An after-school routine to help kids and parents beat homework stress

How can young kids and parents tackle after school assignments without arguments or tears? Start here.
Image: Closeup shot of a young man writing on a note pad
If your child has a long-term project, help your child learn the benefits of breaking out responsibilities over several days or weeks.PeopleImages / Getty Images
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By Nicole Spector

Back to school can be a difficult transition for many families, but even more challenging for some is the return to homework — for both kids and parents.

A new survey from Office Depot finds that nearly 25 percent of parents think their children are given more homework than they can handle, while four in five parents said they have struggled to understand their kids’ homework. Additionally, the survey found that nearly 50 percent of parents would opt their child out of receiving homework in at least one subject area, while one in three fessed up to having finished their child’s homework for them.

“We were surprised to find that nearly one in three parents admitted to completing their child’s homework for them at least once,” says Natalie Malaszenko, SVP, eCommerce for Office Depot. “We can only speculate, but parents might feel compelled to complete their child’s homework to help minimize their child's stress: 50 percent of parents reported their child has cried due to homework stress. Minimizing arguments could also be a factor since nearly 40 percent of parents argue with their child about homework at least once a week.”

Though some schools are banning homework, partly in response to growing research around the potential harm in overloading children, homework is still the law of the land for most school-aged children.

How can young kids and parents tackle after school assignments without any arguments or meltdowns? We spoke with a number of experts to build an optimal routine for getting homework done.

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Make it predictable

Having a routine around homework is half the battle, suggests Joanne Ketch, a psychotherapist who has also served as an assistant principal and school counselor at a college prep private school in Texas.

“Make it predictable, preferably in the same place and at the same time each day,” says Ketch. “This routine trains the brain to prepare for homework and study, and the brain will begin to anticipate the activity and gather and prepare itself to be in the best mode for study.”

Emily Denbow Morrison, a high school English teacher adds that “when we make doing homework less of a decision and more of a natural habit for kids, they are far less likely to put it off.”

It’s been a long time since most of us revisited algebra, geometry, or the fall of ancient Rome, and even if it hasn't been that long, who says we understood it the first time?

Emily Denbow Morrison

Set up an organized, distraction-free space

An environment conducive to your child’s productivity is key. Denise L. Merchant, a former special education director and founder of Seeds of Advocacy, an education consulting firm, suggests that parents secure “quiet, clear from distraction space”.

“Make sure that there are appropriate utensils for the child: rulers, paper, erasers and pencils and whatever other instruments may be required,” says Merchant, adding that parents should also consider lighting, temperature and noise.

Whether it’s a desk in an office or in the living room, the same principles apply: “Make sure the surfaces are clean and there is a spot to place a notebook, laptop or whatever is necessary to accomplish the work,” says Rachel Rosenthal, owner of Rachel and Company, a professional organizing firm. “If the work is being done on the kitchen table, create a system that is easily transportable when dinner needs to be served.”

Take five for mindfulness

Before embarking on homework, Susan Crooks, a seventh-grade English language arts teacher at South Carolina Connections Academy recommends taking a few moments to relax and refocus.

“What if parents began a homework session with a five-minute mindfulness practice?” she asks. “Even taking three minutes to settle the mind and breathe in and out can really help set the tone to begin.”

Map out a homework schedule on paper

“I tell parents to first sit down with their child and map out a homework schedule or an agenda on paper,” says Jennifer Hovey, owner of Huntington Learning Center in East Boise, Idaho. “Mapping out all the assignments and projects help students visually see what needs to be done and will naturally relieve anxiety. The assignments that are due soon are higher priority than the projects that are due further down the road. Tackling those high priority assignments will bring momentum and confidence in being able to tackle the assignments that are due later.”

Putting this schedule on a paper planner and not a digital device is key.

“Paper planners are crucial,” says Leighanne Scheuermann, a reading and learning specialist in Texas. “We know that physically writing down assignments and goals makes us all much more likely to keep track of them.”

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Put small pieces together to add up to bigger projects

“Projects that have longer due dates and more components, like a book project for younger students or science experiments or research papers when your child gets older, can sometimes be overwhelming,” says Emily Levitt, VP of education at Sylvan Learning. “Break the projects into smaller pieces, showing your child the benefits of breaking out responsibilities over several days or weeks. The projects will be more manageable and also likely lead to higher grades — as there will be more time to review the work and make important adjustments.”

Should they tackle the easiest or toughest task first? It depends

As adults, we might find that tackling our most dreaded tasks first can help us conquer all the to-dos on our list and enhance our productivity, and this same approach can work with kids.

“Remember that we have a limited resource of time, attention, and energy. It's human nature to put off tasks we do not wish to do, and in organizing homework order, students often put off doing the task they least enjoy, but from a productivity standpoint, doing that task first conserves and manages energy best,” says Ketch. “The student will have a better chance of having sufficient energy to handle the subject matter that comes easier to them whereas if they put off the harder to them subjects (a natural reaction when under stress), they will have less energy to handle the toughest subjects and that increases stress.”

But Levitt actually recommends the reverse.

“Encourage your child to start with an assignment that seems easy,” says Levitt. “The feeling of accomplishment and confidence that results from getting one thing out of the way helps the homework session stay positive. Then, moving on to more complex work will be easier.”

It really depends on your child and their preferences, so your best bet is to try it both ways and see which works better.

Give your kid a brain-fueling snack

“Provide a healthy snack before homework or study time,” says Amanda Reineck, MSW, clinical utilization manager for Embrace Families. “Focus on brain-fueling options like a smoothie, hummus and vegetables, nuts and whole grains.”

New grade, new challenges? Talk it out and ask these 7 questions

It’s the start of a new school year, making now an ideal time to “sit down with your child to set expectations and prep [them] for what’s coming,” says Levitt.

You might also want to ask your young child a set of questions when they first sit down to embark on homework.

Dr. Gwendolyn Bass, the director of teacher leadership programs at the professional and graduate education arm of Mount Holyoke College, recommends asking the following:

  1. Before we even start the homework, tell me: how can I help you?
  2. Tell me what you did with this content/activity/book in school today?
  3. Do you like this problem-solving method/book/project? If not, what are you doing in school that you do enjoy?
  4. This looks different from what you brought home yesterday. Sometimes when someone gives me something new, I am afraid I won't be able to do it. Is that something you're feeling?
  5. What do you think the teacher wants you to get out of this assignment? How can you work with your teacher to make sure that you understand the homework?
  6. Just do as much as you can, and then let's make a list of questions you have about this assignment and you can bring them in to your teacher tomorrow. What are some of your questions?
  7. What can we do together when you're done with the homework?

Take breaks every 20 to 50 minutes

“Studies consistently show that studying in 20- to 50-minute segments is more beneficial than longer segments,” says Ketch. “Break briefly with something unlikely to distract in a way that will present a barrier. For example, walk a dog instead of check out Snapchat.”

Take note of the subjects/tasks your child struggled with and report to the teacher

“Write down the types of homework that really set your child into a tither,” says Merchant. “Share this information with your child’s teacher. There may be learning differences that warrant further discussions in order to get better, individualized support.”

If your child has an IEP (Individualized Education Plan) or a 504 Accommodation Plan, Merchant recommends making sure your child’s teacher has implemented it appropriately. “If so, maybe it needs to be updated based on more current observations you will share with the teachers,” says Merchant.

Guide them to solutions, but don’t problem solve for them

“As a parent, it is natural to want to help your student when you notice them struggling,” says Dr. Kat Cohen, founder of IvyWise. “Instead of taking over, encourage independent work habits as early as possible. If your child comes to you with a question about their homework, help guide them towards potential solutions instead of just feeding them then answer. This could be as simple as working with them to find the information in a textbook or handout that answers their question or working through a challenging equation step-by-step. Be sure to set clear homework boundaries: the assignments are your student’s, not your, and they need to take ownership of that as early as possible.”

Levitt notes that “One of the most important things parents can do for their child is give them the space they need to grow, and to give them a break when they need it so that their minds are open to learning.”

To ensure that you’re giving your child enough space, ease up on constantly checking that they finished their homework as they get older.

“Gradually take off the training wheels and give your child more independence,” says Levitt. “Stop checking on homework completion, especially as they approach the end of middle school.”

Be your child’s strongest advocate and line up resources that can help

Though this story is directed at parents who are usually helping their kids with their homework, please know that if you’re a parent who isn’t available during homework time, there’s no shame in that. The most important thing — and this goes for the parents who can be around every evening, too — is as Reineck says, “to be your child’s strongest advocate.”

This means compiling resources you can tap should your kid show signs of academic struggle.

“Who else among the family connections could be helpful for certain subject matters?” says Reineck. Build that support system and reach out to your kids teacher and/or the school counselor if needed.

Additionally, if you’re struggling with your child’s homework, cut yourself some slack. This stuff is hard!

“It’s been a long time since most of us revisited algebra, geometry, or the fall of ancient Rome, and even if it hasn't been that long, who says we understood it the first time?” Morrison reasons. “When children need more than parental motivation to get their homework done, parents can feel like it's their responsibility to reteach themselves the subjects their child is struggling with, [but] this isn't realistic. How can we tutor them in something we don't understand? We can't. But we can get in touch with their teachers, let them know our child is having a hard time, and ask who may be available to help.”

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