The Homework Battle: How to Get Children to Do Homework

by Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
The Homework Battle: How to Get Children to Do Homework

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 canít make him care. Instead, focus on what helps his behavior improve. Donít focus on the attitude as much as what heís 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.

Related: Learn how to set limits and get results with your child

You might be thinking to yourself, “You don’t know my child. I can’t motivate him to do anything.” But you canstart todo 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.”

Related: How come the consequences I give my child don't work?

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.

Related: Homework battles? Get on the same page with your spouse and present a united front

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.

Related: How to set up a structure in your home that will help your child succeed

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.”

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For more than 25 years, Debbie has offered compassionate and effective therapy and coaching, helping individuals, couples and parents to heal themselves and their relationships. Debbie is the creator of the Calm Parent AM & PM program and is also the author of numerous books for young people on interpersonal relations.


How do you get a 14 year old to physically sit with you to do homework when they refuse? What happens when you take privileges away and they act as though they don't care.

Comment By : carol

Ahh that was my 14 year old.. we made a list of house rules and posted them, including homework. Homework is to be done everyday before he can do anything else (take away all privileges), which includes no cell phone, no Ipod, no TV, no radio, no video games, no talking with friends, no biking, no get the son wanted to be able to stay after school on Fridays so we offered choices on how we could accomdate his request, which is on Fridays as long as he doesn't get in trouble at school he can put off the homework until Sat and again can't do anything until its done on Sat, his chores however still have to be done before anything and he can choose to do them in the am before school on Friday..My son has adhd and ODD and is not medicated and after a few days your son will choose to do his homework. Just tell your son the new house rule is no privileges until homework is completed. My son too used to tell me "I don't care if you take away my outside time, I'll just use my phone, Ipod, etc..Haven't had a problem with the homework since.

Comment By : kim

Such excellent and sound advice. I only wish I had had this advice and insight 10 years ago. My son is now 22 but there are still good tips here to gleen from this. Once I stopped the power struggles, life has become much better around home. THough he is not in school at this time, the principles here work to help motivate him to make his own choices in his life. He is finally starting to "self-motivate" which is unbelievable since he used to lable himself as the most unmotivated person in the world. Thank you and I hope many others can be helped with this advice. It's truly amazing to see my son respond to the changes I have made (no more over-functioning for him, no more anxiety about what he should or shouldn't be doing) and putting the responsibility on him now. WHat a relief to me as a parent!!

Comment By : Lucy

Please note the exceptions to Learning disabilities. We tried to let our son do it on his own, he nearly died in an overdose of ADHD meds a year ago in an attempt to better focus on a major test that was coming up. It wasn't until then that we discovered he had a learning disability (he was 15 at the time and is gifted,which hid his learning disability). We are still in the process of getting him accommodated, but I have found that with the use of technology tools he is more apt to keep track of work and hopefully this will result in better grades. It is a very difficult struggle and his behaviors tend to be due to his learning needs not being met.

Comment By : kst

My son was a straight A student in grade school. In high school, his grades dropped. He hates school and has a bad case of senioritis. He missed several days at the beginning of this semester ("headaches" and "stomachaches") and therefore received 2 Fs and 2 Ds on his last report card. I am worrying about him graduating. He is college-bound, too. Even his status as a starter pitcher on the school baseball team is jeopardized. He is not doing his homework the way he should. I nagged to no avail. The school is large and not very helpful. I have the social worker and guidance counselor involved. This advice is hard since graduation is being threatened.

Comment By : graciana

i like the question "how can i be of help to you?" the most. let them tell me what they need sometimes. especially, since i have so many demands of what i need from my child.

Comment By : ruby blue

* Dear Carol: Thank you for your question. It sounds like youíre in a very challenging situation with your son. Sitting with your child while he does it homework is only one of many different ways to approach homework refusal. If you have noticed that you sitting at the table is seen by your child as a trigger for resistance, you might decide to check in every 15 to 20 minutes instead. If you restrict his electronics until his homework is done, then you are using a structure that holds your child accountable and thatís the best you can doóprovide structure and accountability. When your child says he doesnít care about his privileges being taken away, we suggest you ignore it. ďI donít careĒ is often a childís attempt to regain control in the power struggle. Let him take some ownership of his academics and make his own choice about whether heíll earn his privileges for the evening or not.

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

I have a 14 yr old son. He is very challenging. He is super bright. I can't just say, you can't watch TV or whatever until your home work is done as I don't know what it is now that he's in high school. He refuses to show me any of his papers with grades. So, I'm half in the dark. I do contact the teachers and ask how he is doing. He often does not get his work in or on time. When he applies himself he gets good grades. I have tried backing off, making his school work his responsibility as nagging, hovering etc., didn't work, but less stress for me! I have told him now that if any of his grades are a C or below he is not allowed to play video games - which he loves. He is capable of A+ work. I'd love to have him work up to his level. He just doesn't seem that interested. He previously went to a good private school, but his grades were not up to their standards, so now he is at a public school & his grades remain the same, so he is putting out even less effort to get the same result - works for him. I would love to know how to motivate him more, but can't figure him out. All I can think is he is very immature for his age. It is frustrating and a mystery to me.

Comment By : garnishing

Don't forget to look into what the school has to offer. Because of my son's learning disability (ADD), the school offered tutoring from Sylvan on a scholarship for up to 8 weeks. He soared after that! It was like it opened a window and he figured out how to cut his homework time in half by concentrating on what he knew and getting it done. The rest he would get help in the resource room at school - he went from the F pool to the A-B club in less than a year. Look into what the school has to offer. They won't tell you unless you ask.

Comment By : luvmykidz

* Dear garnishing: It sounds like this has been very challenging and frustrating for you. While you canít make your son do his homework or know every assignment he is supposed to do each day, you can still hold him accountable for paying some attention to his schoolwork. We recommend that you set up a mandatory study time each day. During this time he must do something school related whether he says he has any work due the next day or not. Completing a mandatory 90 minutes of study time, for example, would then earn him time on his electronics that day. Earning his video games back by bringing the grade up to a B might be too far in the future to feel achievable to him. If it doesnít feel achievable, he wonít be motivated. Please refer to this article for more information: End the Nightly Homework Struggle 5 Homework Strategies that Work for Kids.

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

This made me laugh: "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." So, when the ten-year-old doesn't do the homework and the school does absolutely nothing, then what does he learn? Modern schools don't *have* consequences. They certainly don't flunk anyone. Any reasonably bright kid can keep up with the dumbed-down modern schoolwork without effort, and the homework isn't relevant to the grades issued (if any are even issued), so there's no motivation for the child to learn self-discipline. This article's intentions are good, but it needs a thorough reworking to make any sense when applied to modern easy-work no-consequences schools.

Comment By : Realistic Parent

I have tried everything to get my son to do his homework... I have become pen pals with all of his teachers over the last 2 years. My son is in 8th grade and is FAILING horribly! I have taken away t.v., video games, cell phone, friends, football, and everything else... He doesn't care... He told one of his teachers today that he doesn't do school/homework because it is boring and he "doesn't do boring". I am so frustrated! Any comments will help! Thank you!

Comment By : Reddogsq

* To 'Reddogsq': It is understandable that you are frustrated by your sonís refusal to do his homework. It is irritating when you try everything in your power to get someone to do something, and that person continues to refuse. As annoying as this behavior is, it is ultimately his choice whether or not to do his homework. We recommend stepping away from this power struggle and looking at what you can control. You can set up a structure for him to do his homework, and offer an incentive for getting it done. We advise tying one daily privilege to doing his homework, rather than taking away everything you can think of. For example, you might tell him that homework time is from 3-4:30PM, and if he works on his homework or other school projects during that time, he can earn his electronics for later in the evening. If he chooses not to, then he doesnít earn them that day. I am including an article on setting up homework structure that I think you might find helpful: End the Nightly Homework Struggle: 5 Homework Strategies that Work for Kids. Good luck to you and your son as you continue to work through this.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

I had a thought about what Ms. Pincus wrote about "you canít make him care." As an academic tutor I have actually found that with some kids it is possible to help them find a reason to do homework. it takes time and patience but I have worked with some kids to help tap their sense of motivation and interest in learning. I find that listening without judgement to their complaints and frustrations about feeling like they have no say in the work they do and the fact that they find it boring, etc. helps them feel heard and starts to open a door to deeper discussion. Often we can then get to underlying concerns about school and succeeding that have brought them get to a checked out place. There are many techniques to listening and working WITH your kid around homework and school. I use many techniques from a great book called "How To Talk So Kids Can Learn"

Comment By : SaraCarbone

my son is 6 yrs old and in 1st grade. he is smart and learns good. after trying different methods finally got him to start doing him homework by himself, but i sit next to him browsing net while he does his homework. the only problem is he just wants to finish his work as fast as he can, which ends up in less quality work. the teacher also says his works are usually incomplete becos he is in hurry. incomplete sentences, careless omissions in math. the teacher said " it is killing me to see how careless he is, even though he is very good in math he makes mistakes in exams just becos he doesn't read the question or doesn't listen her read the question". what can i do to make him focus more on cleanliness, complete work and revise. we told him many times. he mostly doesn't listen to me until he realizes and feels like doing, very stubborn. the more we correct him, make him do neat i feel he is loosing confidence and thinks he is not capable. he has the fear of making mistakes and we finding it out. what can i do to build his confidence back and at the same time make him do quality work.thanks!

Comment By : kz

* To 'kz': It is frustrating when you have a bright child who is careless with their work and makes mistakes. We recommend talking with your son when things are calm and he is not doing homework, and asking him what he can do to help himself do the work more completely, or to make sure that every question is answered according to the directions. It might also help to set up a homework time (for example, from 3 -3:15PM) where he should be working on his schoolwork during that time. Knowing that he has that entire amount of time to do his schoolwork might cut down on the tendency to rush through it to get to privileges, and give him some time to review his work once finished. It is helpful to concentrate on what you can control in this situation, as Debbie mentions. You cannot control his wanting to do better quality work; however, you can hold him accountable to his homework time. It might also be helpful to offer him an incentive to go back and review his work once finished in order to build this as a habit. Behavior charts can be very helpful in assisting in building confidence in new habits. Iím including a link to an article that you might find useful: Child Behavior Charts: How to Use Behavior Charts Effectively. Good luck to you and your son as you continue to work through this.

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

My son is on the tail end of 9th grade. He currently has major subjects. This has been getting steadily worse since even before 5th grade. I have met with teachers, had sit downs with him with and without teachers. His school here has grade speed, where I can go online and see what's been assigned and what his grades are. Even so, if I ask about an assignment he always has an answer. Like; I turned it in already, oh, that one is on the computer at school so I have to do it there, I left that paper at school by accident...ect. He flat out lies to me if it serves him. I'm at my wits end. My husband is in the AF and it reflects poorly on him that he can't get a kid to do schoolwork when he's in charge of a whole office. Looking at his grades on grade speed, his Spanish for example the homework is a complete list of zeros. This quarter he didn't bother with one single assignment in that class! He loses a privilege for each D or below, so he currently has nothing but tv...He just got his first job as a bagged at a grocery store and he loves it. I told him if they weren't Ds in a month he'd have to quit. I don't want to make him quit cause the job is good for him and he had to wait on a list a long time to get the job. I know I'm going to have to stick to what I said...I've even had long talks with him explaining how even a fast food job has set work and that following rules and doing things you don't want to is part of everyone's life. He agrees and says Mom, I know, I'm trying...but he's not. not bothering with one single assignment isn't trying.

Comment By : Mandy

Change your home network WiFi password daily and don't give it to your kids until their homework & chores are done.

Comment By : JerseyDad

My daughter is 7 1/2 and she doesn't want to start her homework at my mother's house. By the time I get home and it is 5:30 I have to cook and do things and I let her do her homework. Sometimes she doesn't even finish until it is 8:00 p.m. I think the reason is because she is constantly talking to her brother and taking her sweet time. By the finished then she has to read a book for 30 minutes as the teacher asks her to do. She constantly doesn't want to do that either. This is really getting me stressed out and I can't help but for her to stop talking and just do her homework. I even say to her well if you do not finish your homework then we do not have time to cuddle. It goes in one ear and out the other. Past couple of weeks I ask that she start her homework at my mother's house at 4p.m. She refuses to do that either. I don't know what else to do. I feel like and keep thinking if she is giving me these problems now, what is she going to do when she is a teenager. :'(

Comment By : lindaw

* To lindaw: It can be incredibly frustrating when a child does not do what you tell her to do. It is pretty common to worry about the future based on the behavior that you are seeing now. It is difficult to hold your daughter accountable for her actions (or inactions) when you are not around, and ultimately, you cannot make her do anything-you can only control your actions. James Lehman talks about how it is important for kids to have a certain set amount of free time during the day, and it sounds like your daughter is using hers when she is at her grandmotherís house. It is great that you are offering an incentive for getting her homework done. Some other ideas include extra one-on-one time with you, time spent playing a game or other activity, or getting to choose what is for dinner the next night. You might try setting a time limit for her homework to be complete as well. For example, you might say, ďYour homework needs to be done by 6PM. If your homework is done by then, you can have an extra bedtime story that night; if not, you donít get it that night and you can try again the next day.Ē We also recommend having her complete her homework in a quiet area that is free of distractions. I am including a couple of articles I think you might find helpful:
How to Control Your Kids Outside of the House (Hint: You Can't)
Irresponsible Children: Why Nagging and Lecturing Don't Work
Take care and we wish you the best.

Comment By : Rebecca Wolfenden, Parental Support Advisor

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