Surviving Homework Struggles: A Compassionate Guide for Parents

Written by Dr Lucy Russell DClinPsyc CPsychol AFBPsS
Dr Lucy Russell Clinical Psychologist Founder of They Are The Future
Author: Dr Lucy Russell, Clinical Psychologist

You’re not the only parent to dread those regular homework struggles.

The sighs, the eye-rolling, the frustration or procrastination. Perhaps anxiety and tears.

It’s a scene replayed in many homes.

But take heart, and there are ways to transform homework struggles into positive and valuable experiences for both you and your child without a power struggle.

A dad helping his son with his homework. The boy is writing in something down.

How This Guide Will Transform Homework Struggles

In this guide, I’m zeroing in on individual struggles and long-term solutions.

My goal is to help you create a homework environment that reduces stress and strengthens your child’s sense of self.

The Hidden World of Homework Stress

What Your Kids Aren’t Saying

When your child scribbles “I hate maths” on her worksheet, it might not be the subject she’s rejecting.

It could be the fear of not being ‘good enough’ that’s the real issue.

Don’t dismiss these emotional clues. Probe gently, asking something like, “What’s the most challenging part of these math problems for you?”

In general, if your child makes sweeping generalizations about specific subjects or their abilities, try to dig a little deeper.

Get specific.

What is it they find difficult or daunting, or lack confidence in?

The Emotional Rollercoaster of Homework Struggles for Parents

Let’s face it; your emotions are in the mix too.

Whether it’s concern, frustration, or even your own difficult memories of school, your emotional state can influence the homework atmosphere.

It’s important to be aware of this. This means you can respond accordingly.

For example, if you feel “triggered” by spelling tests, make sure you choose a day or time to support your child with this work when you are in a positive state of mind.

The Many Faces of Homework Struggles

Reluctance to Start: Procrastination or Something More?

If your child can recite historical facts like a pro but turns ghostly pale at the thought of English homework, there might be more going on than mere subject preference.

Some brains (particularly neurodivergent brains) struggle to shift between tasks, and in particular this can mean a child struggles getting started with a task.

The bigger the task, the more overwhelming it can feel. Open-ended tasks like essays or creative writing can be particular culprits.

The secret?

Help your child break it down.

If they are writing a story, think of a title together and then take a break. Then, spend time planning the storyline and take another break. Next, write the introductory paragraph.

And so on.

A girl with her school books and laptop out except she is looking at her phone instead.

“I Just Can’t Do It”: Understanding Blockages

When a child claims, “I can’t do it,” often what they’re really saying is, “I’m scared of failing.”

Instead of demanding they get on with it, try asking, “What’s holding you back from giving it a go?”

It’s vital to understand the blockage so that you can make an effective plan.

Perhaps they are worried about getting it wrong.

Perhaps they can’t get motivated because they have ADHD and find the task boring.

Or perhaps they just feel overwhelmed and need extra help with the planning stages.

All of these blockages require an understanding and empathetic response, additional practical support, and a step-by-step, methodical approach to getting the task done.

Identifying the Real Issues With Homework Struggles

Not All Homework Struggles Are the Same

Remember, each child is unique, so a one-size-fits-all solution is unlikely to cut it.

From learning styles to emotional triggers, identifying the specifics will inform your action plan.

Homework Struggles and Wider Social Emotional Issues

Your child’s difficulties with homework might not exist in a vacuum.

Could social issues at school, issues with a specific teacher, or even undiagnosed learning challenges be contributing?

Think of yourself as a detective.

Take time to observe, listen and make notes until you have uncovered the full picture.


Sparking Independent Learning

Fueling Passion Projects as an Antidote to Homework Struggles

Engaging in a passion project can boost your child’s motivation.

When kids work on something they love, they’re more willing to learn and it builds their confidence as learners. This enthusiasm often spills over into their academic tasks, including homework.

For instance, a project on endangered animals isn’t just fun for a child who loves the natural world. It helps with skills like research, planning, and presentation. These are abilities they can then apply to schoolwork. They see the value in acquiring knowledge and become proactive learners.

Working on a passion project together can also improve parent-child relations. You get to understand your child’s interests better, making homework time more cooperative.

Beyond Homework: Encouraging a Love for Learning

Homework is important, but it’s just one aspect of education. Cultivating a love for learning goes beyond the classroom.

Everyday activities can be teaching moments. Whether it’s cooking dinner or assembling a bookshelf, you can spark curiosity. Show your child how math and science are part of these tasks.

Trips to museums or nature walks can enrich their knowledge. These outings make learning a fun, family activity.

Reading together can also be powerful. Choose topics your child is interested in. This builds a habit of seeking knowledge for pleasure, not just for grades.

The aim is to show learning as a lifelong journey. This perspective can transform how your child views homework and school.

Your attitude toward learning as an adult will impact your child heavily.

Be curious, ask questions, and explore. You’ll be laying the foundation for a lifetime of learning.

A mum and her son doing a science project in his bedroom involving a cup and food dyes.

The Homework Struggles Parental Toolkit

The Power of the Right Questions

When you’re supporting your child through homework issues, asking the right questions is transformative. Skillful questions guide your child toward finding their own answers, growing essential problem-solving skills.

When faced with homework challenges, steer away from giving direct solutions. Queries like, “What’s the first step?” help your child think critically.

By asking questions, you also encourage reflective thinking. It opens up dialogue about their reasoning and approach, building communication skills.

For example, if your older child is stuck on a history question, you could ask, “What context do you have?” This nudges them to examine facts and synthesize information.

Questions like, “How would you approach this differently?” can help them learn from mistakes. It cultivates resilience and a growth mindset.

Positive Reinforcement: What Works

Positive reinforcement plays an important role in shaping your child’s attitude toward learning. The key is to build intrinsic motivation while being mindful of the role that external rewards play.

Specific and genuine praise, like “You worked hard on that problem,” helps cultivate internal motivation.

This type of reinforcement focuses on effort, and aims to build a love for the learning process itself.

External rewards, such as treats or stickers, can be useful but come with caveats.

While they provide immediate motivation, reliance on them can make children dependent on external validation and still not feel internally motivated to learn. This could be problematic as they grow older, especially in early adulthood when rewards will be less frequent.

To strike a balance, consider using intermittent rewards. These are given unpredictably and can help sustain interest without creating dependency.

In the long run, the goal is to shift the focus from external rewards to intrinsic motivation. This encourages a genuine love for learning, benefiting not just academic performance but also lifelong personal growth.

Preventing Homework Struggles: Timings of Homework Sessions

The timing of homework sessions is crucial for preventing struggles. Setting a specific time for school work can enhance focus and productivity.

Younger children often benefit from completing assignments soon after school, when information is still fresh. (But make sure they have had at least 30-60 minutes of free time to decompress from school.) Waiting until the end of the day can make it challenging for them to concentrate, affecting the quality of their work.

For older kids and teenagers, it’s equally important not to leave study time for late at night. Cognitive functions decline as we tire, making late hours suboptimal for absorbing new information.

The most important thing is to find a consistent time that works best for your child. This helps them internalize a routine, making it easier to complete assignments and engage in meaningful study time.

Strategies for Different Age Groups

Primary School Homework Struggles: Getting the Basic Right

Consistency is key when dealing with primary school homework battles. Young children especially benefit from a structured routine.

Making homework a regular, yet brief, part of their day can work wonders. Aim for a consistent time slot, turning it into a habit as natural as brushing teeth.

Creating a designated workspace can also be beneficial. It sets the scene for focused work, minimizing distractions and disruptions.

Introduce short breaks to keep them engaged. Children’s attention spans are limited, so a five-minute break can refresh and reset their focus. Movement breaks are particularly important.

The goal isn’t just to complete homework. It’s to instill good study habits and a positive attitude toward learning, laying the groundwork for future academic success.

High School Homework Struggles: The Juggling Act

Teenagers have a more complex world to navigate. They juggle academic responsibilities alongside social and extra-curricular commitments and many have a hard time coping.

A robust organizational system is crucial.

Whether it’s a physical planner or a digital calendar, having a centralized place for tracking assignments and activities helps them manage their time effectively. They make getting started easier for the brain, so that not too much time is spent procrastinating.

Color-coding subjects or activities can assist with building organizational skills. It provides a quick, visual way to gauge their commitments and deadlines.

Time-management apps or techniques can also aid in prioritizing homework assignments. Methods like the Pomodoro Technique can make homework more manageable and less daunting.

Encourage regular check-ins on their calendar. This keeps them accountable and helps prevent last-minute stress.

The aim is to empower your teen with skills they’ll carry into adulthood.

Mastery over their homework schedules this school year sets the stage for future personal and professional success.

A teenage girl and her cat are looking at a laptop screen and the girl is writing in a planner.

Working in Partnership with the School

Reaching out to Teachers

If you have concerns, don’t hesitate to contact your child’s teacher.

Timing and approach matter.

Parent-teacher conferences or scheduled face to face meetings are the best avenues. In-person communication is the best way to develop a positive relationship built on mutual understanding.

Open, respectful communication sets the stage for a collaborative relationship. Be prepared with specific questions or examples to discuss, making the conversation more productive.

Homework Struggles: Effective Strategies for Parent-Teacher Partnerships

Consistency between home and school is crucial for your child’s success. When you and the school send unified messages, it reinforces expectations and guidelines.

Regular communication with the teacher helps maintain this consistency.

Consider periodic check-ins or updates to discuss progress and potential areas for improvement.

When both parties are aligned, it creates a supportive environment. This makes it easier for your child to adapt, thrive, and achieve academic success.

A mum helping her young daughter write out the alphabet.

The Homework Struggles Balancing Act: Pushing and Holding Back

When It’s Okay to Push

Education is important, but there’s a fine line between encouragement and undue pressure. Being supportive is about motivating your child while respecting their limits.

Positive reinforcement and setting achievable goals can make the learning process more enjoyable. This strikes a balance between maintaining academic focus and preserving well-being

If Your Child Refuses To Do Homework

When your child outright refuses to do homework, it’s a clear signal to pause and evaluate.

Resistance stems from underlying issues, be it academic challenges, stress, or a lack of interest.

Instead of immediate consequences, open a non-judgmental dialogue. Ask questions like, “What’s making this hard for you?” or “How can we make this better?” This makes your child feel heard and supported.

If your child completely refuses to do homework, collaboration with the school is crucial to take the pressure off you and your child and ensure a close partnership.

Open dialogue with teachers can lead to tailored solutions, such as a temporary reduction or removal of homework. This creates a supportive network around your child, addressing the issue from multiple angles and setting the stage for a more positive relationship with schoolwork.

The Warning Signs: Your Child’s Mental Health Comes First

If you notice signs of stress, anxiety, or depression linked to homework struggles, it’s essential to pay close attention.

Sometimes the best thing to do is to take a step back. Evaluate the workload and its impact on your child’s mental health. Too much homework is counterproductive in every way.

If concerns persist, consider seeking professional advice.

Homework Struggles: Closing Thoughts

The Never-Ending Journey

Just like parenting, adapting to the changing demands of homework is an ever-evolving journey

You will need to continue to learn, adapt, and grow alongside your child.

You’re now well-armed with strategies and insights to transform the homework experience from a tug-of-war to a harmonious, enriching activity for both you and your child.

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Dr Lucy Russell is a UK clinical psychologist who works with children and families. Her work involves both therapeutic support and autism assessments. She is the Clinical Director of Everlief Child Psychology, and also worked in the National Health Service for many years.

In 2019 Lucy launched They Are The Future, a support website for parents of school-aged children. Through TATF Lucy is passionate about giving practical, manageable strategies to parents and children who may otherwise struggle to find the support they need. Lucy is a mum to two teenage children. She lives in Buckinghamshire with her husband, children, rescue dog and three rescue cats. She enjoys caravanning and outdoor living, singing and musical theatre.

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