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Helping Children Get Their Homework Done

Angela Oswalt Morelli , MSW, edited by Mark Dombeck, Ph.D.

Most schools send children home with homework assignments, successful completion of which affects children's grades and how they are perceived by their teacher. Children are seldom self-motivated to want to complete homework, however, making parental support of children's homework efforts or lack thereof an important factor determining whether or not it ends up getting done. It's important then that parents pay attention to children's homework assignments, prompting children to complete them and, as much as possible, providing children with the resources they need to successfully complete the work.

boy doing homeworkCaregivers can help make homework time successful for their children by creating a positive "workspace." A positive workspace includes not only the physical location for studying, but also the time of day, the amount of time spent, and the presence or absence of sources of help or distraction. Most children will benefit by being provided with a calm and quiet place to work on their homework away from other people and distractions like television, telephones or video games, and with nearby access to a caregiver or older sibling who can be asked for help as the need arises. While it may be tempting to have children study at the kitchen table while Mom or Dad is making dinner, the combined sounds of cooking, ringing cell phones, and siblings can be highly distracting. Caregivers can check in with their "young scholars" periodically to make sure that homework is progressing and ultimately gets completed.

When children ask for help with homework, there are specific ways that parents and caregivers should offer assistance. Parents should never themselves complete homework for their children. Instead, they should help children think through the steps of the problem they are trying to solve, troubleshoot how to find their answer (e.g., by looking it up in their books, notes or online), and discuss in words how to apply what they've learned in class to the homework problems at hand. Parents should not hesitate to ask their children's teacher for ideas about how to best help children with homework as teachers are generally expert at breaking down problems so that they can be understood.

At times (sometimes most of the time), children will express frustration with homework and do their best to escape from the need to complete it. Parents should resist the impulse to let children do that even if they too find the homework to be frustrating. To the best of their abilities, they should remain calm and encouraging. If children show signs of overwhelm, it's okay to allow them a short term break from work, but then when the break is over, it is important that parents enforce children's need to return to solving the problem until it is completed.

Most children benefit emotionally from the security and predictability of routine. As well, they are predictably more alert at some times than at others. For these reasons, it is useful to help children to get into a routine of completing their homework at the same time each day, during a time of moderate alertness. Early afternoon or evening is usually a better time than later at night in most cases as most children have more ability to concentrate earlier in the day. Requiring that children start their homework immediately after school ends is not ideal as at that point in their day, children are coming off of their "work" and need some time to decompress. Children should get a brief break for a healthy snack and some time to burn off some of their pent-up energy or rest before needing to start homework. As well, they should be allowed breaks to stretch or chat as proves necessary to keep themselves from getting mentally stuck. As it proves necessary, parents should not hesitate to motivate their children's completion of homework by withholding access to activities children want to be doing (e.g., rewarding activities such as playing video games or watching television) until it is finished.