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Is homework a problem? If so, whose problem is it?.

Most kids start some homework from Year 1, even Reception, with around an hour a week, which builds up to several hours a night over the years. And very few kids show much enthusiasm for it. The debate about how useful homework is kicked off on Twitter again last month, with celebrities and headteachers expressing their opinion, for and against homework.

While others continue to discuss the who, when and how much, the reality is that homework is often a hot spot at home for families. Let’s work out WHY homework can get so fractious, and WHAT parents can do to help their children with their homework, in the moment and over time.

Where shall we start?! As always we need some insight into what’s going on - how kids feel about homework, and how parents feel about it too. Being realistic is our first step towards effective action ….

Understanding why kids find homework hard

After a busy day at school, perhaps with some upset or challenge or disappointment to manage, children are tired when they get home. Their deeply-wired priority is to relax and re-energise, usually with play. They are not intrinsically motivated to do another worksheet, or two or three …. It doesn’t matter how earnestly we try to explain that homework is important for their future. The kids are living in the moment and don’t have the capacity to think about homework in this way. At this point, either they can do the work – in which case why do they need to do it again – or they find it hard – in which case why choose to struggle – and, of course, kids have little ability to curb their impulses and knuckle down.

Another reason kids don’t like doing academic work at home is about our reaction and involvement. They don’t enjoy struggling or failing in the classroom in front of their teacher and peers, but they really hate struggling or failing at home in front of their parent.

Children like to please and impress their parents – until they feel this isn’t possible when they adapt to seeking negative attention. Typically, there’s not a lot of positive attention during a homework session. Parents tend to be quite critical – we’ll look at some reasons why – and we tend to go into control mode – do this, do that, not there, like this, and (the minute they hesitate or make a mistake) no, let me show you ….

So we’ve got a few issues emerging – tired, lack of intrinsic motivation, attention, control – which all get in the way of a child settling down and getting stuck in.

By the way, if your child has a recognised or suspected learning difficulty, do ask their teacher for any ideas that they find help your child in the classroom. If you want more help on positive parenting for neurodiverse kids, do drop Victoria a line to ask for your free 30-minute call at victoria@theparent.team

Understanding why parents find their child’s homework tricky

Parents naturally worry about their child’s future outcomes which we see as closely aligned to their achievement at school. Homework is the daily tangible bit of our child’s academic work that we believe allows us to assess how hard our child is working, and how much progress they are making, rather than wait for the next parents’ evening!

There are a few problems here. First, kids don’t make steady progress in all areas, and parents (unless they’re qualified teachers!) don’t have the requisite knowledge or experience, or the overall perspective on the child’s work, to rate and assess academic progress.

But the big problem comes when we believe our child’s homework is our responsibility. We’re always going to get a bit stressed about their homework - whether they’re resisting doing it, rushing it, or not able to do it – but if we feel it’s our job to make sure our child does their homework, every single bit, to the absolute best of their ability, every day, in the way and manner we believe is best, we create the perfect battle ground for some major power struggles.

Although kids don’t like, or appreciate the importance of, homework, they sense it can be a tool to assert some level of control. They prevaricate or refuse to get started. We start to panic so we push harder. They hold fast. The tension rises. We snap, and end up shouting, bribing and threatening. They may shout and threaten back. There can be tears …

When this becomes a pattern, it’s hardly surprising that both parents and kids hate homework!

Another possible result of our effort to control our child’s homework is that they let us! And this means they don’t develop those difficult skills of internal discipline. They rely on us to remind and direct them. It works for a while, but only while we’re still present.

Being realistic about homework

  • Kids prefer to do pretty much anything other than homework – and that’s even if they are perfectly capable of doing the specific piece of work. In this case, they feel frustrated at having to re-do things. It doesn’t matter to them that re-doing is often the best way to solidify learning. And if they’re struggling with a particular topic, or with academic work generally, it makes perfect sense they would prefer to do anything else! Kids are wired to enjoy themselves, not do tricky and difficult things, and definitely not in front of their parents.
  • Your child’s homework is not your responsibility. Ultimately we can’t make our kids do it, and we certainly can’t make them excited to do it. Even if we could, it wouldn’t help them because the minute we stepped back, everything would fall apart. But we can influence our child’s attitude towards homework. We can put the necessary boundaries and support in place, and provide the best sort of encouragement, to make it that little bit easier for our child to do their homework.

Getting into action

  • Change your role from control to influence
    Re-frame your part in your child’s homework. You have to take the first step! Choose to step back from direct and intimate involvement in the moment to being a supportive influence in the background. Your job is not to make your child do their homework. Your job is to help your child find ways to do their homework, even when they don’t want to do it.
  • Agree and stick to homework rules
    Homework – along with digital use – is one of the most important areas of family life to have clear rules. Every family is different, so there are no prescribed rules we can share with you. The rules have to take into account your family schedule, environment, and the individual needs and temperaments of your children. Rather than trying to decide in the moment what needs to happen, and where and when, take some time to think about what will work best for your kids. Many families decide homework needs to be done at the same time each day. Most kids will need a snack first! Another popular rule is homework first, then play. But then some kids really do need a good burst of play before they can re-settle down to more study. A common problem is those busy days with other extra-curricular activities meaning kids end up doing homework in cloakrooms or the back of the car ….

Another area to consider is whether your child needs to show you their completed homework, or whether you let them decide when they’ve done enough.

  • Allow kids some input and options
    Now we’ve established it’s THEIR homework, it’s important the children start to take ownership. We decide that homework is done before play, for example, but is there something your child can choose about their homework? Can they choose the place? Probably not the room, but can they do their homework on the floor, the kitchen table, at your desk?
    One boy asked to do his homework lying on the floor. At first, his parent thought this was another deflection and showed his son wasn’t taking homework seriously. Then Dad accepted that he needed to give his son a chance to try his solution, and it worked very well! Not perfectly, of course! It wasn’t just about lying on the floor being his input. The boy actually found it more comfortable than sitting on a chair ….
  • Keep your involvement positive – show them you believe in them!
    Many of you will be aware of The Magic Ratio of 5 positives to each negative comment which is so powerful in boosting motivation. If homework has become a sensitive issue, it may help to prepare some Descriptive Praise beforehand so you can jump in with some positivity right at the start. Remember the rules of Descriptive Praise – articulate the best bits of your child’s behaviour, including their first step, their effort, their progress, their attitude. Don’t wait for the big stuff! Catch all the small bits along the way to a better piece of homework.
  • Pause – let them think before offering to help
    When your child makes a mistake, bite your lip and hold your breath. Their homework is not a test of how much you know! Let your child experience these valuable moments to identify gaps in their learning for themselves. If they don’t spot it, this is part of the teacher/child relationship.
    If you really can’t resist, take a sideways approach with something like “Mmm, I can see plenty of really strong answers here. There’s one I’m not sure about. Which one do you think might need another look?”
    If they ask for your help, acknowledge the positives of looking for extra support. And then it’s up to you to decide whether or how to help, based on your knowledge of your child. Maybe you dive straight in with a hint or a clue. Maybe you say “I think you’re pretty close. It’s uncomfortable not being sure about what to do next. I’ve noticed you’re getting better at pausing and thinking recently. Can you give it another few seconds to see what comes up in your brain?”
  • When you feel the tension rising, step back ….
    When you recognise signs of stress building in your body, take a break. Leave the room, if it’s safe, make a cup of tea, stretch, breathe, whatever works for you. Talk to yourself – in a nice way! By the way, if your child starts to get tense during homework, they can do the same – maybe you could do it together!
    We often worry that taking a break is a sign of weakness, and that kids have to learn to push through. We worry too about the difficulties of re-starting if they stop! For some kids, particularly the wriggly fidgety ones who find it hard to focus, a break is absolutely vital.

Homework doesn’t have to be awful. And of course there’s always the other side when kids take their homework too seriously, and our job is to help them pull back and stop!

Our job is not to make sure our child does their homework. It’s to encourage them to want to do it. It’s to provide them with the best environment to do it. It’s to support them when they find it hard …. We’re sure you’ll have plenty more homework questions, so please drop us a line at hello@theparent.team