Published on 12 September 2022

    If homework battles between you and your child are getting out of hand, try these tips from our psychologist.

    When school reopens after the holidays, some kids find it challenging to do homework. Getting back into a school routine can be difficult, but re-establishing a routine doesn’t mean resorting to a battle of wills. In fact, a proactive and progressive approach is more likely to be successful and easier on everyone at home. 

    So, how can parents help? You can take on an empathetic and validating approach by inviting your child to solve the problem at hand with you. This method is known as collaborative problem solving, and shows your children that you are on their side and understand their challenges, while still maintaining your position as an authoritative figure in their lives. Here’s how to go about this.

    Steps for engaging your child

    The goal is to minimise the power struggle between parent and child – this can be done by providing children with choices that may help them more willingly engage in homework. Ms Vanessa Heng, Psychologist, Division of Paediatric Psychological Services at Khoo Teck Puat - National University Children’s Medical Institute (KTP-NUCMI) at the National University Hospital (NUH), breaks down some steps you can follow:

    Step One: Check in with your child and identify reasons for refusal

    You may pose your concern as a reflective observation. For example, you can say, “I notice that it has been challenging for you to get started on your homework. What’s up?”

    Step Two: Listen to what your child says and validate their difficulties

    Validation does not mean you are condoning your child’s behaviour. Rather, it shows that you understand where they are coming from. 

    For example, if your child says, “I want to play with the iPad. I do homework all the time”, you may say, “It sounds like using the iPad is more fun than doing your homework because you do homework a lot.”

    Paraphrasing and mirroring what your child has shared about their difficulties will be helpful for children to recognise their thoughts and to hear that their parents understand their thinking. 

    Step Three: State your concern with not completing their homework

    An example of stating your concern can go like this: “My concern is that if you do not complete your homework now, you will have to stay up late to do it and you will feel tired tomorrow.” 

    Another possibility is: “My concern is that if you do not learn now, you may not understand what your teacher is teaching.”

    Genuine curiosity and shared concerns of the issue at hand can help orientate your child towards collaborative problem-solving.

    Step Four: Invite your child to collaborate on solving the issue at hand

    It’s important to recognise that some compromise is required on your end as well as your child’s. For instance, you may set the boundary that they need to complete their homework, but they may choose to break the work up into manageable parts with required breaks in between. This solution allows time for fun as well as time to finish learning. 

    Is your child overwhelmed?

    With busy schedules piled up with homework, tuition, and parents’ assessments, children can also become extremely overwhelmed. It is useful to set up a visual timetable with homework split into manageable blocks of work, and to break up extended periods of work to optimise attention. 

    Ms Heng explained that sporadic breaks in between work time allow children to see and predict how much work they can do and when they are able to relax, which can be motivating. As adults, we too have an internal timetable that lets us know when we can take breaks; we look forward to lunch time, end of work, weekends, and holidays. For children who are generally not able to sustain their motivation for long, a visual reminder of their schedule with lots of happy breaks can help them sustain a regular routine. 

    Creating timetables

    Ms Heng’s recommendation: 

    For 7-10 year olds, you should take the lead and create a visual timetable together with them, adding pictures and decorating together. Give them an appropriate structure but allow them to make small choices such as where to place breaks. 

    For 11-12 year olds, have them create their own timetable. Provide reasonable boundaries for them and then allow them to manage their time. For example, stipulate that their homework needs to be completed within the day before a specific time and let them choose the number of breaks so long as the tasks on hand are completed.

    Be realistic about how much work is achievable for your child in a day, taking into account what their school would have already provided. 

    Conducive space

    Identifying a space that is conducive for your child to complete homework is also crucial. This can still be done even if space and resources are limited. Physically, for example, this can look like putting up a makeshift boundary at the dining table or corner of the house to block out distractions such as the television and toys. 

    You can also use a beeping audio timer to encourage self-monitoring – for instance, setting a timed reminder every 20 minutes to prompt your child to check on their progress. This self-monitoring can be paired with a visual check list of their work. 

    Children and mental health issues

    There could be many reasons for why a child continually refuses to do homework. Sometimes, it’s worth checking in on your child’s mental health. According to Ms Heng, it is possible that constant refusal to engage in tasks could be a behavioural manifestation of underlying issues, such as depression, anxiety, inattention or hyperactivity, and/or learning disorders such as dyslexia and dyscalculia. 

    There is no minimum age for someone to have depressive or anxiety symptoms. According to Ms Heng, children who are depressed typically not only refuse homework, but also lose interest in other hobbies or tasks as well. 

    Signs to look out for are: 

    • Having continuous feelings of sadness, anger, and hopelessness 

    • Using self-deprecating labels/descriptions (“I am never good at anything”, “Everyone doesn’t like me”) 

    • Losing appetite, or eating excessively

    • Sleeping too much or having difficulties sleeping 

    • Fatigue or loss of energy 

    • Having difficulty concentrating 

    • Not wanting to play with their friends or be around others

    Children who are feeling anxious typically also demonstrate a mixture of the following symptoms: 

    • Physical ailments (e.g., stomachache, headaches, nausea) 

    • Worrying about not getting things correct 

    • Avoiding work, presenting, or being quieter in class 

    • Having behaviour outbursts once they reach home 

    • Irritable, angry, or frequently cries 

    • Fidgety, tensed, or may use the toilet frequently 

    • May be clingy to closest family member 

    If your child displays any of the above symptoms, it’s worth checking in with your child’s school and contacting your paediatrician for a consultation. 

    Other needs: Companionship

    Sometimes, children do not like homework because they are unable to work through the questions themselves and they lose interest. Companionship and spending time doing work with your child tells them that you value time with them which can be motivating. Be mindful, however, to not come across as supervising or spying on them. Rather, let them know that you are there for them if they have questions. 

    For 7-9 year olds, it can be beneficial if parents sit and do the work with their children, particularly if you are working from home. Make yourself available to help them with their questions when they come to you. You can compromise by setting specific timings so that you have a structure too.

    For 10-12 year olds, have them note down the questions they require help with and provide a time for them to approach you for help. You may also gently offer help when you notice that they are stuck. You can say, “You have been thinking really hard on this question. Would you like some help with this?”

    Ultimately, every parent wants to help their child maximise their potential. It is important to understand what challenges there are to work through together and what conditions will espouse the outcomes that are helpful for your child. 

    In consultation with Ms Vanessa Heng, Psychologist, Division of Paediatric Psychological Services, KTP-NUCMI, NUH

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