Your homework questions answered

Hannah Dickson spends an hour with Diane Levy

Once children start school, homework becomes part of the family routine. Diane Levy answers the questions parents often ask as they navigate the potentially tricky territory of spelling lists, maths worksheets and science projects.

My child has been at school all day, are there any benefits to doing further work at home?

Theories keep changing as to the educational benefits of doing homework. But there are positive benefits for a moderate amount of homework. It reinforces the learning that has been done during the day. The basics of maths and learning to read require a degree of practise that can’t always be done during school hours.

Homework encourages self-discipline, time management, and taking responsibility for yourself – these are all skills that can only be taught by ‘doing’. Homework and projects are also a good chance for parents and children to spend time together – connecting after a busy day, sharing and developing new and common interests, getting closer – and arguing. Yes, it can be a fraught time! But remember, supervising homework is part of parenting and, as with most aspects of parenting, it gives the opportunity for both support and boundaries, closeness and aggravation.

When is the best time to do homework – straight after school or do children need a break first?

If you’re lucky enough to have a child who loves to do their homework straight after school to get it out of the way (there are a few), then by all means let them do that. Other children will need a transition between home and school. They’re usually pretty hungry by the time they get through the door, so feed and water them well. Some parents have the idea that if they have too much afternoon tea they won’t eat their dinner, but a lot of kids don’t eat a lot of lunch at school because they are so busy, so they need a big, healthy afternoon tea. You won’t get much homework out of a ‘hangry’ child.

Another question that’s worth asking is, “Right now, what is the emotional age of your child?” School can take a lot out of our children and we need to be mindful of the effects of a tough day. You may have said goodbye to an eight year old that morning, but it may have been a two year old in an eight year old’s body who came home. You’ll need to nurture them back into an eight year old before they can do any homework.

Think about what they need to get back up to their chronological age. Do they need space? Do they need time blobbing out or time playing outside? They may need to be allowed to have a bit of a grizzle about their day. Some parents worry that if they talk about the negative school stuff, children will be negative about homework. My take is that if you have negative stuff going on in your brain you need to get it out to an empathetic ear. Let’s get their feelings settled down first so that their brains can begin to function.

We bought a flash new desk and office chair, but can’t get our daughter to stay in her room to do her homework. What can we do to persuade her?

It’s common to hear the advice that children should be given a special, quiet space to do their homework – preferably a desk in their bedroom. This works well for some children and dreadfully for others. Some children work best with noise in the background and the whole family humming around. Others need a quiet space. Not everyone works well at a table – some work better lying on the floor. I think we should make allowances for the kind of children we have.

How can we get our children motivated to do their homework?

Ideally, homework is about mastery rather than seeking a reward. Fuel them with encouragement, rather than offering bribes for completion. “Wow, you nailed it!” and, “This is hard, let’s try again, you can do it!” Give them the support they need, when they need it. (Just a heads up, if they are working hard on writing and ask how to spell a word, that’s the time to tell them how to spell it, not the time to tell them to look it up in the dictionary!).

Think about how you model motivation. Consider turning your mobile phone off during homework time – children don’t do well when their parents are distracted.

If the work looks very different to what homework was like when you were at school (we’re talking maths in particular here), make an appointment to go over some of the basics with the teacher. Most will be very happy to give you a catch-up lesson so you can help your child. It’s a much better alternative to your child seeing you frustrated and hearing any negative comments that may follow.

We seem to start off okay, but homework sessions often seem to end in shouting, and straight-out refusals to finish. How can we change this?

There comes a point where it is absolutely fine to say, “This isn’t working, we need a break.” If a homework session is turning into a nightmare, it’s not worth the relationship damage to keep pushing the limits of both parent and child. Take a 10 minute break and go and kick a ball around outside or do something completely different. For the completely uncooperative child, a 10 minute break might mean they spend the time in their bedroom.

The main question to ask is, “Is this a support issue or a boundary issue?” The chances are you have been told the homework is ‘dumb’ or ‘boring’. That usually means it is too hard (not always, but often). If your child is refusing the homework you need to work out if it is too much, too hard – or if they simply don’t feel like doing it. In all of those scenarios you can enlist the help of the teacher. If it’s too hard, it’s good for the teacher to know, but if there’s a compliance issue it’s good to let the natural consequences play out. “You can stop now, but I will need to let the teacher know that you didn’t feel like finishing.”

Homework is rather like the rest of parenting. Your job is to provide appropriate rest, refreshment, support, encouragement and boundaries. Their job is to do the actual work of learning and practising.