Afterschool Strategies

Easing homework battles with leadership tactics.

Regardless of how much you nag and lecture, it seems homework is the farthest thing from your child’s mind after a long day at school— and it makes you feel helpless and hopeless. But don’t waive the white flag yet. You can still save your sanity and help your child develop a positive attitude about homework.

If you avoid common mistakes many parents make when they engage in homework battles, and adopt state-of-the-art leadership strategies, your children are more likely to do their homework with minimal drama— maybe even cheerfully and with an increased sense of accountability and confidence.

Strategy 1: Connect success with effort

The message you want to convey is that effort and perseverance, not innate talent, lead to success. Carol Dweck, a professor of psychology at Stanford University and author of Mindset: The New Psychology of Success (Random House), maintains that although parents and teachers have long believed they could build children’s confidence by praising their abilities, in actuality the opposite is true. “Instead of saying, ‘C’mon, you can do it. You’re so smart,’ remind your child how she succeeded in the past,” writes Dweck. “Say, ‘I remember how you wrote out your spelling words over and over and then you did well on your test,’ or ‘You worked for days on your geography report and remember how well it turned out?’”

Strategy 2: Enlist your child in setting big picture goals

The very act of articulating a goal and committing to it focuses our attention on the bigger meaning and inspires us to maintain motivation when petty details arise.

Ask your child, “If you started your homework each night without complaining and did your best work, what would you be doing differently?” Then encourage your child to come up with two to three new measurable behaviors to commit to. Have your child write the behaviors on a big sheet of paper and hang it in his bedroom. For example: “I will do my homework after dinner without being asked” or “I will not turn on the TV until all my homework is completed.” Each day, go back to the poster and keep a record with stickers or tally marks that monitor how many days your child follows through on agreements. Celebrate even the smallest successes and signs of effort.

Strategy 3: Adopt the right coaching method

A question every parent should ask when one’s child struggles with homework is “Does my child lack the skills to get the job done or is the problem that he doesn’t want to do the task?” In other words, is the problem a motivational one or is the resistance related to ability? Maybe your child just doesn’t understand the math problems. If your child is both unmotivated and doesn’t understand fractions (let’s hope you do!), get in there and give some hands-on assistance. Explain the concepts, provide help and gradually let your child try solving each problem himself. Resist the urge to complete homework problems for your child. On the other hand, let’s say your son is perfectly capable of doing his essay but would rather write messages to friends online. In this case, it’s time to encourage responsibility. Go back to the big picture: Resist nagging and set firm limits and consequences if your child breaks his agreements.

Strategy 4: Change your perspective

Imagine what it would be like if your boss approached assignments with sighs, eye-rolls and negativity. You wouldn’t feel inspired to do your best work, would you? Of course not! Well, the same principle applies to homework. If you’re unconsciously conveying how much you hate the daily mountain of difficult work— at the job, housework or your child’s homework— your child is hardly going to be enthusiastic about homework.

Strategy 5: Teach accountability

Kids are experts at diverting responsibility. All parents have heard statements like, “It’s not my fault,” “The teacher didn’t explain the homework” or “I’m just horrible at math.” When you hear these excuses, you can say, “What can you do to change the situation?” or “What might you do differently next time to avoid this problem?” These questions don’t let your child off the hook. They encourage him to assume responsibility and focus attention on the aspects of the situation he can control, an essential life skill.