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Happy doing homework? How to help your kids to motivate themselves

Happy doing homework? How to help your kids to motivate themselves

Why is it that, more often than not, homework feels like an unexplained punishment for the entire family? You can be the greatest homework cheerleader ever seen, your kids can be active learners in general, the teacher can be one of your favourite humans but somehow, homework is still a nightmare. It might be time to take a step back and redistribute responsibility for homework success, that is, activate your child’s agency in their learning outside the classroom.

What is agency in learning? Are we dressing up as secret agents and investigating the homework? That seems a little silly for most young learners… Luckily, no costumes are involved (unless that motivates someone in your household – you do you!). Agency in learning means being purposeful, informed and active in tackling the task of acquiring new skills, digesting new information and wrestling with new concepts. When kids can see how their homework benefits them in a meaningful way (as opposed to just avoiding negative consequences) they become what teachers call ‘intrinsically motivated’. Agency sounds simple enough in the abstract, but what does that look like at homework time?

Try using these five steps at homework time to guide your kids into activating their agency. These can be used on a macroscopic scale when discussing their education as a whole, or on the microscopic scale when trying to get through those last three maths exercises.

1. Connect The Plan with Their Plan

No one likes to feel like they’re being forced to do something without a good reason. Kids face this all the time. Does anyone ever put the homework in the context of the whole plan for the kids?

You don’t need to memorise the syllabus or NASA’s recruitment policies to help your kids with this. Do they have anything in their life that they love to play with, work at or look after? Connect the concept of homework or the specific problem (or anything in between) to something your child cares about. They love sport? Great! Their grammar homework will help them to assess their club contracts one day. They care about the planet? Brilliant! We’ll need algebra to help figure out how much sea grass to plant and arithmetic to budget for the divers to look after it. They love to tell stories? Fantastic! They’ll need to read a lot of boring stories to help them tell good stories.

This will depend on you listening to your child’s goals and dreams (and often they’ll need your help to articulate them) and then responding flexibly as those goals and dreams grow with your child. As soon as your child sees the connection between their homework and their own goals and dreams (no matter how youthful or ambitious), they start to feel in control of the plan – which means half the homework battle is already won.

2. Acknowledge the truth

Have you ever tasted a cheese that the rest of the party says tastes delicious but reminds you more of old socks? So you wonder what’s wrong with you and try not to express thoughts about cheese ever again in case you’ve missed a basic life lesson? Kids feel like that about homework. Adults go on about how useful it is without ever admitting that it’s really annoying to have more on your to-do list when you’re already tired and that learning anything can feel draining and frustrating until we’ve succeeded. Acknowledging that something can be good and bad at the same time is something we adults do all the time, but unless we explain our thinking to our kids, they’ll just think someone’s missing something. Acknowledging the truth about homework being important but also irksome lets your kids know that they’re not wrong and that you’re on their side.

3. Prioritise active accountability

Now that your child knows where their homework fits into their world and that their feelings about it are valid and accepted, it’s time to prioritise accountability. This means that instead of threatening your child with any kind of punishment for not getting their homework done (whether that’s missing out on dessert or earning your disappointment) or trying to corral them with the likely embarrassing consequences at school tomorrow, approach the task objectively:

  •  identify the individual tasks that need to be done (break them down to their smallest possible units if need be)
  •  calculate the time you and your child think it might take
  •  recognise when the task is due
  •  predict (objectively, not threateningly) the likely consequences of failing to complete the task on time and how your child might cope with them
  •  give your child the space to attempt the task with a checkpoint set in advance
  •  at the predetermined time, respond as calmly as you can.
    • Did they achieve the goal? Let them know how proud you are of them.
    • Did they get part way there? Recognise the achievement and then look to the future – how can they get all the way there from here, and how can they improve their task management for next time?
    • Did they not even try? Go through the likely consequences again and confirm with them that they are actively choosing those probable outcomes.

Be as objective and non-judgmental as possible so that they can learn any lessons for themselves or change their choice and get to work without losing face.

4. Reflect on the experience

Following closely on from helping your child to become actively accountable for their own homework, reflecting on the experience helps them to feel informed about the choices they make about how they tackle tasks. When homework is done for the day (or choices confirmed), ask your child how their decisions have made them feel. Are they proud of a good job well done? Are they nervous that the teacher might be disappointed that they didn’t finish completely? Are they really happy that they chose to watch TV instead of attempting their homework? Everyone needs help connecting their feelings with their actions, and kids are no different. Whatever the emotional equation, help them to see how they can influence both their to-do list and their feelings at the end of the day, and in the following days as consequences play out (both good and bad).

5. Reward responsibly

Bribing kids to do homework never turns out well in the long run (and rarely in the short run). But if your child is taking responsibility for their homework, finding their own motivation, taking pride in their work, consciously improving on a skill towards a goal or just doing their very best, it’s important to recognise that dedication. Negotiating a reward for active agency (instead of particular marks or outcomes) in advance demonstrates the best part of being an active agent in your own learning to your child. Becoming a marine biologist or Prime Minister takes a really long time but, say, a trip to the zoo for handing in homework on time 75% of the time, or unquestioned control of the TV for an hour every time they choose to get to work instead of choosing a negative consequence at school the next day can be achieved in a term or a week. Decide with your child what the reward scheme will be, implement the 4 steps above and watch as the homework nightmare becomes a dream.

Casey Standen
Casey Standen is an education specialist with experience in a range of teaching contexts - from early childhood care, through to primary school education support and HSC teaching, she has lead the development of educational innovation companies including an online school and an edutainment company. Her interest lies in empowering students to get the most out of their learning experience, and in helping everybody to find the joy in education. Having studied her Masters of International Education with the University of Melbourne and the University of Helsinki, Casey brings a global perspective to Australian education.

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