Creating Homework Rituals for Children

It’s hard to fault a child who resists doing homework. After all, she has already put in a long day at school, probably been involved in after-school activities, and, as the late afternoon spills into evening, now faces a pile of assignments. Parents feel it, too — it’s no one’s favorite time of day.

But despite the bad rap, homework plays an important role in ensuring that students learn to execute tasks independently. When it’s thoughtfully assigned, homework provides deeper engagement with material introduced in class. Even when it’s “just” worksheets, homework can build the automatic habits and basic skills required to tackle more interesting endeavors. Homework is also a nightly test of grit. Adult life brings its share of tasks that are both compulsory and not enjoyable. Developing the discipline to fulfill our responsibilities, regardless of whether they thrill us, begins in childhood.

So how do you help a homework-hating child embrace the challenge rather than resist it? The first step, especially with kids 13 and under, is to have them do their homework at a communal space, such as a table in the kitchen or dining room. If other children are in the home, they can all do their homework at the same table, and the parent can sit nearby to support the work effort. This alleviates some of the loneliness a reluctant child might associate with homework assignments. The alternative of completing homework at a bedroom desk can result in procrastination; this has the effect of making the entire process take much longer than it needs to.

Many parents are under the impression that they shouldn’t have anything to do with their children’s work. This comes from schools emphasizing that homework is the responsibility of the child, not the parents. While it is absolutely true that parents should not do their children’s homework for them, there is a role for parents — one that’s perhaps best described as “homework project manager.” Parents can be monitoring, organizing, motivating, and praising the homework effort as it gets done. And yes, that means sitting with your child to help them stay focused and on task. Your presence sends the message that homework is important business, not to be taken lightly.

Once you’re sitting down with your child, ask him to unload his school bag and talk you through his various assignments. Maybe he has a school planner with all his homework listed, or a printout from school, or perhaps his work is listed on the classroom website. Many children attend an after-school program where, in theory, they are doing homework. They’ll often claim that they’ve done all their homework, even though they’ve only done some. Together, make a quick and easy “Done/To Do” list. Writing down what she has finished will give her a sense of satisfaction. Identifying what she still needs to do will help her to focus on the remaining assignments. Over time, this practice will help your child build an understanding that large tasks are completed incrementally.

Next, ask your child to put the assignments in the order she’d like to do them, and encourage her to explain her thinking. Doing this helps a child feel in control of the evening’s tasks and prompts her to reflect on her work style. Discuss the first task of the night together, ask your child to think about the supplies she is likely to need, and ensure that they’re at the ready. This “pre-work” work helps a child think through a task, understand it, and prepare to execute it with gusto.

Last but not least, introduce a timer to the evening’s proceedings. Challenge your child to estimate how long the first assignment will take. Then ask, “Do you want me to set the timer for the full amount of time you think you’ll need, or a smaller amount?” Then, set the timer with the understanding that the child must work without interruption until the timer goes off. Even questions are verboten while the timer runs. The goal here is to enable the child to solve problems independently through concentration. This not only builds concentration powers, but also creativity, critical thinking, resilience, and resourcefulness. The theatricality of being timed can also help entice children who would otherwise feel daunted by a mountain of homework.

As each piece of work gets done, parents can add meaningful positive reinforcement. An exclamation of, “Another assignment done! And done well!” helps your child feel like what they are doing matters. By turning the homework ritual into a series of conversations about what needs to be done, how they will work on it, and for how long, children feel less alone with their nightly work. They relish the company and support of their parent, and they complete the work much more efficiently and at a higher standard than they might otherwise.

Allison Green
Boston Tutoring Services

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