Back in the dark ages homework assignments were written on the chalk board or read off quickly by your teacher in a fight to beat being drowned out by the end of period buzzer or bell. You had to make sure you got the assignment right the first time, there was no website to crosscheck. Agendas and calendars were for business people not students. A quick scrawl on the top of your subject notebook page had to suffice as your reminder of what needed to be done. You probably had a rigid routine back then. You came home, had a snack, and went to your room, alone, to crack the books. Fast-forward to today, and you may wonder, why these days his homework feels like your responsibility. Maybe it’s those emails that seem to pile up in your inbox causing concern and guilt: “Hi Mrs. Johnson, this is Mrs. Smith, Matt’s math teacher. I just wanted to make sure you are aware that Matt did not hand in last night’s homework again.” Maybe you skirt the emails only to get the shock of your life when you read the comments section on your son’s report card highlighting his failure to hand in assignments. This is after he has been consistently assuring you all his classes are going “really well.”
In a rah rah effort to build bonds between you and your child, many well meaning teachers even assign complicated projects for which you are expected to participate. You are supposed to revel in these opportunities right? After all, your child is truly one of the most important people in your world. Why you wonder does that have to translate in to building a model city of the future complete with motorized flying cars?
Put simply, why does her homework feel like it also belongs to you? Why can’t you do as your parents did and let your child deal with it on his own? You know why, because you can’t bear to see her struggle or maybe even tank.
Now don’t get me wrong, if you happen to have a self-propelled independent work doing child, there is no need to read on. The rest of us however, have suffered in silence for so long that the time has come to talk about what is really going on. You are in homework hell and the assignments aren’t even your responsibility! As a parent, you feel as if it all falls on you. This is especially true if your student learns differently than his classmates. If your student struggles academically it is quite common for him to dread homework. What may take the guise of lack of motivation may actually be the reality of the heart-wrenching struggle that your student would rather understandably avoid. This is when the task of homework completion falls especially hard on the shoulders of a parent. What’s a parent to do?
Lev Vygotsky, a Soviet psychologist in the 1900’s proposed that children could reach their full potential when the adults in their lives provide just enough help. He called this concept ‘scaffolding.’ He theorized that the importance of understanding the point of ‘just enough help’ is invaluable. Each child is of course an individual who learns at his own pace. As a parent then, the goal is to provide the kind of support and guidance that encourages your child to reach his full potential. The problem many parents face today however, is that it often feels as if the burden of providing support has become heavier. Perhaps this seems fair given the technological supports available to kids to help them better understand concepts. Back in the day we couldn’t just ‘Google it.’
The amount of homework assigned these days often seems staggering. If your child has difficulty staying focused or motivated, needs more time to process in class material, or learns in a different way than other kids, homework can feel completely intolerable. The pace at which many teachers feel obliged to follow in order to get through proscribed class curriculums can contribute to the overflow of homework.
Parents who become irritable overwhelmed, upset, or even angry that they are expected to be an active participant in their child’s homework often feel that these normal responses will result in others judging them in a negative light.
Some kids really do need a lot more homework support than others. If you are the parent of such a kid, what follows are some quick tips on how to help your student succeed and lessen your own load with confidence:
Know what and how much you are willing to manage.
You went to school already so don’t stress if you really don’t have the patience or time to take on the task of tutor. There are many other available outside options for support and guidance. Quite often it is anyone but a parent who can best help a student. This is because the emotional dynamic of parent/child is taken out of the equation.
Establish an optimal work environment
Sit down with your student and discuss how to establish an environment that encourages productivity and avoids distractions. Work with him to create a schedule for homework that works. Some kids for example, need downtime before they can start their nightly assignments. Identify the best subject order in which to attack homework. Is your student best served getting through easy quick assignments first, or does he lose steam as it gets later, so taking on longer, more difficult assignments first is best? Does your student require a lot of breaks, or does he work best if he powers through assignment to assignment? When you strategize together, you offer the kind of support that encourages your student to complete tasks in an efficient, timely manner. This is in turn will help him to feel successful.
Some monitoring is a must
Although you may sometimes wish you could just leave your student alone to tackle homework on his own, the reality is that a little bit of monitoring can go a long way. If your student tends to put up quite a struggle if you even inquire about homework, it is natural to have the impulse to simply back away. This however, quite often only results in catastrophic disaster down the road. The earlier you step in to offer guidance and support, even if it is seemingly unwanted, the better off your student will be. Most kids not only need structure, it actually helps them thrive. This is especially true for students who struggle. When your student is aware that you are involved it provides structure and accountability. The best way to establish how and how much you will monitor is to have an interactive discussion with your student. Remember, you only want to provide ‘just enough’ oversight. If your student is adamantly against your involvement give him a lot of room. Monitoring in these instances can start-off simple. Require your student, for example, to run through the list of nightly assignments. If his school has a website that routinely posts homework assignments, do a quick check so you can cross-compare his list. Once all work is completed ask him to show you that it has been done. If you have a student that needs a bit more oversight, you may be best served actually sitting down with him to review his nightly requirements. Keep him close while he does his homework. Your mere presence may help keep him focused on the work at hand. Be sure to evaluate his work environment, to ensure there are no unnecessary distractions.
Sometimes it really takes a village, use your resources
At times it may feel like you are alone to negotiate the homework hassles you face with your child. It is important to remember to access available resources. Contact teachers, talk to other parents. Turn to your spouse or older children to help you offer meaningful support for your student. Sometimes something as simple as partnering with teachers to instill accountability on assignments can make a world of difference. The bottom line is that while you may need to get creative, there are a whole host of ways to get support and guidance for you and your student.
Avoid engaging in emotional confrontations
When your student struggles with homework completion, the stress can feel unbearable for you both. When response to your inquiries involves ranting, raving, or on occasion rage, it can be a scary and emotionally charged experience for both you and your student. In those moments when his frustration is obvious you are best served remaining calm. Although you may be the target of his tirade, in reality remember the frustration is most likely an expression of dissatisfaction with himself and/or the situation. Take a step back when this happens, but try not to totally walk away. You don’t want to send the message that his behavior will always result in being left alone, abandoned to do as he pleases.
Encourage empowerment and self-efficacy
Teach your child to focus on what he can do. It is far too easy to get into a battle regarding what he can’t do. All those cant’s can result in a lack of motivation and ultimately a refusal to even try. Suggest strategies to find the help your student may need to complete his nightly assignments. Encourage him to use the available resources. He can for example, got for extra-help at school, use the Internet. There are a lot of great websites offering video tutorials that can help reinforce what he is learning in class. A little bit of success can go a long way in helping a child to feel competent and confident when approaching his homework.
Your student’s homework can feel like your personal purgatory. This is especially common when your student has learning differences and/or difficulty getting organized and motivated. Don’t let his homework overwhelm and stress you. Sit down and strategize a structured path to success. When you can implement a helpful plan the road from homework hell can be diverted to a heavenly and accomplished calm in which all assignments are satisfactorily completed.
Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in society: The development of higher psychological processes (M. Cole, V. John-Steiner, S. Scribner, & E. Soubermen Eds.). Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press