Homework Advice from the Expert


Homework is a hassle. Kids hate it. Parents resent it. Teachers and school administrators say they can’t make parents happy in the homework department.  Half the parents want their kids to have more homework, asserting that our kids are not prepared to compete in a global economy where primary school children in China spend three hours a night on homework. The other half of American parents demand less homework, stressing that kids need down time, exercise, and sleep. The research, according to the Center for Public Education, is mixed. But for most of us, homework is a reality that has to be faced, whether you fall in the pro- or the anti-homework camp. For both parents and children, homework and stress seem to go hand-in-hand.


Homework is the number one source of parent-child conflict for the families that I see in my practice. Here is a typical example. It’s a Wednesday night, and after seven hours of school and 90 minutes of soccer practice, Sarah, age 10, is seated at the kitchen table with papers and books spread around her. It took 20 minutes and four reminders to get Sarah this far. Dad is nearby getting dinner ready. Mom just walked in the door. Five minutes in, Sarah realizes she didn’t write down the page number for the math assignment. Can she PLEEEZZZZZ text Gabi to find out what page she should be on? Mom says sure, but ONLY to ask about homework. Ten minutes go by as Mom and Dad debrief their busy days and suddenly Dad notices Sarah is still texting. A stern rebuke from Dad ensues, followed by some eye-rolling from Sarah, but eventually she stops texting and gets out her math book. Five minutes and one math problem later, she takes a bathroom break. Five more minutes, with half of the second problem done, and Sarah announces she is too hungry to do her homework and can she do it after dinner? Mom’s the bad cop this time and tries to cajole Sarah into just two more problems before dinner. Sarah moans, It’s too hard; the teacher didn’t explain this stuff! Plus I have a vocab test to study for and that’s more important!” Mom acquiesces. By the time Sarah has her vocab book out, dinner is ready. Nearly an hour has gone by, Sarah has finished 1 1/2 math problems, and everyone knows that there is more of this to come after dinner.


So, how do we help our kids cope with homework? How do we minimize the stress that homework has on families? Most of you know the basics: set aside a regular time, turn off electronics and limit distractions, don’t hover. But, like any other problem that needs a solution, it helps to do good detective work to determine exactly where the problem lies.


Homework is a three-phase process that I like to compare to a NASA mission. There’s launching, flying, and landing. Launching is the front end homework organization and preparation process that actually starts at school. Launching involves getting assignments written down in a planner, or having access to assignments online, making sure needed materials get home, estimating how long tasks will take, prioritizing, clarifying directions, and having necessary materials such as a calculator or highlighter pen. Sarah’s failure to know what page her math homework is on is a classic launching issue. Launching problems can be improved by strategies that increase home-school communication and by using the first few minutes of homework time to help your child make a homework plan. A homework plan includes priorities, estimated work times, and may even build in breaks or rewards. Having a basket or plastic bin with needed supplies at the ready can also help set the stage for a successful launch.


The second phase of homework is flying. Flying involves actually doing the work. Obviously, a productive launch is likely to help your child have a good flight. But, breakdowns can happen in-flight when your child doesn’t understand the material, when they work too slowly or rush too quickly, or when they are over-tired or hungry. Strategies for a good flight include ensuring that your child’s basic biological needs are met before you start. For Sarah, that bathroom break and snack should have been all taken care of. Also, parents and teachers need to be in agreement ahead of time about how much parent support kids should be getting during flight. I usually recommend a hands-off approach, so the teacher knows what your child can and cannot do, but some activities do require more parental involvement than others. While in flight, for younger students, I suggest that a parent works nearby while the child works. Proximity control increases productivity. Everyone should have electronics off. Pay the bills, read the paper, make dinner, even read a pleasure book. Role-model focused flying!


The final phase of successful homework completion is landing. This involves getting finished work into the binder/homework folder, getting the backpack ready for the next day, and actually physically turning in the work at school when it is due. My son had a horrible time with landing. When he had completed his homework, mentally he was finished with it – YAY it’s done! And he didn’t have good landing patterns. Often work that was completed would not get turned in or would be docked points for being late because he couldn’t find it or he left it at home. Nothing is worse than actually doing your homework but then forgetting to bring it to school! Strategies that can help kids with shaky landing skills include designating a “to be turned in tomorrow” folder that is bright, colorful, and hard to miss in a messy backpack. Getting permission to email assignments to the teacher can help. Helping your child with post-homework backpack organizing can minimize crash landings.


So, before you jump in to solve your kid’s homework problem, try to figure out what part of the journey has gone awry. Here’s wishing you a well-organized launch, flight, and landing. Happy travels!!


How about you? Do you have any strategies that help reduce homework stress in your family?


This blog is only for informational and educational purposes and should not be considered therapy or any form of treatment. We are not able to respond to specific questions or comments about personal situations, appropriate diagnosis or treatment, or otherwise provide any clinical opinions. If you think you need immediate assistance, call your local emergency number, the mental health crisis hotline on your local community, or the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (8255). Trained crisis support is available at this number 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.