care. I would not put much stock into that remark. The second suggestion I have for you is to look at how you’re setting up your consequences. One of the many terrific ideas that James Lehman has in his program is to give a consequence for as short a time as possible. By doing this, you build in incentive for the child to do what you have asked of them to earn that privilege back. If you simply take something away for a long period of time, they will learn to live without it. In addition to the steps that James outlines in this article to set-up a structure for homework success, you can add a component that rewards privileges daily for work done each day. This system has incentives and consequences in place and is described in Lesson 6 of the Total Transformation Program. For example, if your child does homework during their set study time that day, they can earn a privilege that night—1 hour of computer time, for example. If she does not study that day, she loses computer privileges for that night only. Tomorrow is a new day and she has an opportunity to do her homework and earn privileges that night. This structure can work well with kids diagnosed with Oppositional Defiant Disorder because it gives them a ‘choice’, which they need. She can choose to do homework that day or not. If she chooses not to, you implement consequences that day. You can still use James’ techniques described in the article of withholding weekend activities until work for the week is caught up or withholding the cell phone until a grade is pulled up in addition to this daily incentive/consequence for daily work completed. In cases where your child is currently failing, I would recommend that you still suggest that she does some school work each day to get in the habit of developing good study skills. She may not be able to do enough work to catch up at this point but try to work with your child and the school to develop a plan going forward on what courses she can sign up for next year and what can she take this summer, etc. We also have some really good articles from ‘Dr. Bob’ on the web site. He has developed a program for kids with ADHD called Total Focus. She may need to brush up on her study skills and remember how to manage her homework, by making a list so that she is only focusing on one thing at a time, etc. She may need help developing a routine and help getting her organized. Be sure to give her a place to study away from distractions and keep the house as quiet as possible during homework time. Keep in touch with us and let us know how things are progressing. Good luck.

Comment By : Carole Banks, Parental Support Line Advisor

I have a bit of an odd thing that happens regarding structure is implemented, new school year is started, ect...and my kids (boys age 5, 11, 12) are gung-ho, totally complainant, and non-argumentative for the first several weeks to a month of it. Then, things are going very well so I ease up on them a little and don't monitor as heavily (well earned I think, because they are doing well and don't need me to micro-manage them). Then there is one little in-discrepancy. A plausible excuse is made, and it's chalked up to understandable, we all have a bad day, or make mistakes. Then a little while later another...and another...and before I, as a parent, realize it... we are in total chaos, no one is doing their work, kids (older) are failing, and I'm doing homework FOR them b/c they "don't understand". How does this happen? And why do I suddenly "wake up" one day and kids are running the show and I'm very lovingly be manipulated so they can do as they please? Do I just miss the transition signs because I'm not attentive enough? Or is there something else I'm missing? How do you keep the momentum going into an all time routine instead of a two month routine with a perpetual downslide that results in my being upset allllll the time before I realize we've gone astray? I’ve just ordered the program and am looking forward to its arrival. I don’t have children with ODD, ADD, or other challenges so I really sort of feel like the problem is with MY parenting…

Comment By : myboys3

My son has struggled with homework through out the years. The school implemented a program that all students receive school furnished computers and all homework is accessed via the schools network (requiring internet access). My son is now failing all his classes as instead of working on school work he surfs the web. If I take his computer he uses the excuse that he can't do his work because he is unable to access it. I have supervised and sat with him but am at a lose of what to do. He surfs the web at school during class as well.

Comment By : Pam

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school related problems, homework, coping skills, ADHD, ADD, consequences, Out of control children, James Lehman, The Total Transformation, behavioral therapists, children back talking, child attitude

Responses to questions posted on are not intended to replace qualified medical or mental health assessments. We cannot diagnose disorders or offer recommendations on which treatment plan is best for your family. Please seek the support of local resources as needed. If you need immediate assistance, or if you and your family are in crisis, please contact a qualified mental health provider in your area, or contact your statewide crisis hotline.

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