Parenting During the Pandemic: Homework Completion

Motivating children to complete assignments is a challenge many families face during a typical school year.  During atypical times, such as the current school closures and subsequent move to parent-led instruction, this challenge can seem more overwhelming.  Below are six strategies parents can implement to ease this interaction:

  1. Set Realistic Expectations.  Expectations around assignments and homework should be carefully assessed.  Three considerations can help guide parents to ensure they are asking students to achieve attainable demands.  
    1. The length of time the child is asked to sit and focus, the amount of time dedicated to each subject and the time it should take a child to complete an assignment are all important.  As a general rule, multiplying a child’s age by two to five times will give a range for expected attention span, but will of course vary by child.
    2. Content should fall within the child’s ability to complete independently.  This helps keep interest and motivation intact.  
    3. Consider the individual child’s typical attention span and academic interest.  Asking a child who is insecure about their ability to sit and focus on challenging problems until completion can result in frustration and resistance to complete work.
  2. Set Rewards.  Rewards can be based around time completed (i.e., see what you can get done in 15 minutes), work completed (i.e., finish your reading and math and we’ll take a break), or pre-determined assessments of effort (i.e., for every five problems completed).  When thinking about time completed, children can be rewarded for short intervals of time and the time required for a reward can be slowly increased.  Rewards might also be interspersed between subjects if a child responds better to this type of reinforcement.  Rewards can also be varied in their format.  Some children respond to verbal praise, some to time rewards (great, take a five-minute break!), some to tangible rewards (here’s a Hershey’s Kiss!) and others to bigger ticket items (for every 30 minutes of work you earn 15 minutes on your device).  For older children, big ticket rewards can be offered immediately following a completed task or “banked” to use later. Movement breaks are also a valuable tool and keep kids having fun between work sessions.  
  3. Chunking.  Break large assignments into “chunks” and allow children to do them one at a time.  Many children find large tasks or assignments overwhelming and respond better when assignments are broken into steps.  Offering younger children rewards for smaller chunks completed may help keep motivation strong, while older children may respond better to choosing a reward that can be offered for increments of time spent working on parts of an assignment.  
  4. Choose a Known Time Frame.  Many children and adults alike struggle with undefined periods of time.  Consider the following options to increase engagement and motivation:
    1. A set frame of time.  Choose a determined period of time to work.  For example, one hour in the morning and one hour in the afternoon.  During this hour subjects can be spread across 15-minute segments and rewards distributed at the end of that time frame.  Remember to temper expectations; children don’t have to complete a subject within the 15-minute time period they just have to show active engagement.  
    2. Flexible time frames.  Define the periods of time that schoolwork will occur.  For example; let children know that they have four assignments to do today and they can complete them at a time of their choosing.  After breakfast, children choose to complete their Reading, after lunch they focus on Math and in the afternoon the family works on Spanish.  
  5. Let the Student Have Some Control.  Children may demonstrate greater cooperation when they are given some control over demands placed upon them.  This can be done in a few ways and adjusted according to the age of the child:
    1. Putting children in control of when they work and what subjects they want to complete during that time can be helpful.  
    2. Alternating “high” and “low” activities: Allow children to decide which activities they want to do first, then alternate between those they are excited about/find easy/want to do and those they find more tedious.
  6. Take Turns With a Partner or Family Member.  Remember that you are not in this alone!  Using creative outlets can help lessen the load on both parent and child.  Consider engaging with a cousin for virtual reading time, elicit the help of grandparents to conduct a science experiment via Zoom; ask an aunt or uncle to spend 15 minutes talking through a History assignment via Facetime.  These strategies can help reinvigorate both parent and child and increase motivation for a given task.  

Parents becoming teachers amidst all the other responsibilities they hold is a new and challenging demand.  The most important thing to remember is that the relationship between parent and child comes first.  When all the strategies, tools and interventions fail, disengage from the power struggle.  Fall back on the rule that your relationship with your child is the priority, you can always try again tomorrow.

Michelle McDonald, Ph.D.
Licensed Clinical Psychologist