How to Help Kids with Homework Without Ripping Out Your Hair – Or Theirs!

If homework at your house means a nightly session of blood, sweat and tears, I’m here to offer some concrete ways to reduce the stress and make homework time more productive. So let’s get started!

Most teachers are not going to teach your child “how” to study. But basic procedures and routines are very important to children’s academic success.  If your child seems unable to get started, has difficulty staying on task, finds distractions, or cries about not
knowing what to do, yelling at them or threatening punishment won’t help. Here’s what will:

  • Show Empathy. I know this seems “touchy-feely,” but please bear with me. When children feel “heard” and understood, they are able to release underlying stress and make room for thinking about the task at hand. So if your daughter or son is showing signs of frustration, say something like, “That seems like a lot of work, doesn’t it?”  Or, “You would rather be doing something else right now, huh?”

I don’t suggest hosting a pity party. A few words of understanding, eye contact, and a compassionate hand on the back, will usually suffice.

  • “Lend” your child confidence. Tell him in a positive way that together you will figure things out, and that you plan to help him – especially if he has experienced discouragement or a lack of success in the past.  Realize that your child may need more support to become engaged in his own learning. If you do not have time to help your child, he may need a homework helper. Possibly a neighbor or relative you can count on to provide assistance. In the past I have hired tutors. My thing is English and writing, not Algebra II and trigonometry.
  • Set up Routines and Procedures. Teaching routines from a young age saves time and headaches later on. If you wanted your child to be able to cook a spaghetti dinner, you would have to teach them to make the sauce before boiling the noodles. There’s a procedure to follow. But in my experience, teachers do not take time for explaining such procedures.


The younger the child learns to take homework step-by-step, the easier their study time will be throughout their school years.  So take it down to the one-sixteenth. Don’t assume they know what to do, because they may not. Think of your job in terms of unscrambling a bunch of wires that got all tangled up. That’s what the frustrated child’s thought process is like.

  • Preview assignments with your child. Set up a time every day when he tells you out loud what he has to do for homework. Just pulling papers out of a backpack and thrusting them in your direction does not work.  That’s because it doesn’t reinforce procedures in his brain. This is important. By having your child state his homework aloud, he is triggering his memory in an active way, using visual, auditory, and motor (via mouth movement) pathways to the brain.
  • Don’t take ownership. Homework is your child’s responsibility. If he has trouble remembering what he is supposed to do, or specific instructions, make sure he has an assignment notebook at school. Everything needs to come home. Make certain he knows how to copy from the blackboard, if that is how the teacher gives homework. At home, you may have to provide small cues for a younger child. Give a hint, and let him finish the sentence. Here’s an example of giving a cue: “OK now, so this looks like your teacher gave you a paper with…” (Then pause and wait for your child to respond with “spelling,” or “math,” etc.) “It looks like you have how many problems here …?” (Point and let the child count the problems, or wait until he gives you the entire number).  “And this other paper says you need to do what, now?” Give hints, but don’t take over. Gradually transfer the job of previewing homework assignments to your child. Remember, this is something he wants to be able do him for himself.
  • More Routines. In and out boxes. Help your child get in the habit of taking things out of their back pack after school, putting homework and notices in an “In box.”  They should also be responsible for emptying their lunch box. Mom should not have to hunt it down. Have an “out-box” for whatever needs to go back to school after completion.
  • Show your child how to make an agenda for the night’s homework. Do this together every day. This is list of what they need to tackle. Have them number the assignments:  1, 2, 3, etc. Help them decide on their agenda until you are certain they have the procedure down, and are able to compose it by themselves. A homework agenda is a tool for engaging children in their own learning. Without one, a child can wander around the house or stare at the wall for a long time before getting started. Kids might want to start with the subject they like best and are better at before tackling something a bit harder. Give them options.

Teach your child to put a check mark next to each problem or question that he finishes. This will help him keep track of where he is.  He can see what he has already completed and feel a sense of accomplishment.

  • If your child has trouble reading. Have her use her index finger for tracking. I recommend having young children read the homework problems or questions aloud, to make sure their reading skills are up to the task. Without thorough comprehension, not much will be accomplished. If your child needs extra help reading, give it unhesitatingly.  This difficulty usually has nothing to do with their ability to understand the work, if  it is explained to them – which you might need to do until they become more independent readers. If they read haltingly, chances are they are using every bit of their energy to decode, and not much energy remains for comprehension. So have them read the sentence aloud again, helping them sound out the words. Nix all “word guessing” if that has become a habit. Then have them read the sentence a second time for fluency, and a third time for comprehension. Have them tell you in their own words what the sentence means. This is a painstaking process. But it is unproductive to leave a child to himself if she has reading difficulty. Think about getting extra help with an Orton-Gillingham tutor who is specially trained in multi-sensory, structured language learning. If you think your child would benefit from special services, discuss your concerns with his teacher. He may be eligible for intervention under the No Child Left Behind Act. Put all requests for testing in writing. Give one copy to the teacher, one to the principal, and keep a copy for your records. Schools are required to answer all such requests within a certain period of time. Find out your state’s regulations.
  • Keep your lower-grade children (1st-3rd) near you at homework time (as well as older children who need guidance). Have first-third graders working at the kitchen or dining table. Don’t send them off to their bedroom to do their homework. For some kids, this is like expecting them to eat a nutritious meal in a candy store. Remember, kids need a calm, quiet environment: Turn off the TV. Close the computer. And don’t take phone calls. This sends the message, “What you have to do is really important.” Stay nearby. Be available for questions. Set an example by reading your own book, balancing your checkbook, or writing a letter. boy-doing-homework
  • Give your children the tools they need to get the job done. Having a regular place to do their homework, and the right tools, gives them a sense of pride and helps them identify with the learning process. Children can be more independent when they have the tools they need. And they can get through their homework faster.

Have younger children bring the tub to the kitchen or dining room table before starting, so their supplies are all in one place: stapler, paper punch, ruler, markers, pencils, sharpener (that works!), scissors, etc. Seriously, wouldn’t it drive you nuts if didn’t have the things you needed within arm’s reach? 

  • Build in playtime and chores. I am a big believer in giving kids playtime after school. They’ve just come from a very controlled environment. Now they need time when they can be themselves and decide what they want to do. The time between after school and supper is for using their creative brains, getting exercise, etc. Time to recharge their batteries. Not for vegging in front of the TV or computer.

Chores should also be part of your child’s daily after school routine. Studies show that children who do regular chores do better academically.  Setting the table, feeding the dog, putting away the silverware – every child should contribute to the family in some way. kidsChores

  • Build in breaks. When you offer your child breaks, you are showing him that you appreciate his efforts.  I set the timer. For my first grader, I set it for every 20 minutes at first, and gradually extended her seat-work time to 30-minutes, and then 40. She got a five-minute break, and then went back to work. She needed a goal. During the five-minute break, no TV allowed. The TV should be off during homework time.  The break is for getting smiles and hugs and stretching the legs. Sometimes my kids would go outside and run around the house. Then back to work. They need to get used to setting expectations for themselves, feeling a sense of accomplishment and a job well-done. Better to learn good homework habits at a young age, than try to convince a 13 year-old that they need to buckle down and get to work.
  • Limit overall homework time. Keep in mind your child’s established bedtime. Then back in the homework. Leave enough time for a shower or bath, reading a story, etc.

When you preview the nightly homework assignments with your child, you should ask how long he thinks each assignment will take. This serves as a reality check. He may come back and say something took way longer, or even less time, than he originally thought. Ask him to tell you why he thinks that happened. If he skipped something, talking about the assignment should clue him in. Don’t be quick to point out what he missed. Let him do a self-check. He may say, “Oh no! I forgot to do such and such!”  And you should be thinking, “Hooray! I’m helping him learn to take responsibility!”

  • What if he can’t get it all done? Sometimes parents need to say, “Enough already!” You should be aware of the amount of effort your child gave the assignment. (Remember, you were not off somewhere, but monitoring him nearby.) So in an attempt to keep the bedtime routine on track, write on the homework paper something like this: “Jason worked on this homework assignment for one hour before stopping for bedtime. He made a good effort.”PE-014-0371

No elementary school child should be tumbling into bed at ten or eleven o’clock, totally exhausted from homework.  They need time for a bath or shower, straightening up, and snuggling with mom and dad.  So set a time limit and tell your child why:  “Let’s finish up by eight. Then I’ll read another chapter of Peter Pan before bedtime.”

  • Whose homework is it, anyway? Parents should never do their child’s homework for them. You can offer the teacher feedback about an assignment: perhaps your child needed extra time, maybe they didn’t understand the concepts. Maybe your child wasn’t the only one who didn’t finish. But your child’s homework is his responsibility. Your responsibility is providing a conducive setting, support, and the necessary supplies.

Should you correct every problem, making sure he has them all right? Some parents do this, but to their child’s detriment. Remember, you want to praise his efforts. You’re not after perfection. The sooner you let go of your attachment to your child’s homework, the sooner he learns to take responsibility for it himself. It doesn’t mean parents should disappear behind the scenes. On the contrary. Parents need to remain available. You can give your child cues as to what he has learned, and help him talk about what he knows. You can review a math concept, and watch him do a few practice problems.  And then let him do it. father doing homework for daughter

Another reason parents shouldn’t make their child correct every wrong answer: homework needs to reflect what the child has retained. A good teacher will re-teach a concept that has not been mastered. Children have different learning styles, and the teacher may need to present the material in a different way. But if parents go over each assignment with a fine-tooth comb, teachers can’t get a true reading.

  • Teach “active learning” skills, such as SQ3R. By the third and fourth grade, children are reading for information. If they do not have “active learning” strategies, they are missing out. Using SQ3R, for example, will save older children and parents a lot of time and headache. You can buy a book that explains these strategies, or do a Google search. Adapt the procedures, if necessary. The point is that your child should be actively engaged in his own learning. Information shouldn’t be going in one ear and out the other -the result of passive learning. If your middle or high school-age child has to write an essay, get a book on “format writing.” Kids need to know the various types of essays and how to write them. This is what teachers should be teaching before handing out writing assignments. Once students have the “rules” down, they can then begin to break them. 
  • What about cursive handwriting? Most schools no longer require kids to make the transition to cursive handwriting. Children used to get more practice years ago, when they had to write out full-sentence answers to questions at the end of every book chapter. If cursive handwriting is something you want for your child – and I certainly did – work with them at home. I know it’s a drain, after a full day most kids are tired and not interested in more school. So weave in the extra practice. Order a cursive handwriting book online and do a quick fifteen-minute lesson every day for a month or two. Better to start early – in the first grade, if possible – than to delay this. Make sure your child makes a full transition or the skills will not stick. Everything, every bit of school work and homework, should be written in cursive. You may need to tell the teacher what you are trying to do, but it’s worth it. Studies show that cursive handwriting helps to reinforce learning, and it’s a skill your child can be proud of. Be sure to make him a certificate of completion.

Remember, homework should only be a review of what your child has already been taught. If he acts like his homework landed from outer space night after night, you need to get to the bottom of the problem before it becomes a nightly ritual. Start taking notes. What does he have trouble with? What does he complain about? I suggest taking his complaints seriously, but without making a fuss. Certainly without punishment.

Look for “red flags” that may indicate a learning problem. Does he seem to “miss” information that is conveyed lecture-style, but “get it” if he sees it in writing or has a chance to do hands-on? The teacher may be only teaching to one learning style. Does he sit next to a child being monitored for a behavior disorder, someone who can’t stop touching or talking? Or perhaps your child is truly being expected to do things he wasn’t taught.Homework- sleeping while doinog

Sometimes teachers have aides working with children, and the aides are not trained to recognize a child who is having trouble. I had a child whose teacher-aide graded all the papers. The teacher never knew which kids had problems. Sometimes children are expected to learn from their peers, which is even worse. The only way to know what’s going on is to talk to your child about his classroom and the people in it. And make it a point to go and visit.

And then there is the inane type of homework assignment that parents need to take as a sign. It means not much is going on in the classroom. My daughter was assigned an acrostic that involved making up self-congratulatory remarks starting with the letters of her first name. It was for “self-esteem class,” something they did in the ‘90s.

They had group homework assignments, too. What a waste.  Every student earned the same grade when only one or two did most of the work. My kids usually took on the research and writing to make sure the grade they received was a high one.

Other times they had word searches. I remember writing across the top of one such assignment: “I did not allow my child do this because it is a waste of his time. Please give more meaningful homework.”

Instead, we read a book. FFG

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *