Homework Survival Guide
Parent Handout by Peg Dawson, NCSP
Peg Dawson, an experienced, on-the-job mother,
and incidentally a past-president of the National Association
of School Psychologists, has prepared the following handout
for parents with tips on dealing with homework. This handout
has been published by the National Association of School Psychologists
as an eight page handout.
A Place to Work
- Find the right place. In some
families, having a central location, where all children in
the family do their homework works best. This may be the dining
room or kitchen table. In other families, each child has her
own study place, usually at a desk in the bedroom. What works
for you depends on your children. Some kids do best under
the watchful eye of a parent, in which case the dining room
or kitchen may work best. Others need a quiet of their bedrooms
to avoid distractions. Some kids like to work with the radio
on (and this helps them focus), while others do worse with
this kind of background noise. Think about possible distractions
that will need to be avoided (a nearby television, the telephone,
etc.) when planning your child's workspace.
You may want to conduct "experiments" with your child to determine
what setting works best under what circumstances. Try several
options for a week each and see how your child does (rate
the quality of the homework completed, the time it took to
finish, and the child's subjective reaction).
- Gather necessary materials
Youngsters can waste a lot of time tracking down things like
pencils, paper, rulers, etc. when beginning their homework.
To avoid this, stock your child's study area with these materials
and any other he is likely to need, such as a dictionary,
highlighters, pens, scissors, glue, tape, colored pencils,
stapler and staples, etc.
It may also be helpful to set up file folders for each subject
your child is taking in school to keep track of necessary
papers, such as long-term assignment directions, tests and
homework that have been passed back (to help in studying for
the next test), etc. These folders should not be used for
storing homework, since your child is likely to then leave
it at home and forget to take it to school. Completed homework
should be placed in the child's backpack, trapper keeper,
or notebook as soon as it is finished to ensure it gets to
A plastic bin may be an ideal place to store study materials;
if you have more than one child, you may want to have one
bin for each child. The advantage to this is that these are
portable - just in case you have a child whose preferred study
style is to work in a different place each night!
You may also want to have a second container (such as a dishpan)
which your child can "dump" their school things in as soon
as they get home from school. This will help avoid last minute
frantic searches for permission slips, library books, messages
from the principal, notices of meetings, etc.
Organizing Homework/Setting Priorities
A homework session should begin by reviewing
what the day's assignments are. It is probably a good idea to
draw up a list of assignments on a separate sheet of paper,
so that you can then help your child prioritize and break down
longer tasks into shorter ones. The steps to follow might be:
- List out assignments.
- Make sure the child brought home the
necessary books, work sheets, etc.
- Break longer tasks into sub tasks.
- Check to see what other tasks the child
has to do which should be included on the list - including
long term assignments, and tests later in the week for which
the child should begin studying. Add these to the homework
- Have the child decide what order she
will complete the work. A good rule of thumb is to have the
child begin and end with assignments she considers "easy,"
sandwiching more difficult assignments in between.
- Estimate how much time it will take to
complete the work.
- Make sure you have allowed enough time
for the child to complete all his homework allowing for break
time as necessary.
Sometimes it is difficult for kids to complete
homework because of other obligations they may have - sports
events, doctors' appointments, scout meetings, chores, family
events, etc. You may find it helpful to put together a weekly
calendar to keep track of these activities. Once a week (Sunday
afternoon sounds good), sit down with your child and fill out
(or review) the weekly calendar together. Then, as you plan
your homework time each day, you can reference this calendar
to allow time for the other activities your child is involved
As mentioned above, it is usually best to
have the child begin with a task that they consider "easy."
Some children may want to start with the hardest task first
to get it over with, and this is acceptable unless the child
has a very difficult time getting started and will dawdle or
avoid the difficult assignment even though it was his/her choice
to start with it.
For many youngsters, just getting started
on homework seems like an insurmountable obstacle. We have several
suggestions for handling this problem:
- Have the child specify exactly when she
will begin her homework and then reward her for getting to
work within five minutes of the time she has specified.
- Sit with your child for the first five
minutes to make sure he gets off to a good start.
- Talk with your child about her assignments
before beginning. This is particularly important for written
language assignments or more open-ended tasks. Children often
need to be "primed" or activated for their best efforts to
come out. This is particularly true for youngsters who may
have difficulties with verbal fluency or word retrieval.
- Orient your child to his assignment;
walk him through the first one or two problems or items to
make sure he understands what he is supposed to do.
- Build in a short break relatively quickly,
if getting started is a problem.
Getting Through It
Make sure adequate breaks are built in.
Many children have a great deal of difficulty working for long
stretches of time on homework without a break. Better to plan
for a two hour homework session with frequent breaks built in
than to try to cram homework into a one-hour, non-stop session.
You can sue a kitchen timer to keep breaks to a reasonable length
(e.g., 5-10 minutes). Breaks might be used to get a snack, play
a few minutes of a Nintendo game, or to shoot baskets or do
some other form of exercise. Breaks should be scheduled when
tasks get accomplished rather than after a set period of time,
otherwise your child can daydream the time away and still get
his break. One child we know arranges homework sessions between
TV shows he likes to watch. Thus, his schedule on any given
day might look like this:
- 4:30 math
- 5:00 TV show
- 5:30 language arts
- 6:00 dinner
- 6:30 social studies
- 7:00 TV show
- 8:00 science
- 8:30 TV show
- 9:00 bed time
If he hasn't finished whatever task he was
working on when his television program comes on, he either misses
the program or tapes it watch at a later time.
Other suggestions for getting through homework:
- Make a game out of work completion: have
the child estimate how long it will take to complete an assignment,
have her "place bets," set a kitchen timer where the child
can't see how much time it was set for and challenge her to
"beat the clock," or use a stopwatch to see how quickly she
can do an assignment, one math problem, etc.
- If a task takes longer than your child
can sustain (even if it's broken down into smaller steps)
or if he "gets stuck," have him switch to another assignment
rather than stop working altogether.
- Use a "beep tape" to help him stay focused.
This is an audio tape which sounds an electronic tone at random
intervals. When the child hears the tone, she is to ask herself,
"Was I paying attention?" She can be given a form to fill
out to accompany the tape. This has been quite effective with
children who daydream or who get pulled off task easily. often
without even realizing it. The tone brings them back to task.
Alternatively, some parents make "nag tapes" where they tape
messages at random intervals, again to prompt the child back
Long Term Assignments
These are often the hardest homework assignments
for youngsters to keep track of and to complete.
- Know what assignments are due when.
In addition to having a weekly assignment book where daily
homework is recorded, it is also advisable to have a monthly
calendar on which long term assignments can be written as
soon as they are assigned. With younger or more disorganized
students parents may want to periodically send in this calendar
and ask the classroom teacher to verify that it is up-to-date.
Older students should be able to keep these themselves, transferring
items as necessary from their weekly assignment book.
- Break long term assignments into sub
Sit down with your child and read over directions or discuss
the nature of the long term assignment. Make out a list of
the steps necessary to complete the assignment. If desired,
this can be a fairly lengthy outline with notes attached providing
more guidance about what is to be included for each step.
For written reports, for instance, the steps might include
taking notes, generating an outline, writing the introduction,
the sections of the report and the summary, preparing a bibliography,
drawing any necessary maps and charts, proofreading, preparing
the final draft, and making a cover.
- Draw up a time line.
Once the outline is developed, each sub task should than
have due date attached to it and should be written on the
Care should be taken to ensure adequate time is available
for each step. A long report will require that more time be
devoted to each step, particularly preparing the final draft
and proofreading. If the long term assignment requires that
your child use the library, visit a museum, or gather information
from outside sources, include these trips on the time line,
with dates attached. If materials need to be purchased, the
time when this will happen should also be identified.
In the beginning, your child will probably need extensive
help breaking down his assignments and developing a realistic
time line. As time goes on, he can assume increasing amounts
of responsibility for these. Time management is a skill of
life-long importance. Developing increasing independence in
planning for and executing long term assignments is an early
opportunity for a child to acquire this valuable skill.
For many youngsters, homework is an exceedingly
difficult task representing an ordeal they perceive at times
to be insurmountable. For these children all the organization
and planning in the world may not be enough to get them through
the daily grind of homework. In this case, an incentive system
may need to be put in place to make homework completion a more
attractive task for them.
If this is the right approach for your child,
we recommend a system whereby your child can earn points for
completing tasks or for demonstrating other appropriate behaviors
required for successful homework completion. The points can
then be traded in for daily, weekly or long term reinforcers.
Steps involved in setting up a point system include:
- With your child, draw up a list of privileges
or rewards your child would like to earn. daily rewards might
include an extra half hour of television, a special snack,
the chance to stay up an extra half hour before bed. Weekly
rewards might include a trip to the mall or McDonald's or
the chance to go to a video arcade or rent a video. Longer
term rewards might be going to a movie with a friend, inviting
a friend over for the night, or the chance to buy a small
- Now, again with your child, draw up a
list of "jobs" for which your child can earn points. Related
to homework, such jobs might include:
- Writing down homework assignments
- Bringing home necessary homework
- Getting homework started on time
- Completing work within the specified
- Finishing homework without reminders
(nags) from parents
- Finishing homework without constant
parental supervision or assistance
- Completing work with an acceptable
standard of accuracy (reviewed and defined ahead of time
for each assignment)
- Proofreading written work/checking
- Handing in homework completed and
- Successfully solving homework problems
(e.g., calling friends or teacher when an assignment is
not understood, knowing what to do when books or other
necessary papers were left at school, discussing homework
problems with the teacher or going to the teacher for
- Decide how many points each of the homework
"jobs" can earn and how much each of the privileges or rewards
will cost. To determine how much the rewards should cost,
add up the number of points you feel your child will earn
each day. Be sure that your child has about one third of her
points free to save up for special privileges.
- Get a notebook, and set it up with five
columns, one each for the date, the item, deposits, withdrawals,
and the running balance.
- Once a month or so, review the list of
jobs and privileges and revise as necessary.
Described above is a fairly elaborate system
that may be necessary with those children who are highly resistant
to doing homework. When the problem is not considered to be
so extreme, a more informal system (such as the opportunity
to earn a small reward after all the homework is done each day)
may be all that is necessary. Children can also be taught to
reward themselves as they complete tasks, both major and minor
ones. They can also adjust the reward depending on the size
or difficulty of the task; half an hour of reading is worth
a 10 minute break to shoot baskets; completing a term paper
is worth a bike ride to the store to by a favorite snack.
With some children, the use of natural or
logical consequences alone may be sufficient. Not being able
to watch a favorite TV program because the homework wasn't done
in time is a logical consequence arises from dawdling over assignments.
For some children, a failing grade is a natural consequence
for failure to complete homework, and this alone will be sufficient
to induce them to work. However, it has been our experience
that parents should not assume that fear of a failing grade
alone will be sufficient to induce their child to do his homework.
Parents should resist the temptation simply
to punish children for their failure to do homework. While it
may make sense to cut down on the number of outside activities
or the amount of time their child is allowed to play with friends
after school in order to allow for sufficient time to do homework,
a system in which incentives are built in for homework completion
will likely be more effective than a system of negative consequences
alone. Most children who have problems doing homework are not
happy about their situation or the fights they draw their parents
into. Rather, it seems to take these children considerably more
effort to get down to work and to sustain attention to homework
than it does the average child. For this reason, it makes sense
to reward them for the extra effort it takes.
Parent Role: Help or Supervise?
Many parents, particularly those of children
who may be struggling in school, wrestle with the question of
how much help they should give thief children on homework. The
following suggestions are offered:
- It is a good idea for parents to discuss
with their children the nature of the assignment, to make
sure they understand what they are supposed to do, and to
guide them as they do the first one or two items of an assignment.
Parents should not have to remain by their children's side
throughout the entire session. If your child seems to require
this, then you should probably build in n incentive for working
independently to wean your child off reliance on you for support
or assistance. Setting the kitchen timer and telling your
child to wait until it rings to show you her work or to ask
questions is one way to gradually increase independence.
- Parents may want to review homework assignments
to check for either neatness or accuracy. If the handwriting
is illegible (and your child is capable of writing more neatly
without an inordinate amount of effort), it is acceptable
to ask him to rewrite the assignment. If your child is ready
to learn to proofread or to check for mistakes himself, you
may want to hand a paper back with a comment such as, "I found
three mistakes on your math page," or "Please look for spelling
errors." If he's not ready for this, point to the specific
mistakes and ask him to correct them (without giving him the
- Parents should keep in mind the overall
purpose of homework: to give children independent practice
with a skill they have already been taught. Parents should
not have to teach the skills necessary for their children
to complete their homework successfully. A good rule of thumb
is that children should be able to get at least 70 percent
of a homework assignment correct working on their own for
it be within an appropriate instructional range. If your child
cannot achieve that level of success without a great deal
of support from you, then the homework she is being assigned
is probably inappropriate. Make an appointment with your child's
teacher to ask for assignments that will better give her the
practice she needs.
- You may also want to talk to the teacher
if your child appears to be spending an inordinate amount
of time on homework even though he is successful at it. Ask
the teacher how much time a child should be spending on homework,
and if your child is working much more than that, ask for
an adjustment in workload, such as reduced assignments.
Chesworth, M., (1991). Putting on the brakes:
Young people's guide to understanding Attention Deficit Hyperactivity
Disorder (ADHD), New York: Magination Press.
Simply click on the images to see a larger
Sample Calendar for Planning Long-Term Assignments
Sample Homework Contracts
Sample Homework Contract I
Terms of Contract:
1. John will write down all assignments
in assignment book.
2. The daily TV schedule will be:
a. John can watch Batman at 5 o'clock.
b. In order to watch any evening TV shows,
homework will be completed.
c. If homework isn't done, we will tape
shows for later viewing.
3. John will not be allowed to play video
games during the week unless all his homework is done.
He can play no more than one hour per day at any time (including
4. On Fridays, John will have teachers sign
a sheet indicating he has turned in all homework
assignments for the week.
Points can be earned for: Point Value
|1. Handing in all homework assignments
for all classes each week
|2. Grade of B or better on quizzes
|3. Grade of B or better on a report
|4. Grade of B or better on report card
Points can be traded for:
|1. A contribution to the Super Nintendo
Sample Homework Contract II
|Daily Homework Tasks
|All assignments written down
|All materials brought home
|Finish homework by 9 PM
|Extra half hour TV show
|Practice soccer with dad
|15 minutes video game time
|Rent a video game
|Rent a movie
|Have a friend sleep over
|Go to Friendly's for ice cream
|Eat at a Chinese restaurant
|Take a friend to a movie
|Earn a new cassette tape
School professionals and organizations (e.g.,
the PTA) can print the fact sheets individually for hard copy distribution.
However, all fact sheets must be disseminated in the original form
with the NASP logo and the information credited to NASP, whether
in print or online format.