Helping Kids Help Themselves with Homework

The 3rd grade teacher, Mrs. Sweeney*, held out the vocabulary assignment that Francie Baker’s mother had seen her daughter do two weeks before.

“I found it blowing across the playground,” Mrs. Sweeney said. “Francie said it must have fallen out of her pocket when she was upside down on the jungle gym. It’s one more of those things she never turns in.”

Once again, Susan Baker decided she’d have to do something about Francie’s homework. But this time, fortunately, she really meant it.

“Good,” I said, when Susan came to me asking for help with a plan. “It’s much easier to get teachers to work on this kind of problem with you in the lower grades. Later on, when she gets more homework, it’ll be too late.”

We worked out a plan, but I warned that the plan alone wasn’t enough. “Demanding something doesn’t make it so,” I said. “You may have to supervise her homework a hundred times before she can get assignments in on her own.”

Susan worked hard on this. She took the television out of Francie’s room and put in a desk and reading lamp.  She enforced a rule that there was no screen time—television, computers, video games—until she had seen each homework assignment completed and in Francie’s backpack in a special homework folder.

Susan met with Mrs. Sweeney, and together they agreed Mrs. Sweeney would do three things:
1. Check Francie’s assignment notebook at the end of the day, then watch Francie put the notebook in her backpack.
2. Leave a message the same day if an assignment was missing.
3. Inspect Francie’s desk and locker once a week, and give Francie time to clean them before she went to recess.

And lo and behold! Francie started getting her homework in. In the beginning, she whined, argued, wasted time, and got under the table with the dog. But within a few months, Francie had formed new habits. Her assignments were in and on time.

“Holding Francie to this has been tough,” her mom confessed. “I’ve had to be really organized to keep Francie organized. But it’s really paying off.”

Tips on Homework

  • Create a quiet place for your child to work, where the materials she needs are kept.
  • Make sure you know what your child’s assignments are and when they’re due. Many schools now post assignments on their website.
  • Create a separate homework folder and make sure completed assignments are in it and that the folder is placed in the backpack the night before.
  • Collaborate with your child’s teacher. Have the teacher agree to give you a heads-up the day something is missing, not two months later at a school conference.
  • Things with screens—whether it’s televisions, computers, or mobile phones—are to be used after homework, not before or during.
  • Pick your battles. Don’t compel a disorganized child to be structured about everything.

*Names in this story have been changed

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