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9 Solutions for Homework Challenges

Melba Newsome
June 27, 2013

When a child is struggling and needs homework help, what can parents do?

The homework battles started for Beth and Mark Zink of Charlotte, N.C. when their daughter Zoe entered fourth grade and struggled with math. "Mark would try to help her and she would start glazing over and rocking in her chair with anxiety," recalls Beth. "He would yell at her for not paying attention and she would retreat more. It was a nightmare!"

Whether your child is in kindergarten or high school, scenarios like this are common -- and frustrating. If you find yourself immersed in a daily homework fight, here are nine tips to help.

  1. Create the Right Environment
    Children need to know that you think homework is important. One way to show you care is to provide the right environment. Make sure your child has a designated quiet, well-lit homework space, along with necessary materials like pencil, paper and a dictionary, says Harris Cooper, a professor of psychology at Duke University and author of "The Battle Over Homework."

  2. Get to the Root of the Problem
    Try to understand what's preventing your child from doing the work or causing a fuss whenever it's homework time. In many cases, it's classic laziness or avoidance. However, sometimes he or she is overwhelmed by the amount or simply doesn't understand the work. Once you know the problem, you can implement the appropriate solution.

  3. Trust but Verify
    You want to trust your kids when they say they did their homework or got an A on an assignment, but if you've caught them in school-related white lies in the past, you may need to be more hands-on.

    It's important to develop a good relationship with your child's teacher and make sure you have access to homework assignments. Fortunately, many schools now post assignments and grades online, which allows parents to check the information themselves, instead of relying on their child's version of the truth.

  4. Stay on Schedule
    Set and stick to a daily homework system, so your kid knows what he's expected to do and when. Does he get a half hour break to relax before hitting the books? No TV until all homework is done? Talk to your child and figure out a plan that works for everyone. If your kids have input into the rules, they'll be more likely to follow them.

    Because team sports, your work schedule or other activities can interfere, develop a plan for typical days and one that includes extracurricular activities, like when you don't get home from games until 8 p.m.

    If your kid gets home late, sticking to the regular routine is crucial, suggests Neil McNerney, LPC, a parenting expert and author of "Homework: A Parent's Guide to Helping Out Without Freaking Out." "Kids shouldn't stay up late completing work," he says. "It is clear that kids do better with an extra hour of sleep vs. an extra hour of studying."

    And make sure your partner and nanny or babysitter are all on the same page, so you all stick to and enforce the same rules.

  5. Be a Role Model
    Don't watch TV, check Facebook or talk on the telephone while your child does homework. If he's reading, pick up a book or magazine. If she's is doing math, pay bills. Help your child see that the skills they're practicing are related to things you do as an adult.

    "Be positive about homework," says Cooper. "The attitude you express will be the attitude your child acquires."

  6. Set Boundaries
    Draw the line between helping and doing. When the teacher asks you to play a role in homework, do so. But if homework is meant to be done alone, respect that, advises McNerney. Grades may improve, yes, but that's because parents usually make sure homework is returned to school virtually error-free.

    "Although it's tempting to correct your child's homework, the sooner you can stop doing this, the better," he recommends. "That way, the teacher knows what the child does not understand. Also, most kids have a hard time taking corrections from parents and tend to get upset or defensive."

    Of course, tests and quizzes are an exception. When it's time to study for an exam, parents can help kids prepare and review the information.

  7. Use Your Time Efficiently
    If you have more than one child, you'll likely find yourself pulled in different directions for help. Stagger your assistance by having one child work on her easier assignments, while you assist the other with more difficult subjects. Then switch. This way, each child has your attention when it's needed most. Or if your spouse is home, you can tag-team. Maybe you each take charge of a child or a school subject.

  8. Find a Homework Mentor
    Does your child have a mentor? Someone a little older who lives in the neighborhood or is the child of one of your friends? Consider asking this person to be a "homework helper" one or two days a week (yes, you might have to pay them). They can meet at the library or at your house and do their homework together. The idea is that your child sees this older, "cooler" kid focusing on school work and learns organization and focusing skills from a peer, rather than a parent.

  9. Hire a Tutor
    The Zinks determined that Zoe truly didn't understand her school work and that they were unwittingly hindering her progress. So they hired a tutor. "[It] removed the emotional 'parent and child' piece of the equation," says Beth.

    Kids may be more willing to work with or open up to someone who isn't their parent. And tutors can use different teaching techniques to help your child.

    If you need to hire a babysitter or after-school sitter, find someone who can also double as a homework helper. In your job post, mention what subjects your child needs a hand with and then look for someone who excels in those areas.

    Learn more by reading: Does My Child Need a Tutor? ť

Melba Newsome is an award-winning freelance writer whose work has appeared in Time, Oprah, Bloomberg Businessweek and Wired, among others. She lives in Charlotte, N.C.

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