Hi and welcome to Ask Missy Mondays where I respond to email questions from readers who have questions about behavior. Today’s question comes from Suzanne, who asks:
“Hi, Missy. I feel so embarrassed to ask this question because, as a parent, I feel that I should know how to get my children to do homework. However, in our house, we struggle with homework every day. Please help us!
One of our kids has a meltdown every time he sees how many pages of work he has to do. Our other child actually starts his homework right away but he cannot stay focused. He is up and down constantly. No wonder it takes hours for him to finish! Last but not least, our youngest doesn’t have homework yet because she is still in kindergarten. She runs around the house making so much noise that the other two have a hard time focusing. Clearly, I am not up for Mother of the Year Award. Any help you can provide will be appreciated.”
First, Suzanne, you have to stop beating yourself up over this. Please understand that what you have described is identical to scenes from many other houses. Parents just do not want to share the horror stories for fear of being judged a bad parent. I am certain that those parents are thanking you for asking about this on their behalf.
I have a few tips to help get you started. Please let me know how it goes and I can make adjustments to the plan as they progress.
One of the most important things you can do to help your children is to establish a homework routine. Depending on after school activities (e.g., sports, music, play dates), the routine may change from day-to-day. None the less, the routine should be the same once it starts.
- In our house, we like to get a healthy snack in before the work starts. This gives children the energy to stay focused and it prevents them from getting too hungry before dinner.
- Next, we organize the homework so we know exactly what needs to be done.
- We use a “to do” list or an agenda to identify each of the activities that should be completed. Our children take great pride in crossing items off that list.
- I allow the children to choose which items they work on from the list. This allows them to have some control over the situation.
What advice could possibly come from a behavior analyst that doesn’t include the use of reinforcement? Of course you must spend a great deal of time reinforcing the behaviors that you want to see more. Depending on the age of your children, they may be able to practice some self-management strategies so that they reinforce themselves rather than you having to do all the work.
The reinforcers that you use during this time need to be individualized to your children. One child may be ready for a token system, while another child may need verbal praise. Ask your children to help identify reinforcers that they are willing to work for. Keep in mind that outrageous reinforcers such as cars, iPads, or computers should not be used. However, working for access to such items is completely appropriate (e.g., earn access to the car on the weekend, earn access to TV time).
- Consider using stickers on a sticker chart. At the end of the week, cash the completed sticker chart in for a bigger reward (e.g., pizza night, movie)
- Consider using coins and a bank as reinforcers. This helps the child learn about money and it also teaches the child to save. At the end of the week, your child can cash in his savings
- Give your children attention and praise for engaging in the correct behaviors (e.g., “I love the way you are getting so much done!”)
- Have a reinforcer available at the end of each homework session. This could be TV time, electronics time, or Wii Time. Make it brief (30 minutes or less) but it should be available immediately after each homework session.
The behavior analysts who read this blog will immediately recognize that this, too, is another form of reinforcement. In behavior analysis we call work breaks “negative reinforcement”. There is not enough space in this blog post to explain the difference between positive and negative reinforcement. I promise to distinguish between the two at another time. But for now, please know that work breaks are important for children to remain focused during homework time.
- Set a timer so your child knows when the break is coming
- Work breaks are brief. 5-10 minutes–tops
- Work breaks are free choice activities as long as no other house rules are broken (e.g., climbing on furniture or running in the house)
- All children are on a work break together so they do not disrupt each other on break
I believe that all homework should be supplemented with manipulatives and other types of support.
- Our children use the iPad to look up words in the dictionary. They use the iPad to practice their sight words. They use the iPad to practice their math facts.
- When our oldest was learning to add fractions, we made it real by finding recipes and doubling the batch. We brought out the measuring cups and spoons and it made the math more real for her.
- There is no better way to learn about geography, weather, or science than by scouring the internet for videos, photos, and other multi-media.
Last but not least, I have to address the needs of your child who does not yet have homework. Homework time is an excellent time to start teaching the homework routine to her. I feel strongly that all children should read every day. Thus, she needs to spend part of homework time reading. If she cannot read yet, then you should read to her. You could also rent or download books on tape so that she can listen to a book. Additionally, there are many interactive books available for the iPad. If you don’t have one in your house, I recommend saving up for one as there are so many educational applications available to help each of your children with their homework.
After your daughter does her “homework” then find an activity for her to keep her engaged.
- This can be special time with you or it can be an activity that she needs to do independently.
- We love using the Wii for exercise and engagement. She could entertain herself for hours on a number of games.
- You could also give her house chores so that she feels important. She can help unload the dishwasher, she can help with the laundry, or she can dust furniture
Suzanne, thanks for writing. I hope these tips help. Please let me know how it goes!
Readers, do you have anything to add?
If you have a behavior question or problem, email Missy at askmissy at appliedbehavioralstrategies dot com.