Anxiety Over Homework

For this back-to-school season, I would like to offer some advice about one of the most frequent problems presented to me in over 30 years of clinical practice: battles over homework. I have half-jokingly told many parents that if the schools of New York State no longer required homework, our children’s education would suffer (slightly). But, as a child psychologist, I would be out of business.

Many parents accept this conflict with their children as an unavoidable consequence of responsible parenting. These battles, however, rarely result in improved learning or performance in school. More often than not, battles over homework lead to vicious cycles of nagging by parents and avoidance or refusal by children, with no improvement in a child’s school performance — and certainly no progress toward what should be our ultimate goals: helping children enjoy learning and develop age-appropriate discipline and independence with respect to their schoolwork.

Before I present a plan for reducing battles over homework, it is important to begin with this essential reminder:

The solution to the problem of homework always begins with an accurate diagnosis and a recognition of the demands placed on your child. Parents should never assume that a child who resists doing homework is “lazy.”

Every child whose parents or teachers report ongoing resistance to completing schoolwork or homework; every child whose performance in school is below expectations based on his parents’ or teachers’ intuitive assessment of his intellectual potential; and every child who, over an extended period of time, complains that he “hates school” or “hates reading,” should be evaluated for the presence of an attention or learning disorder.

These children are not lazy. Your child may be anxious, frustrated, discouraged, distracted, or angry — but this is not laziness. I frequently explain to parents that, as a psychologist, the word lazy is not in my dictionary. Lazy, at best, is a description, not an explanation.

For children with learning difficulties, doing their homework is like running with a sprained ankle: It is possible, although painful, and he will look for ways to avoid or postpone this painful and discouraging task.

A Homework Plan

Homework, like any constructive activity, involves moments of frustration, discouragement, and anxiety. If you begin with some appreciation of your child’s frustration and discouragement, you will be better able to put in place a structure that helps him learn to work through his frustration - to develop increments of frustration tolerance and self-discipline.

I offer families who struggle with this problem a Homework Plan:

• Set aside a specified — and limited — time for homework. Establish, early in the evening, a homework hour.

• For most children, immediately after school is not the best time for homework. This is a time for sports, for music and drama, and free play.

• During the homework hour, all electronics are turned off — for the entire family.

• Work is done in a communal place, at the kitchen or dining room table. Contrary to older conventional wisdom, most elementary school children are able to work more much effectively in a common area, with an adult and even other children present, than in the “quiet” of their rooms.

• Parents may do their own ”homework” during this time, but they are present and continually available to help, to offer encouragement, and to answer children’s questions. Your goal is to create, to the extent possible, a library atmosphere in your home, again, for a specified and limited period of time. Ideally, therefore, parents should not make or receive telephone calls during this hour. And when homework is done, there is time for play.

• Begin with a reasonable — a doable — amount of time set aside for homework. If your child is unable to work for 20 minutes, begin with 10 minutes. Then try 15 minutes the next week. Acknowledge every increment of effort, however small.

• Be positive and give frequent encouragement. Make note of every improvement, not every mistake.

• Be generous with your praise. Praise their effort, not their innate ability. But do not be afraid of praise.

• Anticipate setbacks. After a difficult day, reset for the following day.

• Give them time. A child’s difficulty completing homework begins as a problem of frustration and discouragement, but it is then complicated by defiant attitudes and feelings of unfairness. A homework plan will begin to reduce these defiant attitudes, but this will not happen overnight.

Most families have found these suggestions helpful, especially for elementary school children. Establishing a homework hour allows parents to move away from a language of threats (“If you don’t ... you won’t be able to ...”) to a language of opportunities (“When” or “As soon as” you have finished ... we’ll have a chance to ...”).

Of course, for many hurried families, there are complications and potential glitches in implementing any homework plan. It is often difficult, with children’s many activities, to find a consistent time for homework. Some flexibility — some amendments to the plan — may be required. But we should not use the complications of scheduling or other competing demands as an excuse, a reason not to establish the structure of a reasonable homework routine.

Copyright Ken Barish, Ph.D.

Ken Barish is the author of Pride and Joy: A Guide to Understanding Your Child’s Emotions and Solving Family Problems.

Most students dislike doing homework, but do it begrudgingly. Children who feel anxious about going to school or test taking may also exhibit apprehension when faced with homework. But, like it or lump it, homework isn't going away anytime soon, so it's crucial to help your anxious child conquer homework fears.

In her book, Overcoming School Anxiety, Diane Peters Mayer tells parents that how they react to their child's homework anxiety will play an important role in her overcoming it. There are important skills and techniques that aid in managing and taming the homework beast that any child can learn. Here's how you can set your child up for success:

  1. Talk to your child about her fears, find out what is troubling her, and reassure her that you support her and that together you will find solutions to her problem.
  2. Communicate frequently with your child's teacher. Keep up-to-date with what work is required, and with what is happening in the classroom.
  3. Control your frustration and anger if your child does not want to do homework. Be firm but kind about her having to complete homework assignments and tell her that you will be available to help and support her efforts.
  4. Decide with your child where her homework workspace will be. Make it comfortable and special. For example, help your child paint or decorate her own homework space or desk.
  5. Create a flexible homework schedule with your child, how much time she needs to spend, and when and where it will be done. When it is completed, reward your child with appropriate praise, time spent with you, a special TV show, and so on.
  6. Limit TV and computer time. Find educational programs, reading material, creative projects, and activities that reinforce the content of the homework.
  7. Make reading and learning an important family pursuit that is fun and exciting.  

Exercise: Managing the Homework Load  

Step 1 Decide on what rewards your child will have during her five-minute homework breaks. Ideas are to have a healthy snack, free time, a story or part of one, putting the pieces of a puzzle together, and so on—but breaks do not exceed five minutes.

Step 2 Determine how long your child will work, making it age appropriate. Start with a short time, five minutes on and five minutes off, or ten on and five off, and gradually lengthen work time as the child's anxiety eases and confidence and abilities increase.

Step 3 Tell your child that you are going to help her feel less stressed about homework by breaking up the pile of work into small pieces that she can handle. She will do homework for a predetermined amount of time and then she will get to take a five-minute rest and choose one reward, then work, rest, and so on until homework is completed. The completed work will be put away (it doesn't exist anymore), and the next assignment taken out (for right now, this is the only homework she has.) This is repeated until all homework is finished.

Step 4 Now, have your child place all the homework on the table.

Step 5 Ask her what assignment she wants to work on first. Put it aside.

Step 6 Now have her take all of the other books and papers and put them away in a closet or another room. Say to her, “See, they don't exist anymore. You're only going to concentrate on the moment, doing the work in front of you.”

Step 7 Set the clock for the desired work time. Have her work until the alarm goes off, and then take a five-minute break. Repeat until all homework is finished.

Troubleshooting: If your child is young, or has severe homework anxiety and doesn't believe that breaking homework into small pieces will make it less stressful, try this: show your child an apple and say, “I want you to try and eat this apple without taking bites from it or cutting it up into piece.” Of course it won't fit into her mouth. Then have her take bites or cut up the apple. “See, now it is easy to eat. It's the same with homework. We're going to take small bites out of it so it goes down easier.”

You can make a positive difference in stopping homework anxiety for your child. The caveat is that it will take effort, determination, patience, practice and time on the part of both parent and child. Although progress may be slow don't give up; eventually it will work to you child's benefit.

Next Article: Homework Happiness: Make Studying Fruitful and Fun

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