Being a parent is tough—juggling dinner prep while sending a work email, paying bills, doing the laundry, organizing carpools—and all you want to do is sit down and relax! But then your boss calls, peppering you with questions about a report that is due the next day. While your boss is likely trying to be supportive, you’re finding that it’s really not that helpful. When it comes to children and their homework, they can feel the same way.
Knowing how to support children with their homework can be tricky for many parents because they are often unsure how to balance letting their children work it out alone and offering help. A recent study(1) found that parents helping with homework was linked to higher levels of motivation and engagement, but too much involvement was linked to lower levels of academic achievement.
If children are struggling with homework by either procrastinating or avoiding doing their schoolwork, parents may find themselves nagging or reprimanding their children. Unfortunately doing so usually results in power struggles, creating a conflict between children and parents that causes unhappiness in children and negatively affects the parent-child relationship. Going forward, children may be less likely to seek their parent’s comfort and support.
Also, instead of focusing on how they will feel if they don’t do their homework and have to tell their teacher it isn’t done, children will focus on resisting their parent’s forcing them to do their homework. This can actually interfere with a child finding his own motivation to want to do his work. If parents stay positive and available to help without putting pressure on him, he will be more likely to find his own motive to learn and want to be successful. This self-motivation stays with children even when parents are no longer around to guide them, such as when they go off to college.
So, when homework feels like it's moving towards a battlefield, how can parents instead support their children while also maintaining a positive relationship?
Understanding Your Child’s Perspective
Often when children struggle with completing their homework, it is almost always due to an emotional response. So, when considering how best to help your child with her homework, it’s helpful to consider why homework is a struggle by identifying what’s upsetting her about the work. Here are some things to consider:
A Bad Day – Sometimes children have a bad day–they can’t find their favorite pen during English class, they weren’t able to sit next to their friend during lunch, or they forgot their gym shoes and felt embarrassed.
Learned Process – Doing homework is a learned process. Young learners don’t automatically know how to do a worksheet, how to approach every math problem, or where to look to find answers. For young students, doing homework is new. They are required to complete and hand in their homework on time or face negative consequences.
Grades, Teacher Expectations, and Peer Comparisons – Some children may feel anxious about the grades they receive for their work, or what their teacher will think about them if they make mistakes. They may also be nervous about being compared to their friends’ performance. In these instances, it's helpful for children to know that you are concerned only about them, not about their teacher or their friends. If you notice that your child is being too hard on himself, defend him by explaining that what he is doing is very hard and it's normal to feel frustrated or upset when things are hard.
Time Management – Young children and adolescents routinely underestimate the time it takes to do their homework. This is developmentally appropriate behavior. They truly believe that it will only take five minutes or think that they barely have any homework at all. It is helpful to remember that children have an immature sense of time and haven’t developed time management skills yet. Offering a fun activity after homework can help children look forward to finishing their work. Phrase it in a manner that doesn’t feel like coercion or a bribe, such as “When you’re done with your homework, we can play your favorite game.”
Extracurricular Activities – Many children participate in a lot of other activities in addition to their school work, which can be stressful. In higher grades, children must also juggle complex subject matter with more long-term assignments with different due dates while also participating in extracurricular activities and spending time with friends. Plus, all this is happening while they are experiencing many developmental changes and challenges.
These are just some of the reasons why a child may be struggling with homework from day to day. It can be less about a specific assignment and more about what happened at school that day. But for children who are consistently struggling, however, it may have less to do with the everyday up and downs, and more to do with how they feel about themselves in relation to school and learning. So, what can parents do to help their child with these emotions?
Nurture Your Relationship: The most important step a parent can take to help their children feel better about themselves in school is by strengthening their relationship with their child. Fostering connection with your child is crucial to help her begin to feel better about herself in school. Be available to listen to all of your child’s feelings about school and validate her feelings. This is the driving force to nurture her self-confidence with homework and in the classroom.
Model Patience and Kindness: When your child is struggling and acting out, while challenging, be sure to model how to handle challenges by responding to him with patience and kindness. Responses in this manner provide a template for children and will govern how they will handle future stressors.
Encourage Asking for Help: Help them to understand that school is a place to ask questions and it is their teacher’s job to help them learn. It's helpful for students to understand that no one expects that they know everything, it's okay to ask questions, and it's okay to make mistakes —this is why they go to school.
Help Find Study Habits That Work : Help build your child's agency in his school work by helping him identify how he works best at home. Maybe it's before dinner, maybe it's after a snack, maybe it's with dad sitting next to him as he pays bills. If before dinner isn't working, maybe it's after dinner.
Help When Asked: If your child is struggling, but trying, and not asking for help, let him work on his own, at his own speed. When your child does ask for help, respond right away. Don’t make him beg for answers or say, 'You can do it!,' or 'Sound it out!' or any number of responses that add pressure to the situation and can make it harder for him.
Be Hands-Off When Appropriate: If your child is clearly making mistakes on her homework, but declines your help, do not force the issue. Allow the teacher to be the 'bad guy' to help her correct her work.
Encourage a Growth Mindset: Focus on children’s efforts and avoid focusing on their grade. Instead of blanket statements, offer tangible feedback on what they are doing well, like 'Wow! You worked on that problem for 10 whole minutes–way to stay focused!' or 'I saw how you tried several times to figure out that problem. Thanks for asking for help.' or 'It’s okay you got the problem wrong–that’s what learning is all about! I wonder how we can approach the question differently next time?'
Stay Positive: Providing unconditional kindness and patience while your child is learning is what will grow her motivation, confidence, and resiliency. Put-downs or getting angry will only support the emotions that drive procrastination or avoidance of schoolwork. If you are feeling frustrated, it’s okay for parents to take a break too!
In the midst of homework struggles, instead of focusing on the assignment at hand, try to figure out the why behind your child’s struggles and then let that be a guide to how you respond. Keep in mind that your relationship with your child matters most. As Drs. Martha Heineman Pieper and William J. Pieper explain, “The love and closeness of your relationship will foster your child’s inner-happiness, which is the most important indicator of a child’s academic success. Over time, your positive approach to helping your child do her homework will help her to become a confident, joyful, life-long learner.”
Smart Love: The Comprehensive Guide to Understanding, Regulating and Enjoying your Child, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Harvard Common Press, 1999.
Smart Love Solutions for School-Age Children and Teens: A Handbook for Parents, Teachers, and Caregivers, Martha Heineman Pieper, Ph.D. and William J. Pieper, M.D., Smart Love Family Services, 2012.
Don’t Help Your Kids with Homework, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer, The Atlantic, March 2, 2021.
How to Help Your Kids with Homework (Without Actually Doing It for Them), Melissa Barnes and Katrina Tour, The Conversation.
(1)Barger, M. M., Kim, E. M., Kuncel, N. R., & Pomerantz, E. M. (2019). The relation between parents’ involvement in children’s schooling and children’s adjustment: A meta-analysis. Psychological Bulletin, 145(9), 855–890. https://doi.org/10.1037/bul0000201