Ask the Expert: How can I get my son to do his homework?
Sit down with your son and plan the ideal homework routine with him. Photograph: Getty Images
Q It is a constant battle to get my nine-year-old son to do his homework. On the advice of the school he was assessed last year and was found to have “traits” of attention deficit disorder (ADHD) but not the full diagnosis. He finds it particularly hard to sit down and apply himself to his homework and would rather do other things such as sport and being out and about which he loves. He is a bright fellow and I worry that he is underperforming.
We are constantly fighting over getting homework done and sometimes it takes hours. It means that I am not spending time with the other children and when we have a “bad” homework day, it can ruin the atmosphere for the whole evening. Otherwise he is a kind helpful boy. He is happiest when we are on holidays and he is not in school. I am worried about his future. What can I do? I don’t want him to miss out.
A At the bottom of the “homework battle” between parents and children are usually well-intentioned parents determined to help their child reach his/her full potential in conflict with a child who may be unmotivated or struggling with formal learning.
Once this battle becomes a frequent occurrence, it is generally counter-productive and can makes matter worse. Children frequently dig their heels in and refuse to learn, parents become frustrated and even family life can be negatively impacted.
Even if you do manage to “coerce” an extra bit of homework out of them, it can be done with great cost to the parent-child relationship and does not really increase the child’s learning and may actually reduce their overall motivation to learn.
Once you find yourself caught in a battle of wills, it is very important to pause and take a step back to understand what is going on between you and your son so you can adapt your approach accordingly.
His homework will be successful only if it is a largely positive experience which helps him learn so you need to think of a different way to help him.
In assessment he has been diagnosed with specific attention problems.
This should provide you with clues as to how to organise his homework and learning.
Go back to the psychologist or other professional who made the diagnosis and ask for information on how to structure homework to help him.
Many children with attention problems benefit from more experiential learning and, when engaging in formal homework, benefit from frequent breaks and the task being broken into manageable steps, perhaps with a visual schedule to keep them on track.
Creating a relaxing, distraction-free homework environment can be particularly helpful. Tune into what works for your son. While TV or screens are usually unhelpful, some children find it easier to study with background music playing.
Make contact with ADHD support organisations for more ideas (eg hadd.ie).
Work closely with his school
Ask for a meeting with the teacher and the principal to discuss your son’s learning needs and work with them about creating a specific plan to maximise your son’s learning.
They should be able to give you guidance on homework and share with you strategies that they find helpful in the classroom. In addition, the more you know about the specifics of the goals for your son’s learning, the easier it will be to help him at home.
Agree a homework routine with your son
Sit down with your son and plan the ideal homework routine with him. Generally, this might involve a brief break once he comes in (for a chat and a snack), before starting his homework for an agreed minimum time (30-45 minutes each day), to be followed by a rewarding activity of his choice (for example, TV time).
With extra-curricular activities and family commitments over the course of a week, it can be hard to have a fixed homework time.
In those situations it can be useful to develop a weekly family routine where a daily homework slot as well as rewarding activities are scheduled clearly. Where possible, the ideal is always to have homework happen earlier on in the evening and for a rewarding and relaxing activity to follow it.
Have a daily homework review with your son
It is a good idea to help your son plan his homework each day before he starts, to be there to check in periodically with him as he does it and to review it when he has finished.
Be careful not to “do it for him” and your role is largely to praise his efforts and to help him focus – “Well done on doing that bit, what is the next step now?” Have a ritual at the end of homework of reviewing what he has done and what he has learnt.
Combine this with signing his homework journal and writing a note for his teacher on his progress.
It can also be helpful to set up a reward system with him whereby he gets points for completing his homework each day which he can convert into tangible treats at the end of the day (such as extra pocket money, choosing a favourite meal, and so on).
Ideally, let him self-evaluate his efforts and award himself between one and five points depending on how much work he has done and how much effort he has put in.
Encourage other activities that he loves
It is important to continue to encourage other healthy activities that your son does, particularly those which emphasise his strengths and where he is successful.
For example, if he is good at sports, continue to support this (and do not make it dependent on homework completion) but also look for other areas he can be successful in, whether this is crafts, music, chess or joining the scouts or doing voluntary work.
Your goal in the long term is make sure he grows up with solid self-esteem and confidence. While he might be able to make some progress in his academic work, it may not be his forte in the long term and you want to make sure he discovers his niche in life wherever that might be.
Dr John Sharry is a social worker and founder of the Parents Plus Charity. His book, Positive Parenting , is available from Veritas. solutiontalk.ie