Steps to help children do their homework independently

Cameron Lind has already done everything he could think of to avoid doing his homework; he’s gone to the washroom, he’s fed the rabbits, now he has no choice but to turn his attention to his five math questions.

He sits down at his desk and takes out his pens, then, he stares off into space.

“Cameron, your homework!” his father, Bill Lind, says from the kitchen where he’s making dinner.

“Oh yeah,” Cameron replies, trying again to focus on the task at hand.

“He’ll do one question, and if he’s not watched, you’ll turn around and he’s got a book in his hand,” Lind says, adding that while he’s glad Cameron likes to read, he doesn’t know what to do about the homework.

“It frustrates me… I get so ticked off. Every time I turn around he’s just…” Lind pauses and takes a deep breath. “It’s five simple questions. Get them done and then you can read, you can do anything you want.”

Cameron is 12. He has behavioural issues and has a hard time writing things down.

The scenario Lind describes doesn’t end in his household. Many parents find themselves in the same situation, nerves fried, patience gone.

“I have a daughter like that,” says Tim Pychyl, after hearing Linds’ situation.

Pychyl is a psychology professor at Carleton University in Ottawa and an expert on procrastination. He also has two children; a daughter, Laurel who is seven and a son, Alex, who is five.

“To Alex, learning comes really, really easy. But Laurel struggles. She’s much like me, I had lots of problems dealing with language,” Pychyl says, adding that Cameron’s behavior is quite normal.

Although Cameron’s behaviour may look like procrastination, it isn’t, Pychyl says. Procrastination is having the intention of doing something and then avoiding it or putting it off, he explains.

“In the case of these kids, they don’t even have the intention. Other people are trying to force their hand and saying, ‘No, you need to do this.’.And they’re complying because they have to be,” Pychyl adds.

Since the issue is not one of procrastination, but one of compliance, parents should try to make homework fun and more immediately rewarding for children, Pychyl advises. According to Pychyl, it’s human nature to do what’s fun and to shy away from activities that are not fun or difficult.

“I used to teach a lot of sports and some people had difficulty with things I thought were easy. And I thought, ‘Why would you want to quit? This is so much fun!’” Pychyl says. “They want to quit because they keep falling on their face! And for these young people learning is like that; why would they want to keep pursuing it when it’s not fun.”

Cameron doesn’t want to do his homework because he’s not had success doing it, Pychyl states, adding that in his own household he and his wife engage their children with homework more when they move away from the textbook and find a relevant application on the iPad.

“My daughter likes this yeti game on the iPad. At the end of the game, the yeti comes up and goes ‘Rsspp!’” Pychyl makes a raspberry noise and laughs. “Silly thing. But she just finds that so engaging and works hard to make that happen,” he continues to say that with the yeti game, Laurel learns the same concepts that she struggles with on paper.

Children want to do what makes them feel good in the moment even more than adults do, Pychyl explains, adding that children’s brains aren’t like adult brains. One of the ways they are very different is in prefrontal cortex development. The prefrontal cortex is the area of the brain that’s responsible for planning and staying on task, the exertion of self-control, and overriding impulses. It’s the last part of the brain to mature, and young people in particular have this challenge of exerting their self-control.

“Because willpower is like a muscle, we wear it out quite quickly. They can try at the beginning and soon they have no more self-control to exert,” Pychyl explains, adding that’s when most parents get frustrated.

And Lind is indeed frustrated. He knows Cameron understands the material from school, but Cameron just can’t write down what he knows.

“His writing is terrible,” Lind says. “What we did with French is; I had him tell me the words in English and French. Verbally he could say the words, he’d tell me what they were, back and forth, back and forth [from English to French].”

“That’s when I called the teacher and said, ‘Look, I know he knows his stuff,’ but the curriculum says that he needs to write it down,” Lind continues.

Lind and his wife have scribed for Cameron before to help him with homework, but don’t want to be his crutches. They are considering the use of Dragon Naturally Speaking, a software program that would allow Cameron to speak rather than write, but they have reservations.

However, Pychyl believes that the notion of a crutch is a misguided idea and that children should be given the tools they need to succeed.

“That crutch is everywhere around us and that’s okay,” Pychyl says. “You know, I don’t keep my schedule in my head. I put it in my smartphone… It’s called extended cognition.”

Even using pen and paper to figure out a complicated math problem can be considered a crutch because you aren’t doing the math in your head, Pychyl says. He continues to say that there’s no reason why children who have difficulty writing should not have the opportunity to speak their ideas instead.

“Then the intellectual work is in editing it. The true intellectual writing is after you put some ideas down. It’s about moving those ideas around and refining them,” he says.

Some people may think that’s spoon-feeding, but Pychyl thinks that’s okay and that sometimes spoon-feeding is what good teaching is.

“Cameron’s parents are obviously worried about him and worried about his future success,” Pychyl says, adding that they shouldn’t worry.

“I struggled in school. I can’t tell you how much I struggled. And they held me back, not from year to year, but in terms of language they always put me in the group with the slow readers, and I just couldn’t figure it out for the life of me. Now I have five degrees. I’m a professor and I can write quite clearly. I just think that we come into our own in our own way,” he says reassuringly.

Pychyl relates very much to his daughter and tries not to compare her to other children. But for some parents, it’s especially difficult because they don’t understand how difficult it is for our children.

“If Cameron is struggling with his homework like my daughter is, we just don’t understand that it’s taking her everything she’s got to do one question; she doesn’t want to do 10. That just took everything she had. And we want to say, ‘Oh you are just lazy,’ or ‘You are just not focused,’ or ‘You are procrastinating.’ It’s called fundamental attribution error. We label the person rather than the situation,” Pychyl says.

Using tools like Dragon is a big part of making homework easier to do. A designated homework time and place, preferably distraction free, also helps.

“You can modify the material if it’s too difficult. Depending on the age of the children, you can use colourful pictures to get the message across rather than words written on the paper,” says Mark Bettridge, who taught at West Bayfield Elementary School in Barrie for 18 years.

With his own two children, Bettridge would have homework time after school. The children would have a snack and then do homework with their parents.

“You can say, ‘Your favorite show is in 30 minutes, so let’s do homework now and then you can watch it,” Bettridge says, adding that rewards, like Smarties, computer time or other activities children enjoy are also effective ways to entice children to do their homework.

For many children homework is hard and unpleasant, but there are many tools and techniques that parents can use to help their children with homework. Young children need a lot of support and need parents to check in on them regularly, but as they grow older, they will need less and less help.

There’s an art to teaching too, Pychyl says, and that’s knowing when to let go.

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