Mental Wealth

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10 Tips to Make Homework Time Less Painful

Homework time doesn't have to be torture.

boy with homework books
The amount of homework assigned these days can be ridiculous.  If the homework assigned is excessive, or if the content is too difficult for a child's capabilities, homework effectiveness can backfire--especially in grade school-aged children. Stress mechanisms can negatively affect comprehension and retention of new material, battles over homework can contribute to family conflict, and negative associations with homework can lead to avoidance patterns.  Even very bright and organized kids can experience undue stress from homework, and those with attention problems, learning disabilities or mood symptoms can become disorganized and dysregulated, creating a vicious cycle. 

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Here are some tips to make homework time more efficient and less painful:

  1. Incorporate sensori-motor tricks.
    For active, restless, or fidgety kids, try having them sit on an exercise ball, or tie an exercise band around the front legs of their chair (so they can push and pull on it with their feet).  Chewing gum can also work, as chewing or sucking can be organizing for the nervous system. 
  2. Use a timer. 
    For kids who have a hard time starting their work, try saying "okay, let's see how much you can get done in thirty minutes," and set the timer.  Reset it again if needed.   Or, try "if you can sit down and start working in the next 5 minutes, you can earn 'x' as a reward."
  3. Talk to the teacher.
    How long is their homework supposed to take?  If your child spends a much longer time than is expected, the amount may be unrealistic.  Ask if the teacher can modify it (eg get rid of some of the "busy work", reduce the "project" load, or just assign odd or even problems.)  You may need this in writing as part of a formal plan, but if it makes sense, ask for it.
  4. Take breaks...but keep 'em short. 
    Let your child unwind for a short time after school, but try to get the work completed earlier than later.  Giving a snack with protein, healthy fats, and/or complex carbs will help support brain power and keep blood sugar steady. 
  5. Use rewards. 
    For kids who are unmotivated, give immediate rewards as often as possible ("I'll play a board game with you once you're finished.") Don't use video games as a reward, since they have an adverse effect academically, and can affect concentration, sleep, and time management.
  6. Get a tutor or homework buddy Many kids don't need a tutor per se, but do better with someone (other than mom or dad, sometimes) sitting next to them to help them stay on task.  
  7. Create a productive space.
    In an ideal world, homework would be done in a room with blank walls and nothing but a desk and chair (or ball!).  The more visual and auditory distractions there are, the more interruptions there are.  White noise or classical music can be helpful, but keep it soft.
  8. Lose the social media. 
    Some children (especially middle and high school kids) like to skype and text while doing homework.  Recently a thirteen year old girl told me that skyping helped her get her work done.  Since she had good grades I didn't press the issue. Then she participated in an electronic media fast as part of a school project, and got all her work done for the school week by Tuesday.  She also went to bed two hours earlier than usual.  Needless to say she couldn't believe how rested she felt!
  9. Be available. Lots of times I hear about kids who end up ripping up homework because no one was close by enough to ask for help.  Don't do their work for them, but stay nearby, help guide them and keep giving positive feedback. 
  10. Don't let them multitask.  Multitasking is really switching attention or focus repeatedly rather than attending to multiple tasks at once.  Although some kids insist they can settle down better with the tv on, research has shown that multitasking with screen media is linked to poorer performance.  Other kids will have all their books open at once and switch around from subject to subject.  Have them complete one subject at a time, with the hardest task first.

Above all, give the situation a reality check.  Both sleep and play are more important for mental well-being and development than homework, so make sure these take priority. 

 

Victoria L. Dunckley, M.D., is a board-certified child and adolescent psychiatrist specializing in treating children with complex diagnoses and/or treatment-resistant conditions.

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