How to help a child with their homework

Jun 17, 20226 minutes read time

Reviewed by: Professor Mark Dadds and Dr Lucy Tully

Key points:

  • Make a homework action plan with your child before the school year begins.
  • There are 10 simple steps you can follow to help your child conquer their homework each day.
  • Think of yourself as your child’s ‘homework project manager’. It’s not your job to do their homework for them, but you can help them get it done.

Helping your child with their homework can feel like stepping into the ring. But it doesn’t have to become a daily battle. Here are some steps you can follow to make homework a more positive (or at least more bearable) experience for you and your elementary schooler.

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Before the battle: make a homework action plan

Don’t wait until your child brings home their first homework assignment. Make a plan before the school year begins, so you can set them up for success.

  1. Reach out to your child’s teacher.

    Ask what their homework expectations are: how much there will be, when it should be turned in, and so on.
  2. Set expectations with your child.

    Speak with your child about their teacher’s expectations – as well as yours – for getting homework done. If they know what’s coming, chances are there will be fewer homework battles along the way.
  3. Choose a designated homework space.

    Pick a spot together. It could be a common area like the dining room or the kitchen table. Make sure it’s a well-lit space, free from clutter or distractions. Keep plenty of school supplies on hand too.
  4. Set a designated homework time.

    Pick a time that works best for your child. It could be: - Shortly after they get home from school (give them 20-30 minutes first to catch their breath and get a snack – no screens before homework, though) - After dinner (but don’t make it too late in the evening) - In the morning before school (as long as you’re not too rushed)
Brother and sister getting help with their homework

Staying on task: 10 tips for homework success

Once you’ve laid a foundation for the year, follow these steps to help your child conquer their homework each day.

  1. Focus on what matters.
    Homework should be ‘an opportunity to learn rather than perform’, according to education expert Melissa Barnes. Remember: the measure of success is not how many answers your child gets right. The skills they hone are more important than the grade they get.
  2. Sit with them.
    This is especially important for younger students. They need you close by to help stay on task, and so they can ask for help when they need it. But your presence matters for another reason, according to Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education: it ‘sends the message that homework is important business, not to be taken lightly’.

    If you can’t sit with them the whole time, try to be in the same room. Ask your child to share what they’re learning about as they complete each task or assignment.
  3. Offer plenty of praise and positive reinforcement.
    Be specific and enthusiastic. Watch for signs of improvement over time and point them out – for example, as they get better at writing sentences or as their handwriting gets neater.
  4. Do as you say.
    Your child might be assigned a certain amount of reading each night. Make sure they catch you reading too. Better yet, make it a family activity and read together.

    If your child questions the point of learning maths (we’ve all been there), let them see you managing the family budget or using maths in your everyday life – whether it’s while shopping, cooking, or doing a home improvement project.
  5. Give your child some control.
    If they have more than one assignment to complete, let them choose what they work on first. If they have some control over the tasks in front of them, they’ll be more motivated to complete them.
  6. Make a daily homework plan.
    First, have your child make a list of what’s to be done. They can check off each item as they go – the sense of accomplishment will give their confidence a welcome boost.

    Next, make sure they understand each assignment before diving in. If necessary, break larger assignments into smaller, more manageable tasks.
  7. Use a timer.
    Ask your child to guess how much time each assignment will take, then set a timer and see if they can finish before it goes off.

    If they are struggling to focus (this is common for younger kids especially), have them work in shorter batches – a few minutes at a time, to start. They gradually increase the amount of time they spend working.

    Make sure your child understands, however, that getting homework done quickly is not the main goal. If they sacrifice quality for speed, they’ll need to do the assignment again.
  8. Change things up.
    If your child gets frustrated or distracted, a chance of scenery may help them refocus. You could have them move to a different room, preferably one with few distractions. Or let them take a short, 5-minute break to cool down, ideally before they get too overwhelmed.
  9. Keep a positive vibe.
    Homework sessions can quickly turn into a battle of wills. Try to maintain a positive attitude. Reprimanding your child for getting frustrated is a sure-fire motivation killer.

    Instead, when the frustration starts to build, give yourself and your child a break to cool down. You can also schedule fun activities after homework as a motivator, too. For example, once your child finishes their math assignment, let them play outside for a bit.
  10. Know when to call it a night.
    If your child is at the end of their rope, don’t force it. Call it a night. You can always pick things up in the morning after they’re rested.

    Also, keep track of how much time your child spends on homework. If it’s getting to be too much, reach out to their teacher (nicely).
Young boy doing homework at home on the family table

What to do (and not do) when your child needs help

How much actual help should you give your child with their homework?

Many parents take a hands-off approach, partly because a lot of teachers emphasize that homework is a child’s responsibility. According to the education experts at Harvard, ‘While it is absolutely true that parents should not do their children’s homework, there is a role for the parent’.

It can be helpful to think of your role as ‘homework project manager’. Specifically, your job is to:

  • Keep your child on task.
  • Help them get and stay organized.
  • Offer plenty of encouragement and praise to motivate them.

It’s not your responsibility to teach (or reteach) the material

In fact, it may do more harm than good. If your child is struggling with multiplication, for example, you might be tempted to show them how you learned in school. But if they’re learning a different method, this can cause more confusion.

If your child is struggling to master a concept or a lesson, message their teacher and ask if they can go over it again.

Give your child the right kind of help

Remember, helping them get their homework done is not the same as helping them do their homework.

When they get stuck, resist the urge to jump in and solve it for them. Use it as an opportunity to hone their problem-solving skills. Instead of giving the answer right away, ask questions to help reframe the problem or find another way of solving it.

Remember, there can be ‘too much of a good thing’ when it comes to parental involvement in homework. Studies have shown that ‘helicopter parenting’ (one of many common parenting styles) can have a negative effect on a child’s academic performance over time.

Let your child make mistakes

Check enough of their work to see if they understand the concept, but don’t correct every mistake. If your child turns in perfect homework every time, their teacher won’t be able to see how well they’re really mastering the material.

Remember, this season won’t last forever. Most likely, your child will need less support with homework as they grow older and develop the skills needed to complete tasks on their own. In the meantime, making a homework action plan – and sticking to it – can set your child (and you) up for homework success.

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