This past weekend my daughter melted down on the way home from our friend’s house. My wife said “You have to do your reading today”. My daughter cried out in anguish “Why do I have to think about stupid homework on the weekend?!!” This is a sentiment shared by kids and parents all over the world and is actually a really good question.
Most of the tweens and teens who come to see me for therapy are coming because of homework issues. Crazy, right? You’d think that people seek therapy for more serious concerns like drugs, delinquent behavior, or thoughts of suicide. But make no mistake, homework is a serious problem; in fact, homework sucks! And it sucks not only for kids, but for their parents, too! I see the serious emotional ramifications both in my family and the families I see professionally, ramifications that clearly stem from the stress of managing daily homework.
While I personally feel that kids should only have to take home very little school work, the reality is that kids have too much homework and too little time to do it. Despite recent criticism of homework policies in school districts across the nation, this is not going to change overnight. The problem my daughter and many of my clients are dealing with is how to manage their daily homework load. In other words, how can we help our kids to just do it in a timely manner.
The Problem with Homework
As I see it, there are two main issues with homework. First, homework is not meaningful. There seems to be very little evidence stating that homework is beneficial academically. Yet schools keep assigning homework that does not go beyond what the kids who come to see me say is “busy work.” Mindless repetition of work they’ve done at school with little to hold the kids’ interest and no real learning or practice effect.
To me, this is truly problematical. Isn’t the point of education to arouse our kids’ interest in learning? There are very few activities we could or would want to do for hours at a time. I don’t know any children who say that they like learning so much that they don’t mind spending seven hours a day in school plus up to four hours at home doing it. Imagine trying to get your child to spend that much time a day on the things they like! Video games aside, I doubt kids would want to spend that much time on even their favorite pastime. Would you? No matter what the activity, enough is enough.
Second, schools keep dishing out homework, but don’t teach our kids how to do it. Skills such as time management or setting priorities are not on the curriculum. In fact, these skills are often added to special education plans or 504 plans as if the children qualifying for these services are the only ones lacking these skills! Kids who come to see me with homework problems, regardless of the age group, all struggle with the same issue–just getting down to business, i.e., sitting down and doing the work.
This skill is learning how to systematically approach the work in a way that it becomes manageable and thus anxiety-free. Although my daughter is much younger than my teenage clients, she is a great example of how homework problems escalate, because the struggle with homework begins long before teenagers come to see me–long before middle and high school.
Homework Struggles Are Emotional, Not Academic
First, consider this: my daughter is in first grade and she has homework. Yes, I said it, she’s in first grade and she has homework! Does anyone else have a problem with this? I understand that reading is important and that practice makes perfect and that practice needs to continue at home. But it doesn’t stop there. She also has daily worksheets for math and reading to complete, a math video game to play (which is not fun for her), and a weekly writing assignment to hand in. Believe me, it adds up. An hour of homework after school is not the exception, it’s the rule. The problem for my daughter, and for most kids who struggle with homework, is not that she has to do an hour of work, but that she has to do it after she’s been in school all day, where she had to focus, follow rules, sit still, and learn for many hours already. At home she simply doesn’t want to keep doing the same thing. She’s tired! She wants a rest. Just like you and me want (and usually get!) a rest after a hard day at work.
So, the problem with homework for my daughter is not academic, it’s emotional. In order to prevent problems at home for me, let me start by saying that my wife is the one handling most of the homework situation, and that of late my daughter has been much better about doing it. Here are some of the scenarios we’ve struggled with and some of the solutions we’ve used to help my daughter manage her homework load.
Manage Their Expectations: Telling kids in advance helps them prepare mentally and emotionally for the upcoming difficult task. This trick works for much more than homework management. Any difficult task is much easier to handle if you’ve had a chance to get ready. So, after gymnastics or softball, we warn her with a statement like: “OK, we’re going home now, then we’ll wash up for dinner, then eat, then homework, then shower, then books, then bed.” This schedule is reinforced after each activity on the list. As my daughter gets older, she is ever more apt to add her two cents to the schedule. Allowing her a say in planning the day, including the time spent on disliked activities such as homework, increases the chances that she’ll actually follow the plan.
They Just Need to Get It Out: For many kids, the pressure of the day keeps building up and tantrums are the quickest way to discharge this pressure. Many parents I’ve worked with on homework issues say that after tantrums their kids usually calm down and are finally able to do the work. So keeping calm in these moments while our kids explode allows them to get it out and over with so they can get back to the work. This keep it calm strategy also helps our kids to manage their emotions for future homework sessions as they will learn that their strong feelings are not overwhelming and they do pass.
Expect to Deal with the Loss: At the mention of homework, my daughter will immediately yell out in anguish, “Noooooooo!” Just the thought of homework puts her into a state of despair. Why? Not only is she coping with the anxiety about having to do homework, she also has to deal with the loss of the more cherished activity she was engaged in when homework was mentioned. TV or X-box or really any other activity is more fun than homework. As parents, expecting the tantrum allows us to more successfully manage our own reactions, limiting the potentially hurtful things we say in anger. This will help to keep our children’s self esteem and confidence around homework intact, making them more likely to handle it better next time.
Use Yourself as a Gauge and Take a Break: Last night, I helped my daughter with her homework. After she answered the same question incorrectly many times, it became apparent that her brain was not working any more and that we’d be stuck doing homework for a lot longer than I had hoped. I felt myself getting frustrated and realized that I needed a break. I realized that if I needed a break, then she likely needed one, too. This break was for the night, more often its a few minutes and we both avoided the harsh words and sharp tones that quite probably would have followed had we powered through. If we aren’t pushing our kids to complete a task when they are not capable of doing it, we avoid issuing a blow to their self-esteem and probably get done faster.
We are the Scaffold, not the Wall: Again this one extends well beyond homework. Last night, my daughter sat at the table and did her homework while I cleaned up after dinner. We both worked on our own stuff and every so often she asked me for help. This is the situational model my wife and I strive for every day: she takes ownership of her task without us standing over her, urging her on from one task to the next.
This is a behavior we’ve had to work up to. In the beginning of the school year, she had to struggle with far more anxiety around homework, and needed our full attention, support, and direction to get through each task. Many parents I’ve worked with feel that unless they are constantly pressuring their kids, making sure the work gets done, it simply won’t. The kids in these situations usually need a certain amount of check-in, but they are mostly resentful that their parents don’t trust they can and will do the work. The result is a situation where kids don’t do the work because they are angry with their parents for not trusting…a “you don’t think I’m going to do it so now I’m not” kind of thing.
The process of homework independence is a slow one that needs hand holding and soothing to start, but the goal is getting our kids to take ownership of their work so when they go off to college they won’t come home early.
What’s So Wrong with Incentives: Would you work for free? Of course not. So why do we think that our kids will happily complete a hard task for free? Society and our educational system is teaching our kids that hard work will receive the reward of a “good” college, which leads to a “good” job, which leads to getting paid a “good” salary. The problem with that reward is that its years and years away. Why not start this now?School is a child’s equivalent to a parent’s gainful employment. Why not offer an incentive for (home)work well done and on time? Early on in this school year, a few chocolate chips went a long way with my daughter and were particularly helpful on those especially tough nights. Rather than a fight, these little rewards allowed her to take ownership of her (home)work, fostered a sense of accomplishment, and made her feel good about getting the job done.
Homework will not go away any time soon. Homework will not suddenly become easier or more fun. Homework is a fact of life all the way through high school. I’m hopeful that as time goes on these techniques mentioned above will continue to help minimize the friction homework brings with it and help my daughter learn to manage the stress and anxiety of the many unpleasant tasks ahead. Now all I have to do is figure out how to help myself with that!