Homework conflicts, skirmishes, and wars

September 1, 1999

You can help parents defuse homework battles by asking questions that uncover why the child is having problems, then suggesting an appropriate intervention. Our parent guide and other anticipatory guidance can go a long way toward heading off homework wars before they begin.

Homework conflicts, skirmishes, and wars

Jump to:Choose article section...What parents sayTackling the problemsAnticipatory guidance wards off problemsWrapping it upGUIDE FOR PARENTSHomework: How to help your child succeed in schoolLaying the groundworkHints for homeworkHeading off problems

By Morris Green, MD, Paula Sullivan, PhD, and Carolyn Eichberg, PhD

You can help parents defuse homework battles by askingquestions that uncover why the child is having problems, then suggestingan appropriate intervention. Our parent guide and other anticipatory guidancecan go a long way toward heading off homework wars before they begin.

Parents increasingly are asking pediatricians for help with the conflictsthey have with their children about homework. By the time the parent speaksup and the pediatrician sees the child, the problem has often been magnifiedby frustration, argument, anger, threats, punishment, exhaustion, tears,and resignation. The harried parents may be disappointed, defeated, or depressed;the child may feel unconcerned, sullen, embarrassed, guilty, unhappy, orhelpless. Like family violence or alcoholism, conflicts about homework maybe part of the hidden family new morbidity. No wonder articles about homeworkappear frequently in national newsmagazines, Sunday newspapers, and parents'magazines.

To help families deal with this problem, pediatricians need to find outwhy the child is not doing homework in a way that is satisfactory to hisor her parents and know what interventions will ease the difficulties. Offeringanticipatory guidance to parents whose children are about to begin schoolcan prevent development of homework problems.

What parents say

Parents complain that their children fail to do their homework independentlyand that the work is not satisfactory. Some children just don't try. Othersclaim that they forgot to put their assignments and books in their packto bring home or that they do not remember what the teacher expects themto do. Homework that was supposedly completed but not turned in is describedas "lost," "left at home," or "picked up by someoneelse." Parents observe procrastination and delay in settling down towork, difficulty in focusing, and disorganization. Some children do notask their parents for help with their homework even when it would be appropriate;on the other hand, some parents confess that they spend hours doing theirchild's work.

Pediatricians can gain some insight into the cause of the homework problemsbefore they see the child by reviewing information they obtain from thechild's school (Table 1). Give parents a questionnaire to pass on to thechild's teachers about the child's work habits, attitudes, and other mattersrelated to his academic achievement. Once completed, the questionnaire canbe mailed to the pediatrician along with relevant reports. A behavior questionnaire,such as the Child Behavior Checklist or Connors' Teacher Rating Scale, mayalso be useful. These data, complemented by interviews with the parentsand child, a physical examination, and possibly psychologic, language, oroccupational therapy evaluations, generally provide answers to the following10 key diagnostic questions:

1. Does the child have a learning disability, academic skills deficit,language disorder, or mental retardation? If you suspect the child doesn'thave the academic skills necessary to do the assigned homework, advise theparents to confer with the child's teacher, school counselor, or resourcespecialist to review scores on standardized achievement and other diagnostictests. Children who have difficulty with reading, spelling, or mathematicsshould have a psychoeducational evaluation, either through the school orprivately. If you suspect a receptive or expressive language disorder, evaluationby a language pathologist and audiologist is required.

2. Does the child have difficulty writing properly? When writing is atime-consuming chore, the child finds it hard to take notes and to completehomework on time. An occupational therapy evaluation is indicated.

3. Is the child distractible or hyperactive? If teachers or parents saythe child has a short attention span or you observe this in the office,he or she may have attention deficit disorder (ADD) or attention deficithyperactivity disorder (ADHD). This diagnosis generally does not apply tothe child who does reasonably well throughout the day but slumps after school.

4. Is the child disorganized? Teachers and parents sometimes report thatchildren with homework problems are unable to write down assignments correctly,establish goals, set priorities, and manage their time efficiently. Beingorganized is most important for completing book reports, science fair projects,term papers, and other assignments that are done over a period of time.

5. Does the child have an emotional problem? A major cause of homeworkdifficulties, emotional problems to look for include anxiety; depression;anger; obsessions; compulsions; aggressive, oppositional, defiant, or antisocialbehaviors; a lack of social skills; somatic complaints; excessive worry;or substance abuse. A perfectionistic or ritualistic child may not completeassignments on time because of a compulsive need to redo papers. Familyproblems that may cause stress include marital discord, separation, divorce,remarriage, death, medical or psychiatric illness, chronic parental disability,drug or alcohol abuse, family violence, child abuse, poverty, and unemployment.

6. Does the parent-child relationship contribute to the problem? Parentshave a decisive role in determining a child's attitude toward homework.They can make a major contribution to their child's educational achievementby reinforcing its importance, answering questions, providing a settingconducive to study, drilling the child in spelling and math, accompanyingthe child to the library, rehearsing "show and tell" talks, helpingselect and design science fair exhibits, shopping for project materials,and praising the child's efforts and accomplishments. In general, childrenwho identify with their parents' educational goals and expectations do theirhomework, even though they may complain about missing a television showor playtime with friends.

Parents who are unable to help their children with subjects such as mathematicsor science can still support their children's achievements by showing theyare committed to the value of education and homework. Regrettably, someparents do not provide the encouragement, attention, and interest that motivatechildren to do well. Parents who fail to interact adequately with theirchildren sometimes set the stage for underachievement.

Some bright children underachieve to get the attention of parents whoare preoccupied with careers or social engagements. Children whose parentsare divorced have other problems. They typically spend one or two nightsa week at the noncustodial parent's house, and homework supplies and referencematerials may be left at one household while the child is at another. Whenthe child is working on a long-term project, the parents' support may lackcontinuity if they do not communicate well with each other.

Some anxious parents pressure their children unrelentingly to achieveacademically. Such behavior may be counterproductive because children interprettheir successes as more the parents' than their own and do not experiencethe satisfaction and sense of adequacy that come from independent masteryof a challenging task. Parents who do expect their children to prepare homeworkon their own should remember, however, that the child's independence doesnot negate the need for contact with the parent after a long day's separation.

In recent decades, the increased number of single-parent families, step-families,and households in which both parents work outside the home has also contributedto the prevalence of homework problems. Preoccupied with stresses at work,perhaps commuting a considerable distance between work and home, workingtwo jobs, stopping to pick up children at day care or milk at the grocerystore, or helping to care for an ill grandparent, parents are often fatiguedwhen they finally trudge home to start their "second shift." Formany families, evenings are not times of domestic tranquility or repose.

7. Has the child lost the motivation to do well in school? Lack of motivationis common among children and adolescents who do not do their homework. Someyoungsters believe that they probably can't be as successful as other children,regardless of how hard they try. Perhaps they observe that many older adolescentsand young adults in their communities have not succeeded, and they becomediscouraged by the realization that the playing field is not always level.

A feeling of resignation and failure to care about school or homeworkmay also be caused by depression, substance abuse, social isolation, andparental indifference. A very bright child may complain that the work isboring and a "waste of time." Many students lack a sense of efficacy--thebelief that they know what to do and can do it. Such a lack of self-confidenceoften escalates into a self-fulfilling prophecy, which locks a child intoserial failure. Sadly, some students are unable to name even one individualthey could emulate or turn to for advice or friendship. Bereft of a mentorwith whom to identify at a critical developmental stage, they drift aimlesslywithout specific goals.

8. What is the attitude of the child's peers toward school and homework?Peer values and behaviors strongly influence preadolescent and adolescentstudents. Peers can foster constructive educational outcomes, but they alsocan promote dropping out of school and underachievement. Peers who takepride in their school and regularly do their homework create a pervasive"herd" effect that motivates schoolmates. When classmates regardhomework as a waste of time, however, some children may acquire a similarattitude unless successful students, older siblings, and other role modelscounterbalance this attitude. Negative peer attitudes and behaviors area significant problem in some large urban high schools and, to a lesserextent, in some rural schools where people who like to study are seen as"nerds" and "out of it."

9. How strong a positive influence are the child's teachers? Teachersusually have a highly constructive influence on students. For some children,they are a rare role model whom a child wishes to please. Teachers characteristicallymotivate the child to do well, have his best interests at heart, know whatwill help ensure his success, give interesting assignments, and convey thefeeling that they like him.

10. Does the child have too much homework or too many extracurricularactivities? Many parents believe that children in the elementary gradeshave too much homework, while others strongly advocate additional and morechallenging assignments, such as completing eighth grade math by the fifthgrade. The amount of homework assigned in kindergarten and the early elementaryschool years has tripled in the past decade while for high school studentsthe increase has been less dramatic. "How much homework is too much?"addresses the reasons for the recent increases in homework.

Some children seem to spend every after-school hour engaged in music,dance, karate, soccer, swimming, church, and Scouts, among other extracurricularactivities. Added to a heavy homework load, too many such commitments leavechildren little discretionary time to be reflective or to pursue academicinterests outside of the curriculum. Such children may develop somatic symptomssuch as recurrent abdominal pain, headache, irritability, or fatigue

Tackling the problems

The pediatrician's recommendations or interventions will depend on thecauses of the homework problems.

1. A learning disability, academic skills deficit, language disorder,or mental retardation. Advise parents to request an educational managementteam meeting or, for a child who is eligible for special education services,an Individual Education Plan. Such a plan may call for less homework, forexample, fewer arithmetic problems; the use of lesson outlines; and someof the other services discussed below.

2. A handwriting disorder. Recommended interventions include allowingadditional time to complete written work; permission to type homework ona computer; use of a tape recorder to permit later review of the teacher'sinstructions; lesson outlines or notes; use of test questions that requireonly short answers; and oral or taped examinations instead of written tests.An occupational therapy consultation is often helpful.

3. Attention deficit or hyperactivity disorder. In addition to prescribingmedication, if necessary, advise parents to ask the child's school for anindividual functional behavior assessment. Homework breaks, lesson outlines,and checklists may strengthen a child's ability to focus and stay on task.Suggest that parents make sure siblings do not engage in activities thatcompete for the child's attention while she is doing her homework. Preschoolbrothers and sisters can be directed to quiet table-top activities theypretend are homework, for example, and older siblings can postpone computeror Nintendo games until the homework period is over.

4. Disorganization. The child who is disorganized should be taught time-managementskills and memorization strategies, such as using acronyms. Additional structuremay be provided by an assignment book routed daily between teachers andparents, who initial assignments and completed work. At first, it may benecessary to check the child's backpack before he leaves home and schoolto ensure that he has what he needs. Sometimes, it's a good idea to havea duplicate set of books at home for easy reference. When feasible, assignmentsthat are not due for several days may be divided into segments and completedone step at a time.

5. Emotional factors. In addition to counseling by the pediatrician,referral to a psychologist, psychiatrist, or social worker for individualor family therapy may be indicated. Some adolescents accept referral toan adolescent group in preference to individual psychotherapy.

6. Problematic parent-child relationship. You may want to offer suggestionsfor strengthening this important relationship. As with younger children,school-age youngsters and adolescents need parental "presence"to perform their schoolwork well.

Counsel parents who seem to spend much time helping their child withhomework to leave this job to someone else. When children need extra help,an experienced teacher, peer, or mature high school or college student maybe more effective at helping the child and relieve parents of an unproductiveburden and source of family tension. A few schools have optional programswhere children complete homework at school after regular hours under theguidance of a teacher.

7. Lack of motivation and a sense of self-efficacy. The child's beliefthat the pediatrician knows what is best for children may be a powerfulmotivating force, especially in children deprived of the support, encouragement,acceptance, affection, and advice that more fortunate peers receive fromcaring parents, teachers, neighbors, peers, tutors, and coaches. Childrenwho admire and trust their doctor tend to adopt her recommendations aboutwhat is in the child's best interests. This relationship is strengthenedwhen the child believes that the doctor likes him. Children whose lack ofmotivation stems from feelings of hopelessness require empathic supportthat promotes the acquisition of "learned optimism." The pediatricianmay help such children adopt reasonable goals and reinforce their realizationby periodically encouraging and commending them. Suggestions for strengtheningfamily relationships may also be helpful, and the child's interaction witha responsible adult who really cares--a teacher, coach, clergyman, Big Brother,or other mentor--may make a huge difference.

Drawing up a homework contract is a simple, effective, and practicalstrategy for resolving homework conflicts without continued squabbling.A contract tacitly acknowledges a child's autonomy and capacity for responsibility,and permits both the child and the parents to declare victory and move on.Developed with the child's participation and approval, the contract is signedby the child, the pediatrician, and the parent(s). It may include a datefor review, allowing a change in expectations and rewards. Photocopy thecontract for the office chart and give the original to the child to postat home. Figure 1 is a sample contract.

8. Peers have a negative influence on the child's academic achievement.Preventing or managing this situation requires the sustained efforts ofparents, educators, students, the media, the business community, and otherleaders in promoting the importance of education and the value of a highschool diploma. Educational arrangements that may need to be explored includecluster grouping for differentiated instruction in elementary school andadvanced placement courses in middle and high school. Students feel morecomfortable when they are in a class with children similar to themselvesand are more likely to choose challenging tasks when they are placed withtheir intellectual peers. For students who require markedly different programming,gifted centers and magnet programs should be explored.

Weekend or after-school enrichment programs in the sciences, humanities,and arts allow students to explore stimulating topics with high-level instructors.These programs also teach students that brain power is as admirable as musclepower. The enrichment activities can reveal the relationship between thebasic curriculum and specific careers, motivating students to learn as muchas possible in school.

Competitive academic activities offer bright children some of the samerewards available to those who participate in athletics. These activitiesinclude spelling or geography bees, participation in Odyssey of the Mind,It's Academic teams, and the National Honor Society.

Another strategy for combating the negative influence of peers is todevelop an Individual Educational Plan that includes development of skillsfor coping with peer ridicule for being a "nerd." A school counselormight instruct small groups in these skills.

9. Positive influence of the child's teachers needs to be enhanced. Whileskilled teachers create an environment that invites all children to experiencethe rewards of academic success, even less outstanding teachers are potentialresources for curriculum planning and learning opportunities. A studentcan benefit, for example, by spending time with a teacher with a hobby similarto her own or with an instructor in a particular area of interest, suchas music, art, or physical education. Such teachers could stimulate thestudent to expand her interests or pursue advanced knowledge, which shethen could share with the school community.

There are no substitutes for positive teacher-student relationships.Such partnerships are enhanced when parents actively participate in schoolactivities. This makes teachers feel appreciated, leading them to be understandingand flexible when a problem arises, recommend the best teacher for a particularchild for the following school year, and be as effective as possible inthe classroom.

10. Too much homework or too many extracurricular activities. Encourageparents who think their child has too much homework to work with the teacheror the parent-teacher association. They should be careful not to underminethe authority of the teacher or school management by making offhand remarkssuch as "This is stupid busy work" in the child's presence. Ifit seems to the pediatrician that the child has too many after-school activities,talk to parents and child about how to cut back.

Anticipatory guidance wards off problems

Success in school is a marker of healthy child development and a majorcontributor to the self-esteem and social competence of children and adolescents.Homework is an vital component of that success. With so much of the futureof individual children and adolescents dependent on their educational achievement,developmental surveillance during the school years should regularly includeinquiries about school work. Questions such as "How is John doing inschool?" or "Any problems with homework?" along with a reviewof the child's report card during health supervision visits permits identificationof educational problems that otherwise might not be reported.

School performance and homework are closely linked, and the suggestionsin the accompanying Parent Guide are relevant to both. We recommend discussingsome of these ideas, and giving parents the guide, at the school readinessassessment visit before the child enrolls in kindergarten.

Wrapping it up

Parents' complaints about homework reflect growing concern about theadequacy of the nation's schools, the academic achievement of students inthe United States, and homework's relevance to these issues. You can helpparents deal with homework problems by uncovering why the child finds itdifficult to complete assignments satisfactorily and instituting the appropriateinterventions. For parents whose children are about to begin school, anticipatoryguidance is the way to deflect homework problems.

DR. GREEN is Perry W. Lesh Professor of Pediatrics, Indiana UniversitySchool of Medicine, Indianapolis, and a member of the Contemporary PediatricsEditorial Board.

DR. SULLIVAN is Assistant Professor of Pediatrics, Indiana UniversitySchool of Medicine.

DR. EICHBERG is a clinical child psychologist in private practice inPotomac, MD.

 

SUGGESTED READING

Cholden H, Friedman J, Tiersky E: The Homework Handbook. Chicago, IL,Contemporary Press, 1998

Green M: Promoting parental presence. Contemporary Pediatrics 1999;16(2):118

Jabs C: Take the hassle out of homework. Working Mother. November 1998,p 40

Ratnesar R: The homework ate my family. Time, March 3, 1999, p 55

Winerip M: Homework bound. The New York Times, Education Life, January3, 1999, p 28

GUIDE FOR PARENTS

Homework: How to help your child succeed in school

Parents have a strong influence on their children's success in school,which is closely linked to preparing their homework assignments to the bestof their abilities. By supporting and praising your child's academic effortsand creating an atmosphere at home that encourages learning and doing homework,you can help your child do well in school.

Laying the groundwork

Young children generally look forward to going to school. You and thechild's older brothers and sisters can encourage these positive feelingsby letting the child know how exciting you think it is to learn to read,write, count, draw, sing songs, play games, and make new friends. Childrenare more likely to succeed in school when their families make it clear thatthey value academic achievement and when parents praise their children'sefforts. Believing that one's child has the ability to succeed is essential.By being interested in what is happening at school each day and listeningto what the child reports, you build the child's self-esteem. Commentingon the school work the child brings home, posting it on the refrigeratordoor, and proudly telling other people about the child's accomplishmentshas the same effect.

You can encourage your child's learning by reading to her every day,beginning in the first year of life. Have books, magazines, newspapers,and videotapes available in your home. Give your young child books as giftsor rewards, and encourage building with blocks, drawing, and cutting withscissors. If possible, provide access to a computer at home or elsewhere,such as at a public library. Talk with your child during meals, shopping,and trips. Take her to libraries, book stores, plays, concerts, and museums,and encourage an interest in nature--flowers, leaves, butterflies, birds,rocks, stars, and animals.

Hints for homework

An important part of school success is doing homework assignments competently,completely, and on time. You can make it natural and rewarding for the childto spend a certain portion of his after-school time doing homework by followingsome common-sense guidelines:

  • Respect your child's need to "recharge" himself after school, before starting homework. Some children want to have a snack, while others prefer to draw, do something physically active, play with a friend, read, listen to music, or watch a videotape.
  • Establish a regular time and place to begin homework.
  • Make family activities that precede or follow homework, such as playing a game, cooking, or crafts, a regular part of the homework routine. Shared activities assure the child that he will have time with parents, making it less likely he will seek their attention while he is doing his homework.
  • While the child works, make sure siblings aren't engaged in activities that may distract him. A younger brother or sister might sit nearby and pretend to be doing "homework." An older sibling can postpone playing computer or Nintendo games until the child has finished his assignments.
  • Recognize that an occasional break from steady concentration on homework helps children stay
    on task.
  • Be available to interpret assignments and questions, explain the meaning of unfamiliar words, review spelling or multiplication tables, discuss topics for "show and tell," and preview talks that your child is preparing. If the child asks you for ideas for a presentation or project, try to build on his interests. Support his efforts even if he decides not to accept your suggestion. By preparing your own work reports, reading, paying bills, or writing letters while the child is doing his homework, you let the child enjoy your presence and turn to you with questions about the assignment if necessary. Though you should always be open to questions, your child should be responsible for doing his own homework by the time he is 8 or 9. Think of yourself as a coach or consultant. The child who says, "I can't do it. You do it" may push you beyond that role. If you think you are helping your child too much with her homework, talk with her teacher about the problem. You may want to bring up the issue at Back to School Night. PTA meetings are also appropriate for reviewing guidelines on helping with homework.
  • Make sure the child establishes the habit of placing completed homework in a book bag ready to be taken to school.

Heading off problems

It is useful to find out at the beginning of the school year how muchtime your child will be expected to spend on homework and what assignmentbooks and study aids the school will provide. Some schools distribute aweekly homework schedule; others offer a homework "hot line."Children do best when their parents participate in school activities, soattend parent-teacher conferences and try to serve as a volunteer in theclassroom or on field trips. If you are concerned about your child's behavior,progress, or failure to understand assignments, or about the amount of workassigned, promptly consult your child's teachers. Homework problems havemany causes, but managing them can be as simple as cutting back on the scheduleof a child who is tired because of too many after-school activities. Ifsimple solutions don't work, ask your pediatrician for help.

Morris Green. Homework conflicts, skirmishes, and wars. Contemporary Pediatrics 1999;9:54.