Editor's note: This week, our guest blogger is Dr. Timothy Davis, a psychologist and a child and family psychotherapist in Newton, Massachusetts. Here, he provides a therapist's perspective on how to address power struggles over homework.
School doors are open again and, for many families, it means the resumption of homework battles. You might have noticed that schools are giving more homework than ever before. This increased workload places a big burden on parents and kids to keep track of assignments, manage the time dedicated to homework and reduce other distractions. Couple homework demands with busy after-school schedules, and that spells stress and tension at home.
In my practice, I’ve helped many families manage and ultimately free themselves from these struggles. Below are four important steps you can take to get out of the struggle and get homework done with a lot more ease.
1) Homework Belongs to the Child, Not to the Parents
You may read the header to this section and think, “Sure, but if I don’t get involved, my kid isn’t going to do it!” We want to help our children any way we can, and it’s really tempting to step in and take responsibility for homework. It’s logical too. We know that by refusing to put effort into their homework, kids can dig an academic hole that will be increasingly difficult to get out of. If your child is in high school, you may be concerned that poor homework will equal poor grades, which can have a dramatic impact on college choices.
Here’s the problem: when we take responsibility for homework, we unintentionally communicate to our children that we don’t think they are capable of handling their own responsibilities. We disempower our children and set the stage for homework battles. When we let our child be responsible for homework, the struggle remains within the child—that is, between the child’s own desire to succeed and his/her wish to avoid the stress of homework. When we take ownership of our child's homework, the struggle becomes a battle between us and our child – between our desire to help (experienced by our child as an effort to control) and our child's need to fight for independence.
Stepping back, we can see that when we take over responsibility for homework, we fail to give our children an opportunity to learn to manage their own workload independently (self-management skills that are essential for success in college and beyond).
So, let your child be in charge of homework and let his/her teachers be in charge of administering the consequences of not doing it. Not taking ownership doesn’t mean you should ignore homework. Most kids need some form of homework help. I’ll discuss ways to help without provoking a battle in the next section. I won’t deny this may be nerve-wracking at first, but the payoff, in terms of improving your relationship with your child, as well as helping your kids be more responsible will be well worth it.
2) Be the Homework Ally, Not the Homework Police
I’ve talked to many parents who feel they have been turned into homework police who are in charge of whether homework is done and then are judge and jury if its not. This is a terrible role for us as parents and can seriously diminish the joy of raising children.
When we consciously become a homework ally, we remove the struggle from homework. Here are some ways you can help with homework without getting overinvolved or pulling out your hair.
- Create a dedicated homework space where your child can work without distractions. That means, leaving their smart-phones and iPods out of the space. The space doesn’t necessarily have to be a whole room set-aside for your child, it can be a cleared dining room table, or desk.
- Set a regular time for homework. Most parents and kids find it best to allow some time between school dismissal and homework for your child to blow off steam and unwind. Other family members, and this is key, should also be doing some quiet activity during this time (not playing video games or watching TV which can distract). Also, sitting quietly and doing your own work, or reading next to your child while s/he is working can be quite helpful. Not only are you modeling good work habits, you’re also available if your child gets stuck.
- Help your child set up a schedule to complete longer-term projects, a checklist for which resources are needed to complete assignments, and a system for getting his/her completed work back into the backpack.
Think of yourself as a helpful coach. Less control and more support goes a long way with children, especially teens. Sometimes, all that is needed is a simple shift in our attitude. For instance, we can demand that our child work on a project on our timetable, or we can offer to help in a supportive way (e.g., “I see you have a big project coming up. Let me know if you’d like me to help you make a timeline for getting it done.”).
Another aspect to this—and this is key—is not punishing your child for not doing homework. Let the teacher do it. But, beyond that, punishment builds resentment in the parent-child relationship, and takes the responsibility away from your child. Instead, opt for being a supportive ally, and if they fall off the track, collaborate and brainstorm with them about how they might approach things differently next time.
3) Hire Homework Help
Often homework battles can be solved by hiring a tutor or an Executive Function coach. I have seen many cases where kids, who battle their parents over homework, will sit down with outside support and complete their work with little fuss. Some parents assume homework support won't help because their child doesn't have academic problems. Other parents may feel that they are perfectly capable of helping their child with homework. However, a third party can be very helpful, even in these circumstances. Parent-child relationships are very complicated and homework is an arena where the emotions of these complex relationships can play out. Because the relationship between the student and the tutor or coach is usually straightforward, the child is much less inclined to resist. This outside support can not only relieve you of straining your relationship with your child, but can also provide additional insight about your child’s learning style that may be contributing to homework difficulties.
4) Consider Getting a Neuropsychological Evaluation
In some cases academic challenges and homework battles have their origins in subtle learning issues or Executive Functioning problems that are not easily detected without a professional neuropsychological evaluation. Neuropsychologists administer specialized tests in order to detect learning difficulties that can make school and homework very difficult for otherwise bright kids. Your child's pediatrician or school psychologist can refer you to a neuropsychologist who can perform this type of evaluation.
In my practice it is not uncommon for me to see kids who tell me that they don't care how they do in school and whose parents are convinced that they are just lazy. However, from neuropsychological testing, we frequently learn about the presence of an underlying problem with processing speed, language processing, Executive Functioning, or attention. Once the child has an explanation for why he or she has such a hard time with school, and once the proper supports are in place at school and at home, I've seen many of these so called “lazy” kids blossom into hardworking and successful students. When unrecognized learning issues are present, children can find school very difficult and not know why. It can make a child feel stupid. Many kids, in order to protect their self-esteem, decide, “I'm not stupid. School is stupid,” and stop trying. In my experience almost all kids want to be successful. However, because these kids don't know how to translate effort into success at school, it doesn't make sense to them to try.
To sum up: let school and homework belong to your child. Our role as caring parents is to be an ally and resource as our children work to fulfill their school responsibilities. If problems persist, get some help from a tutor, an academic coach, a neuropsychologist, or a therapist. I hope your school year gets off to a great start and that these suggestions help make for fewer homework battles and more academic success!
Would you like to learn more about how Executive Function coaching for your child can help put an end to homework battles? Click below for a free consultation.
Dr. Timothy Davis is a psychologist and a child and family psychotherapist. In his Newton, Massachusetts practice he specializes in working with boys with academic and behavior problems that challenge the patience of parents, teachers, siblings and peers. Dr. Davis is an Instructor in the Department of Psychiatry at the Harvard Medical School and he blogs about parenting and child development at www.challengingboys.com. He is also the author of A Parent’s Quick Start Guide to Ending Power Struggles with Your Challenging Child which can be downloaded for free at http://challengingboys.com/quick-start-guide/.