“Why can’t I get my kids to get their homework done and off to bed without the constant screaming, bickering, and crying?” If you’ve asked yourself this question regularly, you’re not alone. Parents tell me that homework and bedtime battles are some of the most nerve-wracking, exhausting moments of parenthood. No wonder. When everyone is coming home tired and cranky, homework and getting ready for bed are prime fodder for arguments. But with some simple, thoughtful changes, you can develop a Calm Evening Plan that will make things a lot less stressful for you and your kids.
Have your child divide their homework into doable sections: what they want to start on immediately after school, what they wish to work on after chores or dinner and what to finish up later in the evening.
I’ve found that the most effective plan for eliminating homework/bedtime woes starts as soon as your child gets home, not at the end of the day when everyone is tired and probably not at their best. It’s also important to make it realistic so that it works for everyone, you can follow it consistently, and you don’t ask too much of yourself or your children. Here are eight tips to help you create your Calm Evening Plan. You can try all of them or pick and choose.
8 tips for calm evenings—after school through bedtime
- Hold a Quick Family Meeting. Begin the process on a weekend by calling a family meeting. Let your children know that after school time, right up through bedtime, is going to run differently from now on. Keep it simple and let them know the goal: to get as much completed before bedtime with as little stress as possible. You can say, “We’re going to try something different starting tomorrow after school so things work better for all of us.”
- Set Expectations and Consequences. Establish rules for what has to get accomplished as soon as your children get home from school. For kids of all ages, this can include putting shoes and jackets away, emptying lunch boxes and water bottles, and setting up their homework at their study space. Tell them ahead of time what the consequences will be if they don’t do their chores, and be sure to follow through. Setting some simple ground rules can keep chaos from erupting after school. If your child complains about homework after school, point him back to the ground rules and consequences.
- No Screens. Watching TV or playing video games when first arriving home from school make it difficult to begin homework or chores and should be eliminated from the afternoon ritual. So does having access to other electronics (phones, tablets, etc.); have a basket handy where all electronics go as soon as your child walks in the door. When you want your child to have their electronics returned or to be able to watch TV is a personal choice. Just be clear that permission to use the phone during a break involves a specific time limit and then the phone goes back in the basket.
But what should you do if your child needs his laptop or tablet in order to do his homework? One solution is to have tablets and laptops parked in a visible place and allow your child to “check them out” in order to use them for homework. This means they alert you that they need them, what they are using them for, and the length of time they will be used. Using electronics in a specific area of the home where you can monitor their use can also be helpful for younger kids who may or may not be able to stay on task.
- Allow Decompression Time. Allow your kids a certain amount of time to decompress, but make sure the amount of time is decided upon prior to when “down time” starts. If your child has a lot of energy, a 15-minute bike ride can help release it. If your child is tired, a snack may be the answer. Just remember to stick to the agreed upon time limit.
- Divide Homework into Doable Sections. Homework should begin after decompression time so that it doesn’t interfere with bedtime. For kids of all ages this tends to be a challenge, so breaking homework up into doable sections can help. Some parents find it helpful to have their kids divide their homework into sections: what they want to start on immediately after school, what they wish to work on after chores or dinner, and if necessary, what to finish up later in the evening, after they shower or complete an extracurricular activity.
Some children need breaks in between assignments. For younger children, set the timer (15 minutes is usually good) and explain that once the timer goes off, they have to sit back down and continue. Older kids can set their own breaks, but make sure that break doesn’t turn into an hour on the phone. Let them know how they can access you for questions; for example, what’s a good time to call you at work? For younger children and middle schoolers especially, determine how you’ll check in on their progress.
- Set up Mom or Dad’s “In Basket.” Have another basket or a small area set aside for kids to put anything that has to be turned in the next day or later in the week. All permission slips, envelopes for money for field trips or the cafeteria, notes from teachers or coaches, or information about upcoming events get placed here. After dinner each night, review what’s in the basket and organize accordingly with each child. This will help ward off frantic early morning searches for that note from the teacher.
Consider also using a long-term planner. Each child has their own slot in which long term paperwork goes, like rubrics for long-term projects, reminders for picture day that’s not for another month, outlines for book reports, or sports schedules.
- After Dinner, Focus on the Morning. If homework still needs to be completed, continue enforcing the “no electronics, no distractions” rule. For younger children, it may be time to start getting ready for bed. But no matter what, for everyone it’s time to get ready for the next morning. Completed homework goes into backpacks, along with school books, signed permission slips, snacks, water bottles, and gym/sports gear. Once these are in order, backpacks get placed by the front door.
For children ages 8-12, have them create a checklist that gets kept in an accessible spot (say, the refrigerator). They can use this to help them get organized in the evening and as a double check in the morning. Teens can be as spacey and disorganized as toddlers. But, this doesn’t mean that you should treat them as you would a toddler! On the contrary, teens need to focus on getting more organized the night before in order to prevent lapses in the morning.
- Establish Bedtime and “Get Ready” Time. Devise a nighttime sleep plan that you commit to adhering to each school night. This includes setting an expectation about what time is bedtime, and that getting ready begins around 30-45 minutes before your child is in bed. (Any shorter and your child will feel too rushed; while any longer invites stall tactics.)
For younger children, this routine might include bath time, getting pj’s on, and a few stories before they are tucked in. Kids this age also enjoy picking out what they will wear the next day, which prevents early morning hassles for you. If your child has trouble falling asleep, stay calm and stick to your plan, telling them that you expect them to go to bed and stay there. For teens, set an expectation about their bedtime by saying something like: “I’d like to see you in bed by 10:30. Let’s talk about how much homework you still have to finish up.
Consistently following a calm evening plan for your family may seem impossible many nights, and truthfully, some nights you won’t be able to follow every expectation you set for yourself or your children. But having a plan is the key to reducing the stress and disorganization that most parents experience during the school year. Remember that it doesn’t have to be perfect, just reliable, realistic, and in place.
About Dr. Joan Simeo Munson
Dr. Joan Simeo Munson earned her Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Denver. She has worked with incarcerated individuals, families, adolescents, and college students in a variety of settings, including county and city jails, community mental health centers, university counseling centers, and hospitals. She also has a background in individual, group, and couples counseling. Dr. Munson lives in Colorado with her husband and three energetic children. She currently has a private practice in Boulder where she sees adults, couples and adolescents.