School is back in session. This means the return of homework. Does your child hate to do homework? Does homework time come with crying, arguing and tantrumming? Does 30 minutes of homework consume a couple of hours of your life every night? If you said yes to any of these questions, then I’m betting you hate homework even more than your child!
In my experience, there is nothing a parent hates more than feeling helpless to help their child. If this sense of helplessness is accompanied by regular irritation (such as was described in the previous paragraph) the pain is that much worse. Why do some kids struggle with homework? For some it’s anxiety for others it’s boredom or even not understanding how to do the work. Homework problems are commonly seen in children with ADHD, autism, anxiety issues…although they are not uncommon to the “neurotypical” child.
What’s a parent to do? Here are some tips that will hopefully reduce or eliminate homework battles. Using these tips I’ve helped my own and other kids get a better handle on homework time.
How do you eat an elephant?
This was a question my mother used to pose to me when I was struggling with big problems. It is a question I often pose to my clients. So, I ask the question. The first answer usually is something like “I don’t want to eat an elephant.” To this I reply, “Just pretend you are super hungry and all you have to eat is a whole elephant. How would you eat it?” At this point they usually shrug and look at me like I’m pretty crazy.
So, what’s the answer? (It’s ok… I will wait while you cogitate.) The answer is “ONE BITE AT A TIME.” When you have a big problem to tackle (like a lot of homework) just start by doing the first bit, then the next bit…wash, rinse, repeat until you’re done. Basically, instead of doing one big bit, do lots of little bits.
- Break up the homework into smaller sections (little bits).
- Keep the sections limited to what your child can do without getting too upset. If they can only do 10 minutes at a time, then limit the “bits” to 10 minute sections.
- In between sections, take a few minutes break to do something fun and relaxing to allow your child to calm down.
By doing this, you keep homework relatively easy. You are less likely to have your child go over the precipice into anxiety or tantrum. When this happens, their ability to learn and think is compromised. By keeping away from the “hot head” zone and in the “cool head zone” you maximize your child’s ability to think and process information. This should lead to better results with the homework.
I first discovered this technique when I was in music school. I had three part-time jobs, a full college class load. I did not have much time to practice. As a result I had to jump on a piano whenever there was one available for 10 minutes or so. I had to focus my practice sessions. I’d work on scales one time, then on a difficult part of a song at another time. What I found is that I made better progress with these little sessions than with the longer marathon sessions. Later, I found the same success with homework. Doing lots of little bits with a clear head and focused effort gets more done than trying to “eat the elephant” in one big bite. In some cases, I’ve had clients get twice as much done in three or four 10-15 minute mini-sessions than in 2 hours of cramming. Also, because the work is done with a clear and focused mind, the information tends to stick better and get processed more. I know, for me, when I crammed for tests, I very quickly forgot the information and would have to re-study it later.
The parent as coach rather than disciplinarian
Maximizing success with the lots of little bits homework strategy requires a shifting in your role as parent. You need to move away from just being the disciplinarian into a coaching role. Instead of standing over your child, cracking the proverbial whip to keep them on task and getting the work done (with the rending of clothes and the gnashing of teeth), you need to take a less authoritarian and more authoritative role.
First, stay positive. Praise your child for all attempts to get the work done, staying on task and staying calm. Watch your child as he/she works. Look for the warning signs of agitation or getting overwhelmed. If a chunk of time is not done, but your child is starting to get frustrated. Prompt them to check in and take a break. (Remember, the idea is to keep your child in a relaxed calm state as much as possible). If your child is on a roll and calm, maybe extend a segment. Also look at using environmental controls to set limits. A timer to show how long the child has to do work or has left of a rest period is great for example. Designating a homework area and restricting work and breaks in that area (to decrease distractions)is another great way to set limits without having to totally police your child.
When it is time to take a break, your job is to keep things structured. Do not just hand your child the video game remote (you will never get your child’s attention back). Do something WITH your child. It should be fun, silly, and relaxing. After a few minutes, prompt them back to the next segment of work. Keep at it until homework is done. When there is resistance, take a break, stay positive and upbeat, but also don’t let the child totally escape from the work until it is completed to your satisfaction. In time, you may find that your child can tolerate longer and longer periods of work before needing a break. You should also notice a decrease in the frequency and intensity of conflict. I find it helpful to use a timer to set limits to how long the break is. Use lots of praise when your child complies and follows directions.
Good head “Coolers”
Here is a quick list of little games you can use during homework breaks to help your child relax an regain focus.
- Bubbles – Children and teens of all ages respond to bubbles. Bust out a bottle of bubbles and they can’t resist popping them. Have them practice blowing bubble slow and fast to teach breath control and reduce stress.
- Beanie Baby Drop — Put a beanie baby on your head and then let it drop into the child’s hands. Put it on his/her head and then let them drop it into your hands. Add a countdown to practice self-regulation and reduce impulsivity. Great with younger kids, but older kids respond too.
- Cotton Ball Blow – Put some cotton balls on the table and then blow them back and forth with a straw. Can be a competitive or cooperative game. Try to see who can blow a cotton ball to the end of the table without blowing it off with one breath.
- Back Letters — write a letter on your child’s back with your finger. Let them guess what letter it is. Have them do the same to you. Promotes touch and relaxation.
- Knock Knock Jokes – tell each other knock knock joke… the sillier the better.
- Name that tune – Play a snippet of a song on your computer or mp3 player. Have your child guess the tune. Take turns. Great with older kids to connect and engage.
I hope you find these tips helpful and that they reduce conflicts with your child over homework. Please post any head cooling ideas or other homework tips in the comments section below. If you want a free consultation about homework issues, then click on the schedule appointment button to your right. Remember, BREATHE, you got this.
Copyright 2013 Erik Young,M.Ed., LPC