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How parents can help kids with homework

Parents can help their kids with homework by coaching them to learn good habits.

On the first day of the 2016-2017 school year, the kids at Whittier Elementary in Seattle got a big gift – no more homework. For several years there’s been a national debate raging among educators, parents, and psychologists about the plusses and minuses of assigning schoolwork outside of school hours – especially for kids in the lower grades. But for many parents, the homework still comes home in the backpack every night and parents struggle with how best to help their kids stay on top of it.

Unless your child’s school decides on a school-wide homework ban, it’s likely impossible to completely eliminate the battles homework can set off, but here are a few things you can do to minimize them.

Set a routine. Welcome your child home with a half-hour or so of wind-down time after school, childcare or soccer. Kids need a quick break from the day just like adults do. Then, dive into homework – don’t procrastinate. “You want to create a foundation” for the ability to sequence longer enjoyable experiences after hard work, says Elizabeth MacKenzie, a Seattle child psychologist who specializes in educational issues. “Procrastination only increases anxiety,” she adds. Should you start with division or the diorama? Get ugly, difficult tasks done first, and save fun stuff for later.

Turn screens off. Avoid the siren calls of e-mail and chat notifications, text chimes and cell phone rings. Turn off the phone, and make it clear that socializing is done after homework. If your child must use a computer, keep the computer in a monitored public area, MacKenzie suggests.

Experiment with place. Discard the myth that kids always need to do their homework in the same place every night. “Research has shown that kids retain information better when they work in multiple places,” says Ann Dolin, author of Homework Made Simple – Tips, Tools, and Solutions for Stress-Free Homework. And the kitchen table isn’t always the right spot. If your son best delves into work on the living room couch, don’t fight it. Dolin suggests lap desks as a possible solution.

Eat an elephant. You may be familiar with the old saying: “What’s the best way to eat an elephant? One bite a time.” Breaking down huge, overwhelming projects into smaller tasks is a learned skill. Co-author a checklist for the night’s (or week’s) assignments. If a multiplication problem page gives your kid math anxiety, fold the assignment so you’re only looking at a few problems at a time. MacKenzie even suggests offering a jellybean for each sentence your homework-hating child writes. “Anything you can do to make homework less painful, that’s a good idea,” MacKenzie says – even if it means a fun, small treat now and then.

Coach, don’t boss. Homework haters often appreciate latitude. For example, ask your child which problem or task they want to do first. Increasing a child’s sense of control over homework correlates with increased assignment completion, according to research.

Supply a homework station. Assemble in a designated spot everything your child may need for an A+ study session, including lined and plain paper, pencils, pens, rulers, compass, highlighters and a few of those fun Japanese erasers. Time-saving reference materials (such as multiplication tables, a dictionary, handwriting charts, etc.) stay here, too.

Race the clock. Set the Time Timer for a short amount of time – say, 10 or 13 minutes – and challenge your child to work as hard as they can until the timer goes off, Dolin suggests. A timer helps kids get over the hump of procrastination. “Anyone can tolerate anything for 10 minutes,” Dolin says. But once the 10 minutes elapse, don’t be surprised if your kids (now in the homework zone) keep writing or adding.

Nip power struggles. If your “help” has become less than helpful, pull back. Tell your child you’ll check in with him or her in 10 minutes or so. Does your kid plead for your full attention for every homework comma or computation? “Have your child work independently for a short amount of time and work up to longer times incrementally,” MacKenzie says.

Get help. “Superbowl Kids” are what Dolin calls children who’ve been working for three hours, but have only accomplished 20 minutes of homework. A disconnect between the work completed and your child’s attention span may indicate the need for an assessment or outside tutoring. After-school tutoring programs or homework centers can boost students’ motivation, self-confidence and study habits, according to research from the Center for Public Education.

Talk to the teacher. If your child is young and spending more than 10 minutes per grade per night on homework, chat with the teacher. “For first graders, an hour is too much, and it’s time missing out on doing other things,” McKenzie says. Parents can ask about cutting the study session short and sending homework back to class with a note explaining how your child put in solid effort.

Encourage commitment. Observe your child’s strengths and accomplishments. “Your biggest goal is to instill good homework habits,” McKenzie says, not start World War III. Kids should emerge from the nightly experience with confidence, a positive attitude about school and an individualized approach for homework success.

Editor’s Note: This updated article was originally published in September of 2011.

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