For many parents, getting their kids to do their homework is a nightly struggle. Some kids refuse to do their homework. Others claim that they don’t have homework, but then the report card comes out, and you realize that their work was not being done.
So why is homework time so difficult? In my opinion, one of the major reasons is that it’s hard for kids to focus at home. Look at it this way: when your child is in school, they’re 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, their brain clicks over to “free time” mode. In their mind, home is a place to relax, have a snack, listen to music, and play video games. Kids simply don’t view the home as the place to do schoolwork.
If the homework struggles you experience are part of a larger pattern of acting out behavior, then the child is resisting to get power over you. They intend to do what they want to do when they want 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.
Regardless of why your child won’t do their homework, know that fighting over it is a losing proposition for both of you. You will end up frustrated, angry, and exhausted, and your child will have found yet another way to push your buttons. And, even worse, they will wind up hating school and hating learning.
A major part of getting your child to do their homework lies in establishing a system so that your child comes to see that homework is just a regular part of home life. Once they accept that, you’ve already won half the battle. Accordingly, my first few tips are around setting up this system. If you get the system right, things tend to fall into place.
Put this system in place with your child at a time when things are calm and going well rather than during the heat of an argument. Tell your child that you’re going to try something different starting next week with homework that will make it go better for everyone. Then explain the system.
You’ll find that this system will make your life easier as a parent, will make you more effective as a parent, and will help your child to get the work done. And when your child gets their work done, they’re more likely to succeed, and nothing drives motivation more than success.
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.
Homework time should be a quiet time in your whole house. Siblings shouldn’t be in the next room watching TV or playing video games. The whole idea is to eliminate distractions. The message to your child is, “You’re not going to do anything anyway, so you might as well do your homework.”
Even if your child doesn’t have homework some nights, homework time should still mean no phone and no electronics. Instead, your child can read a book or a magazine in their room or work on longer-term assignments. Consistently adhering to the homework time structure is important to instill the homework habit.
If your children are younger and they don’t get homework yet, set aside quiet time each evening where your child can read or do some type of learning. Doing so will help children understand that evening quiet and study time is a part of everyday home life, just like chores. This habit will pay off when the real homework begins.
For a lot of kids, sending them to their rooms to do their homework is a mistake. Many children need your presence to stay focused and disciplined. And they need to be away from the stuff in their rooms that can distract them.
You know your child best. If you think they’re not being productive in their room, then insist they work at the kitchen table or in some other room where you can monitor them and where there will be fewer distractions.
If they do homework 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 and laptop away and eliminate electronics from the room during study time. In short, you want to get rid of all the temptations and distractions.
Many kids get tired halfway through homework time, and that’s when they start acting up. If your child is doing an hour of homework, have them take a 5-minute break every half-hour so that they can get up, have a snack, and stretch their legs. But don’t allow electronics during the break—electronics are just too distracting.
Monitor the break and ensure that your child gets back to work promptly.
Be sure to encourage your child when they’re 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.”
“Look, if you do your work all week, you’ll have the whole weekend to do what you want.”
Show your child empathy—how many of us truly enjoyed homework every night? It’s work, pure and simple. But your child will be encouraged when they begin to have success with their work.
Some kids have a hard time getting assignments started. They may be overwhelmed or unsure where to begin. Or the work may seem too difficult.
There’s a concept I explain in The Total Transformation® child behavior program called hurdle help. If you have a child who has a hard time getting started, spend the first five minutes with them to get them over the first couple of hurdles. Perhaps help them with the first math problem or 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 designed to get them going on their own.
If your child has a big, long-term project, then you want to work with them to estimate how much time it’s going to take. Then your child has to work within that time frame. So if your child has a science project, help them manage and structure their time. For instance, if the project is due in 30 days, ask them:
“How much time are you going to spend on it each night?”
They might say, “15 minutes a night,” and you hold them to that.
Don’t assume that your child knows how to manage their time effectively. As adults, we sometimes take for granted the habits we have spent a lifetime developing and forget that our kids are not there yet.
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 they’re done all their work for the past week, they get Friday and Saturday night off and can do their homework on Sunday night.
If there’s a project or something big to do over the weekend, then work with your child to budget their time. They may have to put some time in on Saturday or Sunday during the day. But other than that, your child should have the weekend off too, just like adults do.
If your child has overdue homework, their weekend shouldn’t begin until those assignments are done. In other words, Friday night is a homework night if their week’s work is not complete.
Believe me, this is a highly effective consequence for kids because it creates a great incentive to get their work done. Indeed, each minute they’re doing homework is a minute they could be hanging out with friends or playing video games.
If you can hold to this rule once and deal with the complaining, then next week the homework will be done.
By the way, if they say they can’t do their homework because they didn’t bring their school 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. Otherwise, you’ll be staying in this weekend.”
Kids are involved in a lot of after school activities these days. I understand that. But 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 complete. Otherwise, you’re not going to practice. 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.
Most kids get personal satisfaction out of getting good grades and completing their work, and that’s what we’re aiming for. Nevertheless, it’s important to reinforce positive behavior, and that may mean offering an incentive for getting good grades. For instance, my son knew that he would get a certain reward for his performance if he got all B’s or above. The reward was an incentive to do well.
One of the shortcuts we take as parents is to bribe our kids rather than rewarding them for performance. It can be a subtle difference. A reward is something that is given after an achievement. A bribe is something you give your child after negotiating with them over something that is already a responsibility.
If you bribe your child to do their homework or to do anything else that is an expected responsibility, then your child will come to expect something extra just for behaving appropriately. Bribes undermine your parental authority as kids learn that they can get things from you by threatening bad behavior. Bribes put your child in charge of you.
The appropriate parental response to not meeting a responsibility is a consequence, not a bribe. A bribe says, “If you do your homework, I will extend your curfew by an hour.” In contrast, a consequence says, “If you don’t do your homework, you’re grounded until it’s finished.” Never bribe your kids to do what they’re expected to do.
When giving consequences, be sure they’re effective consequences. What makes an effective consequence? An effective consequence motivates your child to good behavior. They put you back in control and teach your child how to problem-solve, giving your child the skills needed to be successful.
An effective consequence looks like this:
“If you fall below a B average, then you can no longer study in your room and must study at the kitchen table until you get your average back to a B.”
For the child who prefers to study in their room, this is an effective consequence.
Another effective consequence would be the following:
“If you choose not to study during the scheduled time, you will lose your electronics for the night. Tomorrow, you’ll get another chance to use them.”
And the next day, your child gets to try again to earn the privilege of electronics. Short-term consequences like this are very effective. Just don’t take away this privilege for more than a day as your child will have no incentive to do better the next time.
For more on consequences, read the article on how to give effective consequences to your child.
Failure should be an option, and sometimes you just have to let your child fail. Parents often do their kids a disservice when they shield them from the consequences of their actions. If your child chooses not to study enough and they get a failing grade, that’s the natural consequence for their behavior. And they should experience the discomfort that results from their behavior.
Let me be clear. If you interfere and try to get your child’s teacher to change their grade, your child will learn the wrong lesson. Your child will learn that if they screw up enough, Mom and Dad will take care of them. And they don’t learn their math or science or whatever it is they failed.
To be sure, failing is a hard lesson, but it’s the right lesson when your child fails. And it’s not the end of the world. In fact, for many kids, it’s what turns them around.
Don’t get sucked into arguments with your child about homework. Make it very clear that if they don’t do their homework, then the next part of their night does not begin. Keep discussions simple. Say to your child:
“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 important not to get sucked into fights with your child. Remember, you don’t have to attend every argument you’re invited to. If your child refuses to do his or her work, then calmly give the consequence that you established for not doing homework.
Also, trying to convince your child that grades are important is a losing battle. You can’t make your child take school as seriously as you do. The truth is, they don’t typically think that way. To get your child to do homework, focus on their behavior, not their motivation. Rather than giving a lecture, just maintain the system that enables them to get their work done. Often, the motivation comes after the child has had a taste of success, and this system sets them up for that success.
It’s important to be calm when helping your child with their homework. Don’t argue about the right answer for the math problem or the right way to do the geography quiz. If you get frustrated and start yelling and screaming at your child, this sets a negative tone and won’t help them get the work done. It’s better to walk away than it is to engage in an argument, even when you’re just trying to be helpful.
For couples, it may be that one of you is more patient and acceptable to your child. Let that person take on the homework monitoring responsibilities. And don’t take it personally if it isn’t you.
Remember, if you can’t stay calm when helping your child, or if you find that your help is making the situation worse, then it’s better not to help at all. Find someone else or talk to the teacher about how your child can get the help they need. And try not to blame your child for the frustration that you feel.
Remember that your child is doing the homework as a school assignment. The teacher will ultimately be the judge of how good or bad, correct or incorrect the work is. You’re not responsible for the work itself; your job is to guide your child. You can always make suggestions, but ultimately it’s your child’s job to do their assignments. And it’s the teacher’s job to grade them.
Build good relationships with your child’s teachers. Meet with the teachers at the beginning of the school year and stay in touch as the year progresses. Your relationships with your child’s teachers will pay off if your child begins to have problems.
And if your child does have problems, then communicate with their teachers weekly. If they’re not handing in their work on time, ask the teachers to send you any assignments that they didn’t get done each week. Many schools have assignments available online, which is a big help for parents. Just don’t rely on your child to give you accurate information. Find out for yourself.
The bottom line is that you want to hold your child accountable for doing their work, and you can only do that if you know what the work is. If you keep yourself informed, then you won’t be surprised when report cards come out.
Work with your child on a system to keep track of assignments. I recommend an old-fashioned paper calendar simply because we already have too many distracting electronics in our lives—experiment and use what works best for your child.
Finally, try to see your child’s teachers as your allies. In my experience, most teachers are dedicated and caring, but I realize that this isn’t always the case. So, for your child’s sake, do your best to find a way to work with their teachers.
Kids are expected to do some difficult work, and your child may struggle. If your child is having an especially hard time, talk with their teacher. Ask if it’s typical for your child to be struggling in this area.
In some cases, the teacher may recommend testing to see if your child has a learning disability. While this can be hard to hear as a parent, it’s important to find out so that you can make the necessary adjustments.
If it turns out that your child does have a learning disability, then you want to get an Individualized Educational Plan (IEP) set up with the school.
Most kids don’t enjoy homework, and for some, it will always be a struggle. Our children all have different strengths and abilities, and while some may never be excellent students, they might be great workers, talented artists, or thoughtful builders.
I have to admit that dealing with my son’s homework was one of my least favorite experiences as a parent. It was overwhelming at times. Often, I just wasn’t equipped to offer the help he needed.
Our son struggled with a learning disability, which made the work feel unending at times. My husband James was much better at helping him, so he took on this responsibility. But even with this division of labor, we had to make adjustments to our schedules, our lives, and our expectations to make sure our son did his homework as expected.
Life would be easier if all children were self-motivated students who came home, sat down, and dug into their homework without being asked. This is hardly the case, though. Therefore, you need to set up a system that is right for your child, and it’s going to be easier for some kids than for others.
We’re trying to raise our kids to be responsible and accountable for their homework. 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 the nightly homework struggle around successfully time and time again.
Janet Lehman, MSW, has worked with troubled children and teens for over 30 years. A veteran social worker, she specializes in child behavior issues — ranging from anger management and oppositional defiance to more serious criminal behavior in teens. She is co-creator of The Total Transformation® Program, The Complete Guide To Consequences™, Getting Through To Your Child™, and Two Parents One Plan™.