* This article was written by Laura Axtell. Laura has master’s degrees in special education and counseling and has worked in K-12 regular and alternative education in the U.S. and internationally for over 25 years. She has provided tutoring services for struggling readers and students with disabilities for over a decade. Laura is also the host of an educational podcast for educators and parents called Podclassed. 

Aaron and his mom have a nightly ritual. After dinner, and before he’s allowed to watch TV or play video games, Aaron has to finish his homework. On most nights, it takes Aaron about two hours to finish all of his 7th grade homework depending on how much time he actually spends doing the work. That’s where the ritual begins—Aaron complaining, distracting, and otherwise avoiding doing the work, and his mother cajoling, bribing, and threatening him to get it done. At the end of the evening, both Aaron and his mom are generally miserable. Angry and frustrated with each other, there is often little work to show as a result.

If this sounds familiar, its probably because this “ritual” is played out in homes all across America. With schools closed due to the coronavirus pandemic and parents taking on the new role of homeschool teacher, this may be more common now than ever. Here are some thoughts for parents who often feel like their child’s homework is a battle that no one wins.

Give kids as much choice as possible

Many parents feel that setting the parameters for when and how students do their work is useful. I know one parent who insisted that her children complete homework as soon as they got home from school so that it would be done before dinner with time afterwards for bathing and getting ready for the next day. The kitchen table was the required setting. As children get older, however, they may view those kinds of expectations as controlling and become more resistant.

Sometimes it helps parents to see the big picture (what needs to get done) and then negotiate with your child around the details (how and where). Like most things, the more involvement a person has in the plan, the more likely it will be followed. If everyone is clear on the result (homework, bathing, and tomorrow’s clothes ready) then giving your child the opportunity to determine the schedule can go a long way toward motivation. As long as it (mostly) gets done, the goal is to reduce conflict and focus on helping the student to become more self-directed. Does it really matter if homework happens before or after dinner as long as everything gets done? In other words, don’t sweat the small stuff.

The one rule is that the student’s plan must work for everyone. Doing homework at the end of the evening and staying up past bedtime obviously wouldn’t work. Planning on a shower in the morning when everyone needs the bathroom would be a problem, too. Giving your child the ability to have options for when and how to do their work includes compromise and negotiating. Those are great skills for children to develop as they take on more responsibility for doing their schoolwork.

Don’t ask if they need “help”

As a special education teacher, I frequently heard teachers ask a student if they needed help. Almost always, students would reject the offer, even when they truly needed assistance. Over the years, I’ve developed a theory and a strategy.

The theory is that the word help has a negative meaning for students, especially those who already have low self-esteem, and more specifically for boys. The word help implies that students need some form of rescue because they are not capable themselves. Any parent who has raised a two-year-old knows that children strive for independence and that offers to do something to “help” are usually met with a loud “No!”

In reality, most students don’t actually need their parent (or teacher) to do something for them. What they typically do need, however, is more information. For example, if a student is trying to find some sources for a research paper and keeps getting search results that don’t work, what they probably need is information about what keywords might be more effective. If a child is trying to design a science fair project, where would they be able to find information and examples?

Here’s the strategy…replace the word help with information and assistance and ask what they want rather than what they need. Instead of asking if your child needs help, try a different approach by asking what specific information would be helpful.

“What information are you looking for? Have you been able to find what you want? Would you like some assistance with searching for examples?”

“So, it sounds like you may need more information about zero pairs in order to complete your math homework. Would you like some assistance finding an explanation that would be helpful?”

For an older child, especially if there has been resistance in the past, the conversation could go like this: “How’s the research paper going? Are you finding the information you want? There is so much information on the internet, it can be confusing. If you would like some assistance with finding something, let me know.” And then walk away!

Shifting communication like this takes practice and your child may not take you up on the offer right away, but it definitely ends the power struggle, clarifies where they are stuck, and opens the door for support. My older students were much more willing to allow me to support them with information on almost any task when it was presented this way. Mostly, they didn’t need my help anyway—they needed information that would allow them to continue working.

10-minute homework

For children who really struggle or are totally unmotivated to do classwork, the next strategy can be a gamechanger. It turns out that one of the biggest obstacles to finishing homework is difficulty getting started. For many students with attention deficit issues, procrastination is a way of life. Students with learning difficulties often feel overwhelmed by the thought of an assignment or project. One of the most successful strategies for supporting children with homework is a psychological trick that really works. In fact, I have used it for years when I need to do something that I don’t want to do (laundry, cleaning my office, writing a report).

This strategy, called 10-minute homework, is effective because it eliminates the negative thinking that prevents people from beginning big or difficult tasks. The process is simple – starting with the most challenging subject or assignment, students spend ten minutes focusing on what needs to get done. At the beginning of a project, it may be spending ten minutes making a list of the materials needed. For a math assignment, it may be completing the problems that the student knows how to do quickly. For an essay, it may be choosing the topic and using a graphic organizer to get ideas on paper. It can be helpful to decide what will get done on each subject or assignment first and then set a timer for ten minutes. When ten minutes is up, the student can stop.

What’s really amazing about this strategy is that once something gets started, its much easier to continue working. Another benefit is that it helps students to focus on the priority for each task or decide what needs to get done immediately because ten minutes is not very long. It also changes the parent-child dynamic since parents are no longer engaged in a battle to get homework started.