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Homework Help for Parents of Adolescents 
by Cheryl Morrissette May 20, 2005

Parenting adolescents is often challenging—particularly at homework time. By following these guidelines, created by a teacher and study skills tutor, homework time can be more productive and less argumentative.

"I hate doing homework!"

"Why won't you let me do it my way?"

"Just get off my back, OK? I said I would get it done!"

When Did Homework Time Get So Bad?

When children first enter school, they almost always enjoy homework. It makes them feel mature and responsible. They ask for help when they need it, and their teachers give them another copy if they lose the first one. It's easy to help kids with their homework in primary school.

In adolescence, though, homework gets harder and more involved. Teachers expect the kids to be responsible enough to turn assignments in without reminding, and don't always give out multiple copies. Just when they really start to need the help of a parent, though, adolescents decide that they don't want it. Parents recognize that their kids need help, but trying to give help with schoolwork can turn into a major battle, making everyone in the house miserable.

As a teacher, I saw countless cases where students really needed their parents' help, and parents really wanted to give help, but it always ended up with people screaming and doors slamming. Following a few rules helped make homework time more peaceful. I can't promise you warm, fuzzy, picture-perfect homework times, but I can promise that, if you consistently apply the following rules, you will effectively help your child develop the skills he or she needs to do homework well.

Make it Routine

Before you start your new homework-help program, plan a routine that you will be able to follow every day. Like all children, adolescents do better with a routine that is predictable. If your twelve-year-old knows that you are going to ask for his planner at 4:00 every afternoon, he's less likely to start a fight.

When you plan your homework routine, include the following:

  • Discuss what your child needs to do that day,
  • Monitor your child's organization,
  • Ask if there are assignments your child needs extra help with,
  • Ask what long-term projects or tests are coming up, and
  • After homework is done, check over it briefly for accuracy and completeness

Before you start applying your new routine, let your child know when you will start and what you'll be doing. If you think your child will be resistant, explain that you're doing this to help avoid the fights you usually have. Say something like, "I know we usually get into fights about homework, and we both hate having them. Tomorrow we'll start having a quick meeting every day after school. I'm going to ask you to show me your planner and ask if you need my help on any assignments, then I'm going to walk away. You can check back when you're done or if you need help."

Once you've begun a homework routine, try it for two weeks without changes. It may take you and your adolescent that long to adjust. After you've tried the routine for two weeks, you'll know if you need to make changes. Maybe you'll need to monitor organization after the homework is completed, or wait half an hour to ask if your help is needed. As long as you are consistent, it's OK to make some adjustments.

Promote Independence

The goal of helping your adolescent with homework is not to make sure he or she gets a good grade on a particular assignment—a better goal is to help your child learn how to do well on assignments without your help. Keep that goal in mind as your child works through a difficult task or brings home a low grade on a report card.

Don't Force Your Help

One of the toughest things in effectively helping children with their homework is to allow them to do it themselves. As parents, our age and experience makes us quicker, and it's tempting to take the pencil and say, "Here. Let me show you." If you are holding the pencil, your child is not learning anything.

For learning to take place, children need to move through a phase of cognitive dissonance—they need to be confused before they can figure out a new concept. In order to help your child learn independently, allow your child the freedom to work through difficult assignments alone.

If your adolescent is really struggling with an assignment, it is OK to offer help once or twice. Tell him or her that you see that this assignment may be harder than the others, and ask if you can help. However your child answers, respect the answer.

Keep it Organized

While you shouldn't force your help with homework assignments, organization is one area where you can be more authoritative. Most adolescents are naturally disorganized, and like to crumple all of their papers and assignments into the bottom of their backpacks, or shove them in their textbooks. When the teacher asks them to turn in their homework, they can't find it.

Many schools give students agendas or planners. These are fabulous tools that, when used consistently by students, parents, and teachers, promote good study habits and frequent parent/teacher communication. If your school doesn't distribute planners, buy one for your child and require him or her to record homework assignments inside. During your homework routine, you'll be able to quickly see what your child has for homework that day, and your child will be able to check off completed assignments.

Homework folders are a critical part of good homework organization. Buy a sturdy, two-pocket folder for your child to keep in his or her backpack at all times, and label one side "Bring Home," and the other side, "Return to School." When a teacher gives a homework worksheet or instructs the class to finish an assignment at home, tell your child to put it straight into the "Bring Home" side of the folder. When the assignment is finished, it goes into the other pocket, where it will be easy for your child to access when the teacher collects homework. Be sure to check this folder every day, and clean it out weekly.

Respect Individuality

Homework time often turns into a battle when parents expect their adolescents to do things the way parents would do them. Allowing kids some degree of freedom will make them feel like they have control.

Let Kids Choose the Time

Many parents feel like kids should do their homework right when they come home from school, and won't allow leisure time until all of the homework is done. That works well for some families. Other kids, though, can't sit and focus on homework until they've given their brains a break. If your child wants to start homework after an hour of play, or after dinner, that's OK. Work together to come up with a homework start time that will give your adolescent enough time to complete all of his or her homework, still getting to bed on time.

Let Kids Choose the Environment

Adolescents often want to do their homework in strange places, like in the tree house or on the living room floor. If you spent good money on a proper desk that's not being used, try hard to bite your tongue. Your son or daughter will work better if he or she is comfortable.

Some children like to drive their parents crazy by listening to music while they're doing homework. Don't give in to the temptation to require your child to turn the music off—some children actually work better with music playing. Allow the music, but not the TV—it's too distracting for any learning style.

Be Positive

No amount of routine or organization will curb homework arguments if the parents act in negative ways or say negative things. Even if your adolescent is angry and resentful, stay positive in your words and actions. Children, including adolescents, are extremely sensitive to negative words, and need your praise far more than your criticism.

Helpful, positive comments:

  • I see that you are working really hard on this.
  • Your teacher wrote a really nice comment here!
  • Thank you for keeping your backpack organized.
  • Your math grade is really improving!
  • You did a great job of getting right to work today.
  • If you keep studying this hard, you're sure to ace the test.

Unhelpful, negative comments:

  • If you don't work harder, you'll fail.
  • This assignment looks terrible. Do it again.
  • Why can't you do it right the first time?
  • I'm so sick of telling you the same thing every day!
  • You never do these problems right.

Sometimes it's hard to put a positive spin on things. When a child brings home a low grade or you get a phone call from the teacher, it's easy to criticize. When you talk with your adolescent about tough issues, focus on the positive.

Positive ways to say tough things:

  • I know you tried hard on this. How can I help you improve your grade?
  • Your teacher told me that you were not acting like yourself today. What happened?
  • This test grade is not up to your usual standards. Should we talk about some different study techniques?
  • You only have one night to do an entire science project? You'll need to work very hard to finish. What should you do differently next time?

New habits take at least a few weeks to develop, so don't worry if your homework overhaul doesn't fix all of your homework problems the first time you try it. With persistence, though, routine, independence, individuality, and positivism will make evenings more pleasant and your child a better student.


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