It’s October and homework is in full swing. The process of completing homework is a significant stressor for most families we meet. If you are feeling ambivalent about doing homework at all, your child’s therapist is likely to agree. The developmental benefits of children engaging in free play (without electronic devices) are far better established than the benefits of homework, and you only have so many hours in the day! Some local elementary schools have discontinued homework completely, and yours may be more flexible about it than you think. If you are feeling strongly that homework is interfering with your child’s quality of life, talk with the school about what you’d like to do instead. Be sure to get your child’s perspective first, though. You may be surprised to find that your 3rd grader who fights against doing homework every night would feel embarrassed about not turning any in. Whether you opt in or out of homework time, this post is for you. Families see an instant improvement in parent-child relationships when parents learn to coach their children through the work process, whether at homework time or chore time, and most of what you need to know is right here.
Many childhood tasks including homework, room cleaning, and other chores require sustained effort. However, most children aren’t developmentally ready to apply themselves to a task without adult support. This means that you’ll need to play an active role in their work process. To help your child most effectively, it’s important to understand what happens when he/she tries to work. We use a metaphor called “Big Job Mountain” to illustrate a child’s work process.
Imagine riding a bicycle up a steep hill. You’ll need to pedal on the flat ground leading up to the hill to gather momentum. To gather momentum for homework or room cleaning, your child needs to energize both body (jumping jacks, pushups, outdoor play) and mind (start with an easy warm up task). Be sure to allow time for this or start at a time when he’s naturally ready to work. Make sure he’s had a snack if needed and gather all homework materials in a distraction-free place. All of these steps are part of getting the homework done, and you’ll need to lead your child through them until she learns how to warm up on her own. Have you gathered some momentum? Now she’s ready to face Big Job Mountain.
After a short burst of effort biking up that hill, you may grind to a halt and need a short break before getting going again. Work grinds to a halt when a child doesn’t understand the next instruction or begins thinking negative thoughts (“This is too hard” “I’ll never finish” “I can’t do this.”) In cognitive behavioral language these are called “automatic negative thoughts.” We call them “stop thoughts” because they stop your child’s work on the task at hand. Your child may also stop when she fails to see the patterns in the process (clothes belong in the hamper and toys belong in the toy box), break the longer task into smaller steps, or put the steps in order. These are called Executive Function breakdowns, and can happen to any child. For children with executive function difficulties, learning differences, or ADHD, these breakdowns will be more frequent. For all children, they will likely cause a shift in focus from the homework or chore to the frustration he/she is feeling. We call this “Frustration Point,” and mark it on the map of Big Job Mountain. The mountain nearly always has at least one.
After a stop or frustration point your child will need to gather momentum to start again. This may mean doing some full body movement such as jumping jacks, pushups, monkey bars, or swinging, grabbing a drink of water or otherwise refreshing his energy for the task. Because your child’s brain isn’t as developed as yours, you likely will be the one to notice that he has gotten stuck and suggest next steps. Use your most patient voice and remember to check what negative thoughts he may be thinking. You’ll need to trade any “stop thoughts” for “go thoughts” such as “maybe I can figure it out,” “I’ve come so far already,” or “just a few steps left to go!” She may need your help to identify the next step or organize the process before continuing. (Click here to learn how to help your child with homework you don’t understand.) Then keep climbing Big Job Mountain until the next frustration point. This process of stopping and restarting repeats until the task is complete or until you need a longer break from the effort (stopping for the night and resuming tomorrow, for example).