Homework completion is a perennial source of strife in households these days. There are many competing and contradictory views of the role and importance of homework, but most can agree that homework provides the school-age child a chance to develop independent living skills such as time-management, persistence and stamina, and establishing that work/play balance that is beneficial in adulthood. Most parents report to me that they are tired of having to push their child to do their homework. Parents are worried, as well, that if their child cannot complete homework on their own that they will not be able to do work independently in college. Indeed, solid work habits are essential to success in college, and that includes the ability to motivate yourself to do something you do not really want to do.
Parents often report to me that they want their children to want to do homework and want to do their best. This can sound like a dream scenario, but a concept in the book by Dan Pink (2011), “Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us”, might shed some light on this idea of being self-motivated (i.e., actually wanting, on some level) to do homework. In his book, Pink identifies three factors related to motivation: autonomy, mastery, and purpose. This blog article will examine each of these factors in the context of motivation to do homework.
Autonomy is a sense of freedom and of being able to make choices. Autonomy is what children are striving for in many of their interactions with parents and systems (e.g., schools). They want to choose the what, when, how, and where of everything they do. When it comes to homework, children often get stuck on the wrong autonomy question. Children want to be able to choose whether or not to actually do homework. Parents need to direct them away from the debate on whether or not to do their homework, and toward the conditions under which they do their homework. With the general understanding (i.e., goal) that homework must be completed to the best of their ability and in a reasonable amount of time, a number of opportunities for the child to choose how they do their homework become apparent. What do they work on? When do they work? How long must they work before a break? Where do they work? How do they ask for help? Will they listen to music while working?
The parent likely already knows the best conditions for homework completion for the child. If parents would like, however, to increase a sense of autonomy in the completion of homework, and thus increase the child’s motivation to do homework, they might try to concede much of the decision making to the child on these issues. When the child makes a choice (e.g., watching TV while doing homework) that clearly causes a problem with goal completion (i.e., completing homework thoroughly and quickly), the parent should point out the discrepancy between the child’s goal and their choice, and allow them to make a different choice. Parents should be open to the possibility that the child could make a choice that works out better than the parent could have anticipated.
Mastery includes being knowledgeable and adept at a particular task. Lack of mastery is one of the most common problems I encounter in my practice when it comes to homework completion, and one of the most common barriers to homework completion. By this I mean that, rather than using homework as a practice (i.e., mastering) for information learned in class that day, some classes use homework to present and teach new information. This learning strategy is especially hard for young children to manage, and frustration mounts when the child sits down to toil on work he or she does not know how to do. At this point it is easy to lose sight of what the child should actually be doing during homework time. Parents should ask the child, “What are you supposed to be doing right now?” The answer to this question will give you insight into the intention of the homework, and ideas on how to help the child achieve mastery over the homework activity.
If the parent suspects the child’s problem with homework motivation is related to mastery, it is best to go directly to the teacher and ask for assistance. Communicating with teachers when one is stuck (i.e., self-advocacy) is a skill children should master. Except in extreme circumstances, even young children can learn to independently ask for help. In my experience, being able to appropriately self-advocate is one of the key predictors of success for individuals after high school, so be persistent in this expectation.
Purpose is the answer to the question of why one must do homework. Why must one practice? Why must one keep answering questions when the concept has already been mastered? Homework’s most ardent criticism is that it has become busy-work and does not support children’s learning. I have worked with a number of children who attend schools that take pride in the large amount of homework they assign, and how long it takes the children to complete that homework. Some schools argue heavy homework loads better prepare children for college and the “real world”.
Share your opinion honestly with your child about why they must complete homework. It is my experience that teachers intend to create homework assignments that are linked to larger, loftier concepts and goals, but can lose sight of original motivation and become complacent. Suggesting that completion of so-called busy-work will help the child in some future endeavor is a tough sell. The truth is, even if the work itself is meaningless, being able to discipline oneself, schedule time and stick to it, delay gratification (i.e., work, then play), and fulfill work expectations is a huge step toward being a successful adult. Parents can tell children that being asked to do seemingly pointless activities does not stop after high school, and the cost of not being able or being unwilling to follow through increases exponentially. No teacher is always going to create the perfect homework assignments, or the perfect amount of homework necessary to achieve mastery of a concept, but that does not mean the work is meaningless and lacks purpose. By making such a case to children, over and over, they have the chance to find purpose even in mundane tasks like homework.
You likely were able to come up with other creative ways to promote a sense of autonomy, mastery, and purpose in the context of homework completion with your child. My hope is that homework becomes less and less of a fight the more you and your child work on these concepts.
1Pink, Dan. Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. Riverhead Trade. New York, N.Y. (2011)