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The battle over homework

By Kenneth Barish

 
For this back-to-school season, I would like to offer some advice about one of the most frequent problems presented to me in over 30 years of clinical practice: battles over homework. I have half-jokingly told many parents that if the schools of New York State no longer required homework, our children’s education would suffer, but as a child psychologist I would be out of business.

Many parents accept this conflict with their children as an unavoidable consequence of responsible parenting. These battles, however, rarely result in improved learning or performance in school. More often than not, battles over homework lead to vicious cycles of nagging by parents, and avoidance or refusal by children. This cycle doesn’t improve a child’s school performance and certainly doesn’t make progress toward what should be our ultimate goal. We want to help children enjoy learning, and develop age-appropriate discipline and independence with respect to their schoolwork.

Remember that the solution to the homework problem always begins with an accurate diagnosis and a recognition of the demands placed on your child. Parents should never assume that a child who resists doing homework is “lazy.”

Every child whose parents or teachers report ongoing resistance to completing schoolwork or homework, whose performance in school is below expectations based on his parents’ or teachers’ intuitive assessment of his intellectual potential, and who complains that he “hates school” or “hates reading” over an extended period of time, should be evaluated for the presence of an attention or learning disorder.

These children are not lazy. Your child may be anxious, frustrated, discouraged, distracted or angry, but this is not laziness. I frequently explain to parents that, as a psychologist, the word lazy is not in my dictionary. Lazy, at best, is a description, not an explanation.

For children with learning difficulties, doing their homework is like running with a sprained ankle. It is possible, although painful, and he will look for ways to avoid or postpone this painful and discouraging task.

A Homework Plan


Homework, like any constructive activity, involves moments of frustration, discouragement, and anxiety. If you begin with some appreciation of your child’s frustration and discouragement, you will be better able to put in place a structure that helps him learn to work through his frustration, and to develop increments of frustration tolerance and self-discipline.

  • Set aside a specified and limited time for homework. Establish, early in the evening, a homework hour.
  • For most children, immediately after school is not the best time for homework. This is a time for sports, music, drama, and free play.
  • During the homework hour, all electronics are turned off for the entire family.
  • Work is done in a communal place, such as at the kitchen or dining room table. Contrary to older conventional wisdom, most elementary school children are able to work more much effectively in a common area, with an adult and even other children present, than in the “quiet” of their rooms.
  • Parents may do their own “homework” during this time, but they are present and continually available to help, to offer encouragement, and to answer children’s questions. Your goal is to create, to the extent possible, a library atmosphere in your home for a specified and limited period of time. Ideally, parents shouldn’t make or receive telephone calls during this hour. When homework is done, there is time for play.
  • Begin with a reasonable amount of time set aside for homework. If your child is unable to work for 20 minutes, begin with 10 minutes. Then try 15 minutes the next week. Acknowledge every increment of effort, however small.
  • Be positive and give frequent encouragement. Make note of every improvement, not every mistake.
  • Be generous with your praise. Praise their effort, not their innate ability.
  • Anticipate setbacks. After a difficult day, reset for the following day.
  • Give them time. A child’s difficulty completing homework begins as a problem of frustration and discouragement, but it is then complicated by defiant attitudes and feelings of unfairness. A homework plan will begin to reduce these defiant attitudes, but this will not happen overnight.


Most families have found these suggestions helpful, especially for elementary school children. Establishing a homework hour allows parents to move away from a language of threats (“If you don’t… you won’t be able to…”) to a language of opportunities (“As soon as” you have finished… we’ll have a chance to…”).

Of course, for many hurried families, there are complications and potential glitches in implementing any homework plan. It is often difficult, with children’s many activities, to find a consistent time for homework. Some flexibility and amendments may be required. But we shouldn’t use the complications of scheduling or other competing demands as an excuse or a reason not to establish the structure of a reasonable homework routine.

Kenneth Barish is the author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems and Clinical Associate Professor of Psychology at Weill Medical College, Cornell University. He is also on the faculty of the Westchester Center for the Study of Psychoanalysis and Psychotherapy and the William Alanson White Institute Child and Adolescent Psychotherapy Training Program. Read his previous blog posts “Helping children learn to accept defeat gracefully” and “Emotion, interest, and motivation in children.”

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Recent Comments

  1. bjvl

    ” Your child may be anxious, frustrated, discouraged, distracted or angry…”

    You forgot *bored*

    My homework bored me. Why did I need to do this makework over and over and over again? I knew how to do the work–I understood the theorum–why did I have to do these 40 problems? Why did I have to write this vocabulary list? I took the test, I passed with straight “A”s…can we move on to something else now?

    Schools of all flavors have been great for mainstreaming the challenged students…but it’s been vile at challenging kids who pick it up quickly.

  2. Betty Osman! Ph.D.

    Ken,
    I think this is a great contribution to the homework situation for so many families. Thanks for writing it. I certainly shall share it with the parents of kids whom I see– at the hospital and in my private practice. Hope all is well with you. Best,
    Betty

  3. Cory Roush

    The average elementary school student, between the age of 5 and 12, spends at least 6-7 hours in a school setting. By the time they get home between 4 and 5pm, they’ve probably been awake and in motion (either physically or cognitively speaking) for 8-10 hours. They probably stared at assorted sheets of paper in front of them for half of that time, and books or a screen for the other half.

    Why then, should they be evaluated for attention deficiency disorder or a learning disability, when they don’t want to continue that endless cycle for another 30 minutes to an hour in the evening? We haven’t even factored in extracurriculars or before/after school programs that they may be a part of.

    You only looked at the issue of homework from the child and the family’s perspective, too. What about when a teacher sends home work that introduces new, challenging concepts, instead of reinforces the learning that went on during the day? How frustrating would that be?

    I’m upset that a veteran school psychologist would even dare point at a child’s resistance to homework as reason to believe they have a learning disability.

  4. Daniel Roberts, LCSW

    Good ideas for creating a homework hour, I would agree with bjvl about kids being bored with their homework. Many of these kids feel it is a waste of time especially when they know the teacher only checks if the hw is done, not that it is done correctly. Most homework does not count towards a grade. How many adults bring their office work home everyday?

    Another trend schools do is sending homework that the kids do not know how to do which requires the parents to teach the concept. This adds more stress on the family especially when the parent has difficulty with the concept themselves such as higher math and science. What about the kids that have little parental support?

    This leads to another point. What is the purpose of homework? Supposedly to reinforce what they learn in school and improve test scores. However, there is no evidence based studies to support this claim. All the studies indicate that homework does nothing to increase knowledge or test scores. It has simply become a habit based on false theories. Instead homework causes great conflict in families, takes away kids natural need to play and takes away valuable family time. Other countries have stopped giving homework and have found test scores went up. What we need is a movement to eliminate homework.

  5. Carolyn Stone

    Great summary of good strategies for establishing good homework habits. I’ll share this with the families I work with. I especially like the idea of setting a goal you are sure your child can achieve and then working up from there. This might require some coordination with the teacher if not all the work is done, but it is well worth it.
    Thanks!
    Carolyn Stone, Ed.D.

  6. Kenneth Goldberg, Ph.D.

    This is extremely good advice and coincides quite well with what I say in my book, The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers. The point I want to emphasize the most is “Set aside a specified and limited time for homework.” It is as important to let the child STOP doing homework as it is to have the child start doing homework. This is a difficult step for parents to take since they fear that incomplete homework with garner poor grades. But Dr. Barish is 100% right in his contention that children do not learn much through homework battles, and most children will do more in a time-bound homework session than they will accomplish battling over homework all night long. The only other comment I have is that Dr. Barish quips that if homework were banned, education would suffer and he might be out of clients. I agree that we are creating huge numbers of behavioral problems through our homework policy and that the need for child psychologists would be less if we banned homework. The other side of the statement that education would suffer is not completely supported by the research on homswork. Anyway, thank you for an excellent article and I will post a link to my homework blog.

  7. Keyuri Joshi

    All the points are excellent. I particularly like that children do homework in a communal area. This gives parents the opportunity to observe their kids including facial expressions, how many times they get up for a bathroom break or snack, and their general demeanor. These observations helps parents to understand better how their children operate, what works for them and what doesn’t.

    I’m often astounded that many parents don’t even know what their kids’ homework is or what they are learning in school. For example if a child has a list of words to learn and spell, parents can help by using these words in every day settings. Being in a communal area helps this as well.

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