Does your child struggle with homework? Kids who struggle with learning can find homework frustrating and exhausting (as in “tears, excuses, and tantrums” kind of frustrating and exhausting). And of course it only makes things worse when, for struggling students, assignments meant to take twenty minutes can take up to several hours.
Whether you and your child tackle homework immediately after school or a couple hours before bedtime, this kind of recurring routine is exhausting for kids and exhausting for parents, too.
How can you improve the daily homework experience for you and your child? Try following these tips:
- Prepare mentally. Before diving in with your child, take a few minutes to mentally prepare. Decide ahead of time what kind of attitude you’re going to embrace, and how you’re going to respond if things get tense or difficult.
- Do a quick self-check. Before helping your child with his or her homework, take a quick self-check. Are you tired? Hungry? Frustrated about something that happened earlier in your day? If so, take a few minutes to eat a snack, catch a power nap, or do whatever you need to do to decompress. Make sure you are not bringing other frustrations or vulnerabilities into your time with your child. Homework can be challenging enough without someone bringing unrelated grumpiness to the table.
- Practice mindfulness. If you feel your blood pressure start to rise while helping your child with his or her homework, try this. Turn your attention away from whatever it is your child is doing that is so frustrating, and pay attention instead to what is happening in your emotions and in your body. Observe yourself almost as if you were a detached third party. How are you feeling? Frustrated? Powerless? Defensive? What’s going on in your body? Are you clenching your teeth? Do you feel tension in your hands? Is your stomach in knots? This kind of mindfulness often diffuses the intensity of what you are experiencing and puts you in greater control. What’s particularly cool is that studies show this kind of mindfulness in educational settings reduces teacher burnout, increases compassion, and improves performance in the classroom. Why not reap the same benefits at home?
Prep your environment
- Have what you need on hand. Pencils, paper, scissors, poster board, markers, calculator… you know the list. When you have study supplies readily at hand, it can reduce tension. Homework takes a significant time commitment as it is. Don’t add to that time by having to spend an hour looking for the slide rule, or having to drop everything and run to the store for poster board.
- Practice familiar cues. Some kids thrive on routine, and you can create fun habits that can help your child’s brain take familiar paths to settling down and being productive. One writer explained that anytime he sat down to write, he wore the exact same ball cap. Before long, his brain began associating that ball cap with focused writing, and he found himself able to transition quicker into a state of productivity when wearing it. How about a Homework Hat? Or Lucky Math Pencil? What if you had your child write a list of affirmations on an index card and read them aloud every day before tackling homework assignments? Affirmations might include, “I can be focused when I need to be.” “I can do this.” “I’m ready to learn.” “I can do more than I think I can do.”
- Try a new setting. Routine is good, but sometimes it can also help to shake things up a bit, either as a reward for a productive week, or to see if your child actually studies better in a different setting. How about a local coffee shop? A picnic table beneath a backyard tree? Dad’s favorite leather chair? A blanket tent in the living room?
Prep your child
- Exercise physically before studying. Exercise is good for the body and it’s good for the brain, too. Instead of insisting that your child start his or her homework the moment after walking in the front door, see what happens if you insist he or she plays outside for an hour first. Studies show that physical exercise improves thinking and concentration, in the long run and immediately as well. In one study, for example, researchers discovered that children who walked or bicycled to school had better concentration for four hours longer than kids whose mothers drove them to school. For that matter, other studies using brain scans show that exercising before an exam has benefits, too.
- Eat brain-healthy snacks. What are brain-healthy foods? Think good fats, lean protein, and complex carbs. Good fats can be found in omega-3 oils from fish, nuts, seeds, and dark leafy greens. Lean protein can be found in raw almonds, baked chicken, and organic plain yogurt with fresh fruit. Complex carbs can be found in whole grain tortillas, brown rice, and sweet potatoes. How important are healthy snacks for your homework-wrestling kid? Let’s talk about healthy fats for a moment, shall we? The difference between a diet of healthy, unsaturated fats and a diet of unhealthy, saturated fats is huge. In fact, in one study, rats on a diet filled with unhealthy fats developed learning difficulties. Dr. Philippa Norman, writing about that study, explained that “a child eating mostly processed cakes and crackers, French fries and fried meats loaded with trans and saturated fats, will build a different brain than a child who is eating broiled fish, nut butter, salad dressings made with olive or safflower oil, eggs and lean meats.”
- Stay hydrated. There is simply no way to overstate the importance of getting enough water. Did you know that dehydration impairs focus and memory, causes brain fatigue and brain fog, and is linked with headaches, sleep issues, anger, and depression? And because water gives the brain the electrical energy it needs to function, it doesn’t take a huge water deficit to create problems.
- Study in productive bursts. No dawdling allowed. Guestimate how long your child can work productively. If it’s ten minutes? Great. Forty minutes? Even better. Whatever the number, set a kitchen time for that length of time. When the timer goes off, take a ten minute break. Do jumping jacks. Visit the bathroom. Get a snack. Do the Hokey Pokey. Shoot some hoops. Now set the time for another block of study time. Over the coming days and weeks, gradually increase the block of time for productive study. What you are doing is helping your child develop the habit of being present and productive, even for short bursts of time. If you don’t teach your child to be intentional about being productive, it’s all too easy for him or her to develop other habits, like wriggling in the chair, pretending to look busy, procrastinating, complaining, dawdling. By allowing your child to sit at the table and practice wasting time, he or she is reinforcing poor habits. Far better to practice being mentally present and productive, even if it is for short bursts of time that can gradually be lengthened.