Homework is a problem in many families, especially those with high school students who have executive function difficulties and depend upon their parents for help or even to remind them to start a homework assignment.
Then, as students get older and want greater independence, homework creates stress as they push back against parental intervention. It can also be a frustrating time for parents, who now have to spend their evenings arguing about homework until both parent and student are exhausted.
This also leads to students hearing the message that they’re the problem and seeing homework as a system designed to catch them messing up. School then becomes associated with punishment rather than growth. But as anyone who has lived with a child who struggles with organization knows, procrastination and forgetfulness are not from belligerence. Yelling at a child for forgetting what was assigned or failing to start homework independently rarely helps remedy the situation. Instead, parents should look for strategies to teach students to take control of their learning and develop methods of staying organized that help them succeed in school.
So how can parents help their children get and stay organized without nagging? Here are five strategies that help:
Get Student Buy-In
Start by giving students choices for their backpack, notebook and organizers so that they have a sense of ownership over the system. Take them along when shopping for back-to-school items, and offer closed choices, such as, “Would you rather have this full-size agenda or this mini pocket-size one?”
Instead of arguing about if the student will use an agenda to record homework assignments, switch the conversation to how the assignments will be tracked. Some students want professional-looking calendars geared towards professional adults, or they might decide to use a quirky color pen – the important thing is for them to take charge.
Even when a student can't have input on the method of organizing their papers, such as when a teacher specifically requires a zipper-style 3-ring notebook, the student can still choose the color of the cover. Using materials they personally select can help incentivize the student, the piece that truly matters.
Establish a Dedicated Time and Place to Do Homework
This strategy is more complicated than just putting a desk in a student’s room. The parent must also dedicate a safe emotional space for working. That’s easier said than done. The student may need help and at the same time resist consistent parental presence, giving rise to all kinds of feelings of inadequacy that can undermine the relationship.
Getting started can be one of the most difficult parts of completing homework, so try to set up a structure that gives the student control over time, but with a limit. Set a designated amount of time to complete homework independently, such as until dinner or until 8 p.m. Parents then resist the urge to nag the student to get started or to check on what is actually being done, until an agreed-upon review time.
If 8 p.m. is the agreed review time, then the student leaves his or her notebook in a neutral place, such as a kitchen counter or a specific table within the house. The parent has a half-hour to review work, with the caveat that the child does not need to be present. Then, parents and the student can check in at 8:30 to acknowledge and validate the work, suggest what might be done differently, or ask further questions about an assignment that may not appear to be completed. If all is in order, then a lot of unnecessary worry has just been avoided!
The difference between an encounter as described above and the typical homework conversation is the predictability of it. The power, as well as responsibility, rests with the student. The high school student knows that there is an expiration time on freedom, and if there isn’t something to show by 8 p.m., the reprimand has been earned and the conversation can’t be derailed with protests about the parent’s lack of trust.
Likewise, the parent is allowing the child to build independence but retains the role of confirming that homework is completed and assessing how much content is being comprehended. Conversation stays focused on academics and helping the child experience success, not on personal characteristics, disappointment, or any other factor that might distract from developing independence.
Have a Back-Up Plan
Despite everyone’s best intentions, almost every student comes home one day without any assignments written in the agenda, or in a panic about an assignment mentioned in class that was a “surprise.” By middle school, students have heard the message that they ”should” be able to keep track of assignments, so when they can’t or have a periodic slip-up, the emotional stress quickly becomes overwhelming. Especially for students with attention deficits, this constant fear of missing something can contribute to unhealthy anxiety that interferes with the ability to focus while in class, exacerbating the issue.
To help students feel safe and empowered, consider other resources to track homework and upcoming assignments so that the full responsibility of understanding and recording assignments doesn’t rest completely on the student’s shoulders.
Parents can learn how to log into the school’s online tracking system. Or ask your student to name another student in the class who doesn’t struggle with tracking assignments and who would be discreet if the student called asking for the day’s assignment. Ask the teacher to provide an email address. All of these resources not only arm students with a proactive strategy to override the periodic lapses in writing down assignments accurately, they also provide a calming reassurance that everyone wants to see them succeed. They also teach valuable communication and problem-solving skills that will serve the student well in the workplace.
Know When to Get Outside Help
Sometimes the process of developing study skills necessary to complete homework independently becomes too stressful and it’s hard for parents and students to communicate without becoming defensive. In this case, involving a professional tutor, friend or family member can help. Even the process of driving to someone’s house can help the student mentally prepare for some time dedicated to working on homework, and all of the distractions of home are removed.
A 20-year longitudinal study looked at habit and characteristics of that helped struggling students be successful as adults and found that the key attributes were self-awareness, proactivity, perseverance, emotional stability, appropriate goal setting, and use of social support. Social supports, and in particular strong family relationships, are also associated with long-term success. A caring adult who lives outside the home can create a structure that sets clear boundaries on when schoolwork is scheduled and when there is true downtime. This also allows parents to experience the joy of being a parent once again, instead of the dreaded homework enforcer.