“My Child Refuses to Do Homework.” Here’s How to Stop the Struggle
By Janet Lehman, MSW
Do you get sucked into a fight over homework with your child every night? So many parents tell me that this is one of their top struggles with their kids. If you’re dealing with this now, you probably dread saying the words, “Okay, time to do your homework,” because you know what’s coming next — screaming, stomping, book-throwing and slammed doors. Or it might simply be hours of dealing with your complaining, whining or noncompliant child or teen who just hates to do the work. Even though you reason, lecture, nag and yell, nothing seems to change — and each night turns into a battle with no victors.
Trust me, I get it. I have to admit that dealing with my son’s homework was one of my least favorite experiences as a parent. It felt overwhelming to me; often, I just wasn’t equipped to offer the help he needed. Our son struggled with a learning disability, which made the work and the amount of time required feel unending at times — both to him and to us. My husband James was much better at helping him, so he took on this responsibility — but even with this division of labor, we had to make adjustments to our schedules, our lives and our expectations to make sure our son turned it in on time.
They Don’t Call It “Homework” for Nothing
Here’s something I learned along the way: homework is work, and there’s no getting around that fact. It’s a chore for both the child and parent. It’s important to understand that schoolwork is often the most difficult part of your child’s busy schedule. Helping your kids manage it despite all the other activities they would rather be doing can be challenging at best. Remember that it’s your child’s job to go to school and learn (including getting homework completed) and your job to provide for your kids, run the house and offer love and guidance to your children.
I know from experience how easy it is to get caught up in power struggles over homework. These struggles begin for several reasons, but the most common one is because your child would rather be relaxing, playing, texting with friends, or doing almost anything else. Know that if you deal with their frustration by losing it and getting mad out of your own frustration, it will be a losing battle. Some kids are even able to manipulate parents this way, because they know the battle over homework may result in your giving up on expectations to get it done.
Here’s the truth: letting your child off the hook for their work will ultimately create problems in their lives. Instead, focus on the fact that as a parent, you need to teach your child how to follow through on expectations and be accountable. All the more reason to take control and make homework just another part of your child’s daily responsibilities.
Here’s my advice for reducing homework hassles in your home:
- Try to stay calm: Try to avoid losing your cool and yelling and screaming, arguing about the right answer for the math problem or the right way to do the geography quiz, ignoring the homework altogether or being inconsistent with what you expect, being overly critical, or giving up and just doing the work for your child. The first step is to try to stay as calm as you can. If you get frustrated and start yelling and screaming at your child, this sets a negative tone and is likely not going to help them get the work done.
- Set clear expectation around homework time and responsibilities. Let your children know that you expect them to get the work done on time and to the best of their abilities; the most important thing is that they try their best. Set aside the same time each afternoon or evening for them to do their work. Understand that kids are all different in how they feel about and approach homework. Some may find English easy, but get really frustrated with math. Another may be a science whiz, but have no patience when it comes to writing. It’s important to know your child: their strengths and struggles, and how they learn. Some kids need small breaks throughout a session, while others may need the task to be broken down into smaller pieces and then varied. While there are some children and teens who are self-directed and able to complete homework without assistance, most require some type of guidance and/or monitoring, depending on their age. This makes it especially challenging for parents, because it means you need to perform different functions with each child you have, depending on their needs.
- Have a relationship with your child’s teacher. Try your best to build a good relationship with your child’s teacher. Start off at the beginning of the school year and stay in touch as the year progresses. Your relationship with your child’s teachers will pay off during the good times as well as the challenging times.
- Play the parental role most useful to your child. Some kids need a coach; others need a “monitor,” while others need more hands-on guidance to complete tasks. Try to match your help with what is most needed. Remember also that your child is doing the homework as a school assignment. The teacher will ultimately be the judge of how good or bad, correct or incorrect the work is. You’re not responsible for the work itself, your responsibility is to guide your child. You can always make suggestions, but ultimately it’s your child’s responsibility to do his or her assignments, and the teacher’s job to grade them.
- Keep activities similar with all your kids. If you have several kids, have them all do similar activities during homework time. Even if one child has less homework or finishes more quickly, they need to be respectful of their siblings by doing quiet, non-disruptive activities.
- Set up a structured time and place for homework. Choose a time and place and stick to a routine as much as possible. Consider adding in break times for kids with shorter attention spans. They might work on their spelling words for 15 minutes, and then take a 5 minute break, for example. Offer snacks to keep kids “fueled” for the work. Keep the house generally quiet for everyone during homework time—turn off the TV (or at least keep the volume down). Make sure your kids have a “space” for doing their work. For some kids this will mean a large work space like a kitchen table to spread out their papers and books, and for others it may mean a small quiet area in their room.
- Start early: Start early with your young children setting up “homework” time, even if it’s just some quiet reading time each night. This helps get them used to the expectation of doing some “homework” each night and will pay off as the actual work gets harder and more time-consuming.
- Offer “Hurdle Help”: Some kids need what we call “hurdle help.” Let’s say your child has big test to study for, but can’t seem to get started. You can help out by running through the first few problems, for example, until he gets the hang of it. Or you might brainstorm with your teen to help her choose a topic for the big paper she has to write. You’re not doing the work for them, rather, you’re helping them get going so the task doesn’t seem so daunting. (This concept, along with many other effective parenting techniques, is explained in The Total Transformation Program.)
- Choose the best person for the job: If you are part of a couple, consider that one of you might be better at “teaching” and then let that person take on the homework monitoring responsibilities. It will likely help the routine become more consistent and effective for your child. If you are a single parent, you might have a friend or family member (an older cousin who’s good at math, or a neighbor who’s a writer, for example) who would consider helping your child from time to time.
- Offer empathy and support. If your child is really struggling, give them some support and guidance and show some empathy. Kids are expected to do some difficult work, and your child may sincerely be struggling with it. If you have a child who is really having a hard time, it’s important to have communication with the teacher to see if this is typical for all kids, or if it’s unique to your child. If your child also has these problems in class, know that there are different approaches to helping them learn that can be useful. The teacher may recommend some testing to see if there are learning problems. While this can be hard to hear as a parent – as if something is wrong with your child – it’s important to find out how your child learns best and what your teacher and you can do to support their learning style.
- Use positive reinforcement and incentives: It’s always important to reinforce positive behavior, and that may mean offering some kind of incentive for completing homework or getting good grades. Most kids get personal satisfaction out of getting good grades and completing their work, and that’s what we’re aiming for. But, it’s also helpful to offer some incentives to encourage them. Rather than money, I would recommend offering rewarding activities for your child’s academic successes. This could include going shopping for some “goodie” the child has really wanted, renting their favorite movie and having “movie night” at home, or other ways of spending special time with a parent. These things can become more meaningful than money for most kids and they get to experience their parent in a loving, supportive and reinforcing role.
Most kids will never really “enjoy” homework, and for some it will always be a struggle. Our children all have different strengths and abilities, and while some may never be excellent students, they might be great workers, talented artists, or thoughtful builders. While it would be easier if all children were self-motivated students who came home, sat down and dug into their homework, this just isn’t going to be the case with most kids. As James often said to parents, “We need to learn to parent the child we have – not the child we’d like them to be.” Our role is to guide our children, support them through the challenging tasks, and teach them about personal responsibility.
Kids with ADHD have a hard time completing tasks, such as homework and chores.
They may understand the material and be capable of completing the assignment, said Cindy Goldrich, Ed.M., ACAC, an ADHD parent coach, mental health counselor and teacher trainer. She shares her unique insights and experience to build an environment where kids feel safe, supported, and capable of learning.
But “they often have significant weakness in their ability to get started, stay focused, plan and organize their work, monitor themselves to regulate their actions, and manage their emotions.”
Kids with ADHD may be up to 30 percent developmentally behind their peers — even though they’re of average or above average intelligence, she said. “It’s not a problem of knowing what to do — it’s doing what they know.”
They have an especially tough time completing tasks they find boring.
“[T]heir brains are not as alert due to lower activity in the transmitters in the brain — dopamine and norepinephrine. They literally have a harder time paying attention or staying involved.”
But even interesting, enjoyable tasks can be challenging.
“Without a strong motivator, it’s hard for ADHD kids to get anything done — sometimes even if its something they really want to do,” said Elaine Taylor-Klaus, an educator and parenting coach.
Some parents make the mistake of trying to motivate their kids with threats and warnings or by taking things away, she said. She regularly gets calls from exasperated parents who say: “I just don’t know what to do anymore. There’s nothing left for me to take away, and my son or daughter doesn’t seem to care at all!”
That’s because threats, shame and guilt don’t work, and actually make it harder to get stuff done, Taylor-Klaus said.
Surprisingly, rewards don’t work either, Goldrich said. Rather, they add “stress and pressure; even though it seems like positive pressure, kids often have a harder time thinking.” They end up shutting down, she said.
Another common mistake is isolating your kids, restricting their movement and eliminating “distractions,” such as music, she said. To kids with ADHD such distractions are actually helpful.
“It’s hard, but parents need to understand that their kids aren’t really avoiding work just to be rude or difficult, or disrespectful — they just don’t have a mechanism to get themselves activated,” Taylor-Klaus said.
However, parents can use various strategies to help engage their kids. Here are 12 to try.
1. Be radically compassionate.
Taylor-Klaus stressed the importance of practicing “radical compassion” with your kids. “It really is very hard for them to get activated, and then to focus, and then to sustain effort. That’s a huge amount of executive function required just to do one homework assignment.”
2. Focus on what really motivates them.
Again, motivation is critical for kids with ADHD. “There are five things that motivate the ADHD brain,” which are “novelty, competition, urgency, interest and humor,” said Taylor-Klaus, co-founder of ImpactADHD.com, an online support resource that trains parents on how to effectively manage kids with ADHD and other “complex” needs.
Not all of these techniques always work, particularly competition, she said. But creating strategies around them can help.
Also, focus on the individual things that motivate your kids. For instance, Taylor-Klaus worked with one parent who tickled his 8-year-old son to help him wake up. “It wouldn’t work for all kids, but this kid needed the fun, and the arousal energy in the morning.”
3. Have them do something beforehand.
“Sometimes, let them do something fun before the homework, like read comics, and then get started,” Taylor-Klaus said. She shared these other examples: doing wall push-ups or wheelbarrows.
4. Work in bursts with breaks.
Let your child know they can work for a certain amount of time, and then get a short break, said Goldrich, founder of PTSCoaching. For instance, they might work for 15 to 25 minutes and then take a five-minute break.
“[Your kids] will often be able to concentrate deeper and work more efficiently in bursts,” she said.
5. Play sports while studying.
Play catch with your child as they review information, Goldrich said. “Throw them a ball and have them throw it back when they know the answer.”
Or help them “learn spelling words or math facts while bouncing a basketball,” Taylor-Klaus said.
Movement in general is great for kids with ADHD. “A lot of these kids are kinesthetic learners, so they think better while moving,” she said.
“In fact, for many kids with hyperactivity, sitting still is the kiss of death when it comes to learning.” That’s why trying to sit still in class is so difficult. If a child’s brain and body want to be in motion, they end up exerting most of their energy on trying to sit quietly, making it tougher to listen to the teacher, she said.
6. Play games.
Goldrich suggested playing concentration by printing two sets of flash cards and laying them on the floor.
7. Time them.
For instance, “set a timer to see how many spelling words a kid can write before the timer goes off,” Taylor-Klaus said.
8. Encourage their creativity.
Ask your child to invent a game to make studying more fun, Goldrich said. “Let them be creative.”
9. Let them switch environments.
Let them do homework in different places, Taylor-Klaus said. For instance, her daughter’s new favorite spot is on top of the dining room table. “She likes to lie down and have her feet fall off the end.”
10. Let them listen to music.
“Allow them to listen to music as long as it does not become their primary focus,” Goldrich said. “Empower them to experiment with different genres to see what works best for them.”
11. Let them chew gum.
Goldrich has found that any kind of chewing — including gum and crunchy snacks like carrot sticks — seems to help kids with ADHD concentrate better.
12. Seek an arrangement with their teacher.
“See if there are ways to modify the homework as needed by having an agreement with the teacher that gives you … some leeway as you see fit,” Goldrich said.
Your kids have already worked really hard during the day. “Many of the kids require extra time to get their work done — and extra time on homework is sometimes too much!”
She gave this example: If your child tried their hardest and worked a reasonable amount of time on their homework but didn’t complete it, sign a note informing their teacher. You might also inform the teacher of extenuating circumstances.
Completing tasks is really hard for kids with ADHD. Using various creative strategies can help.