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Ask the Parent Coach: Strategies to End the Nightly Homework Struggle

Published on: December 11, 2012

Boy struggles with homework

Ask the Parent Coach: Jennifer Watanabe


Boy struggles with homeworkQ: My son is 11 years old and is not interested in doing his homework. I don’t think he gets too much homework; it is just that he seems so resistant in doing it. He is doing “okay” in school; however, I feel like he is a bright boy who is not “applying” himself. What can I do to help him along?

A: “Getting homework done” can be a source of so many frustrating parent-child battles. Parents want the best for their children and believe that getting a good education leads to a good future. Children have a hard time seeing that far ahead — more often they are paying close attention to the here and now.

First, be sure to let your son know that you love him unconditionally and that you are there to support him as he works on his homework. Be sure your son knows that you are his “ally.” Children are more likely to “feel the love” when the emotional tone is low.  Power struggles are fueled by emotions.

Second, recognize that many children are compliant and do what is asked when it comes to homework until they get “stuck.” Find out what is causing your child to get stuck.  Sometimes parents have to be detectives. Talk with your son about his homework. Here are some suggestions for conversation starters and strategies:

  • “Do you need to get your body moving after a long day at school? Would a walk or run first help?”
  • If your son seems to resist reading homework, be aware that many learning disabilities (dyslexia, for one) become apparent around this age. Ask your son open-ended questions like: “What are three words that describe how you feel about reading? Or that you like most about this reading homework? What do you like to read?  Do you like long stories or short stories better?”
  • “I noticed that you do your math homework last. Tell me more about why you do that.” When homework is fun, children tend to like doing it.  When it is not fun or seems too hard, they will resist and/or avoid it if and as long as possible.
  • “Which classmate could you call who can help explain tonight’s homework?”
  • “What do you think about having a ‘study buddy’?” (Encourage having a sibling, friend, or parent sitting alongside him while he does his homework.)
  • “How do your friends get their homework done?”
  • “What was the most interesting part of the school day? When did you have the most fun?” The answers to these questions can help reveal what motivates your son. Tapping into your son’s intrinsic motivation will help “fuel” his desire for learning and doing homework.
  • “What part of your day wasn’t fun? Why was it that way?” Tune into whether your son is having a good experience at school. If school is hard or if he ever feels embarrassed during the day, he may resist home activities related to school.
  • Ask your son, “What would you like to do instead of homework?” Word of caution here:  if it is video games, it may be because the games are intentionally designed to be highly entertaining and stimulating.  It is pretty hard for homework to be as enticing as a video game.  Kind and firm limits here will help.  “Video games after homework.  On school nights game time is short.”  (Find video games that are designed for short sessions. Reserve longer-session games for weekend play.)
  • Offer up a “When ... then ...” option such as, “When you get the homework done, then we can do a fun activity together — go for a walk, make your favorite dinner, read a book, play a favorite board game or cards, etc.”
  • Use the kitchen timer. Try this: “Let’s set the timer:  30 minutes of homework before dinner; 30 minutes after dinner.” Sometimes homework seems like too big of a task and looms large over the family’s evening.  Breaking it down into more manageable time blocks may help. Be mindful of your attitude towards your son’s homework: If you are dreading the homework battle, he probably is, too.

Finally, I would encourage you to talk with your son’s teacher. He/she will be able to give you information about how he is doing in school. Here are some topics to address:

  • How is math? Have there been new concepts introduced lately that your son is still trying to grasp? Is the math homework too hard? Is there extra help available either from the teacher or a math tutor to help your son master the lessons?
  • How is reading? Is his reading ability at the same level as his classmates? When your son reads out loud does he have a command of the language? These questions might help rule out the possibility that he has a learning disability.
  • How are your son’s relationships with peers? Does your son have kind friends or are there some negative interactions happening outside of class?

Once you know why your son resists doing his homework, you both can work together to create a homework plan that feels doable to your son and less stressful to you.

Jennifer WatanabeJennifer Watanabe is the parent coach at Youth Eastside Services (YES). She teaches Positive Discipline classes and provides individual parent coaching. As a Certified Parent Coach, she has vast experience teaching parenting classes, using research-based information on child development, temperament, discipline, and emotion management. She specializes in helping parents who are longing for a better relationship with their children and who need a more effective way to discipline. Perhaps most importantly, Jennifer understands first-hand the issues parents face in our community.

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