We hear all the time that routines are the key to success, and there’s a lot of evidence to support that. But with growing humans, routines need to be responsive, not reactive, that is, they need to meet them where they’re at, not be a force for control and compliance. So, how do you design responsive routines for homework time to ensure your child’s academic and emotional success, especially when you have no control over the homework that they bring home?
1. Make a routine of checking on the mood, and use that to decide what comes next. How much energy have they brought home from school with them? Are they bouncing out of their seat belts? If yes, then it’s going to be a long haul to get them to sit quietly and focus on their spelling lists. Are they dragging their feet and whingeing that they’ve never been fed or gotten their way? Writing creative stories or poems might be too big a leap for them at that moment. There are plenty of things you can do to help cover the distance between the mood and the homework task:
- Stop at the oval on the way home and get some of that energy out with three laps and a set of burpees, and the surprise of not going straight home might release some energy too
- Go to a favourite spot and just sit with each other if the energy’s feeling low. They may be going through any number of feelings but you’re not going to find out how you can help by dragging them to their desk and yelling ‘mush’.
- Make unloading the car or school bags a dance challenge or a covert spy operation.
- Ask your kids what they’d most like to do at that moment and then, maybe, do it.
2. Once your kids can trust that they’re allowed to be humans every single day before hitting the homework, you can focus on the more consistent aspects of managing the homework habit…like the environment. There are two main challenges to manage here. The first is designing out points of conflict and the second is designing points of negotiation. Both come from your child’s need to use their agency, or to feel in charge of their own lives, while you calmly guide them in a positive personal and educational direction.
- Designing out points of conflict means having a place to do homework and a place for school bags (and the endless other paraphernalia) to land. It means making decisions about snacks and wardrobe changes before they’re in the house and it means making sure every homework session ends with a positive – more on that later – so that your child has an incentive to return to the desk or dining table. Every child’s points of conflict might be different so if these common basics aren’t enough, spend a week doing an audit – what’s their first reason for not sitting down to their homework, what’s the first request, complaint or distraction? Write it down and then, in a moment of calm, plan some experiments to eliminate the obstacles they’re perceiving, and try them the next time.
- Designing in points of negotiation means breaking down The Doing of The Homework into its component parts and creating alternatives for your child to choose their own adventure. This does not mean giving all the decision making power to them. Instead it means asking ‘should we tackle the maths or the art homework first?’ and ‘do you want to change out of your uniform before homework, between history and science or after everything’s done?’. Sometimes it might mean involving your kids in the dinner-making plans: ‘if you manage to finish your homework by 6pm then maybe you can help me to make dumplings from scratch but if not we can have pasta (which is faster)’. The goal is to create options that have equally positive consequences so that no aspect of homework can be perceived as a punishment.
3. Control what you can on the achievement side of things. You may not understand their language homework or like the book they have to read, but you can create and recognise achievements that are of interest to them and you.
- If reading is a struggle for your child but they finished a whole book that has no connection to school – celebrate! Don’t tell them they can now start on Wuthering Heights as it will make them feel like sisyphus pushing his rock up a hill as eternal torture.
- If they’re hating math but learned the whole dance to a classic Spice Girls number – celebrate! They’re still thinking about thinking, using their memories as a tool and developing self-discipline – these are all always victories.
- One universal way to celebrate every child’s accomplishments in homework time is to ask them to teach you something they learned that day. It can be big or little, complex or easy, school-related or from somewhere else but if you show them your tangible interest in their learning, and give them the chance to measure it by teaching it to someone else (at their own pace, in under 30 seconds, 2 sentences, via charades – whatever works for your child) then you’ve rounded out that homework session on a positive and interested note – something that will definitely help to bring them back to the desk tomorrow.
4. Build in your exit strategy. If the homework is too hard (either academically, energetically or emotionally) that day, make a routine of helping your children out of it. Instead of abandoning ship completely, try a progress check. Have your child list one thing they definitely understood about the homework task, one thing they weren’t so sure about and the point at which they started to get lost or confused. Then turn each thing into a question for the teacher, as in ‘was I right that the task was to do this? was I on the right track with the thing I wasn’t so sure about? What should I do at this point where I got a bit confused?’. This turns homework into a responsibly collaborative project and gives kids more confidence and skills in asking for targeted help both in tackling their homework and in the rest of life.p
If homework time is harder than it should be, every single day – get help. Talk to the teacher about how they’re going in class and how their learning is actually progressing. It might be what used to be called an ‘attitude problem,’ but it might also be a condition that is in no way their fault – maybe they can’t read the whiteboard or blue light gives them headaches. Maybe they’re overstimulated by all the noise in class and can’t focus on the work. Maybe they’re dealing with bullying but don’t want to or don’t feel they can tell an adult. Maybe they can’t focus because they have a neuro-diversity that no one (but them) has noticed yet. Maybe they’re ashamed that they’re behind or worried that they’re disappointing you even though they’re trying their best. Asking for help from a teacher, tutor, doctor or school counsellor might give your struggling child opportunities to explore how their brain works and the space to find out if they need or want extra support.
There is no one-size-fits all homework hack, but you can help your child to be a confident and happy learner by designing routines that respond to them every day.