Get Help! Stop Struggling with Homework Headaches

Homework HeadachesHomework seems to be an ever-present, pervasive part of our family life. If you have school-aged kids, it probably plays a prominent role in your family life also.

Reactions to homework at our house vary. Some days are filled with excitement about working on a project that is particularly interesting. But other days are met with resistance, obfuscation, and denial that homework even exists. Sometimes my boys sit right down and bang out their homework, and other days it’s almost a flat-out refusal to do anything.

Like it or not, homework is probably going to stick around for awhile. Yes, there is an interesting debate about the value of homework (here, here, and here), but it seems unlikely that schools will undergo a seismic shift away from homework anytime soon. So how do we help our kids develop good study (and homework) habits? And how do we minimize the frustration that occurs during homework time?

Let your child fail.

Seriously—let your kids experience setbacks; don’t rescue them all the time. Let them fail while the consequences are still relatively light. Not turning in a homework assignment in the third grade isn’t really that big of a deal. Not planning adequately for your college capstone project or the big analysis your boss requested could be career-altering.

I’m not suggesting you set your kids adrift and hope they make it to adulthood. Instead, provide some structure, but let them learn from the natural consequences of not always getting it right—especially while they are young! Failure creates opportunities for self-reflection, change, and triumph. Give your kids the chance to learn from their mistakes.

Address organization issues.

The biggest issue in managing homework is knowing (reliably) what homework has been assigned. So do whatever it takes. Buy an agenda designed for school kids (like these or these). If an agenda is useless, have your kid snap a picture of the assignments with a phone or iPad. Try using the phone’s calendar program or a homework-planning app like The Homework App or My Homework.

The next issue is managing all those papers—from notes, to assignments, to tests. Help your child find an easy way keep those papers. Make sure there is a place for incomplete homework that needs to be done, completed homework that needs to be turned in, and then everything else, like notes and graded assignments. We use a system by SOAR:

  • One big binder for everyday use.
  • Divider tabs with pockets—one per subject.
  • Homework goes in the front pocket of each tab (organized by subject).
  • Handouts without hole punches go in the back pocket of each tab (organized by subject).
  • Notes and returned papers go in the three-ring binder behind each tab (organized by subject).
  • The binder gets cleaned out completely at the end of each grading period. All papers go into an accordion folder.

Maximize focus, and minimize distractions.

Some of these ideas will probably seem like common sense, but you’d be surprised how many teenagers I’ve met who don’t use them:

  • Organize your child’s workspace. Make sure your kids have everything they need all in one place: a flat surface for writing, pens and pencils, a calculator, maybe a computer, math supplies like a ruler or compass, and paper.
  • Use headphones. Jamming out to the current, most favorite song may be distracting, but creating a soothing playlist for studying can help increase focus, and headphones reduce outside distractions. Plus, over time, using the same music will help put your child in the mood for studying.
  • Get rid of the phone. If your child has a phone, tell him/her to put it away and physically remove it from the work area. If that doesn’t work, at least have it put on Do Not Disturb.
  • Close extra browser windows. Those handy social media reminders when someone retweets you or comments on your Facebook page can be a momentum killer for teens.
  • Use a timer. Work for 30 minutes and then take a 15-minute break. Over time, the length of the working session can expand up to an hour.
  • Teach positive self-talk. Kids who have a running negative commentary in their heads about how they can’t do their homework or aren’t smart enough are much more easily distracted than kids who have positive self-talk. Teach your kids how to encourage themselves and how to combat the negative thoughts that may occupy their minds.

Address content mastery problems.

Math HomeworkIf your child truly doesn’t understand his/her schoolwork, get help. Talk with your child’s teacher. Take advantage of teacher hours before or after school for extra support. Help your older child form a study group. Hire a tutor. Check out Hippocampus or Khan Academy.

Homework headaches that are based in a content mastery issue need help quickly. Don’t let your child start thinking she is bad at math because she doesn’t get one math topic. Get her help so she can be successful and feel confident!

Manage motivation.

Addressing low motivation for homework may be the toughest task of all. It requires an everyday kind of consistency and a partnership with your child that is honestly a bit taxing.

  • First, figure out why your child is having motivation issues. Does he not understand the assignments or what is expected? Is she wiped out after school or just wanting to do something (anything!) else?
  • Then, make a plan with your child. Set a schedule and stick to it. Agree what has to get done and when.
  • Make sure your plan includes consequences and rewards (an extra 30 minutes of game time for homework that is fully complete, without argument or hassle, or something more progressive, like a weekend reward for a full week’s worth of positive performance).
  • Also build in choices for your child. Letting your child exert some control over his schedule can reduce the grumpiness that frequently accompanies homework hassles.
  • Revisit your agreement.

Teaching our children how to learn and be responsible for their own success is an enormously difficult task. Along the way, we all get bumped and bruised, but consistently helping your children discover how to maximize their own strengths and build new skills ends up being pretty rewarding as they grow into their own people. Remember that worries, setbacks, and fears are opportunities for your children to develop new coping skills and improve their frustration tolerance—all skills needed to be happy, healthy adults, which is what we all want for our kids.




Maggie is an entrepreneur and mother of two boys (Davis, age 10 & Patrick, age 9). She recently left her job in corporate healthcare strategy to open a family business (you can check out her blog at The Learning Lab). Her motherhood journey has included infertility, transracial adoption (Davis), a fortuitous pregnancy (Patrick), a child with mental health issues, managing serious pediatric asthma and parenting a profoundly gifted son. Maggie was born in Australia, but moved to Texas when she was a toddler. She met her husband, Rob, at Trinity University and after graduate school at the University of Michigan (Go Blue!), they returned to San Antonio, which has been home for almost 20 years.