Process, Not Content, Makes For Happy Homework Time

School & Learning

For Happy Homework Time, focus on Process, not Content

The sun is shining brightly in the evening sky.

A warmth not felt since early fall last year seemingly entices the entire city to stay out late.

The happy sounds of kids riding bicycles, full playgrounds and families walking for ice cream treats fill the air alongside that unmistakable scent of backyard grills working their magic on a festival of BBQ creations. And that is when your child announces, “I’ve got homework to do.”

With the end of the school year fast approaching, culminating projects often mean more homework just as the weather is finally beckoning all of us to play more and work less.

On top of day-to-day time pressures, we also know that many of our students, your children, are struggling with anxiety and excess stress and pressure related to managing their academic workload.

So when it comes to school work

  • How much is reasonable?
  • What is the best way to fit it in with everything else your family is doing?
  • What is the most effective way to deal with your children when they inevitably throw their hands up and insist they can’t do it?

These are all fair question but I would argue that a shift in focus is the ideal first step towards making the homework experience more valuable for children and less onerous for everyone.

The questions above are primarily asking “how to do I fill in the content of the homework” and the shift I encourage families to consider is to instead ask, “which routines and attitudes can we model that will most effectively enable our children to take on homework and other responsibilities independently, with confidence and with a range of productive approaches to managing challenges?  A mouthful – yes!  But when it comes to our children, our thinking should be considered and deliberate.

A mouthful – yes!  But when it comes to our children, our thinking should be considered and deliberate.

Full Disclosure

This approach does not mean the children are doing everything independently from the start.  In fact, they may even need more time from an adult at the beginning but once they are familiar with the process, the roles switch and the child takes the lead.

1.     Timing – Set your child up for success.

Create a routine that places the homework time at what will likely be their most alert and focused time.  Have this conversation with them so they are learning about themselves and their needs.  For example, if you know that your child is exhausted and grumpy when they get home and then they get a burst of energy after some unstructured play and dinner then develop a routine where work is done after dinner.  Ballet, guitar, etc.  may require you to change on certain days but if you make a plan with your child, the rhythm of the week is generally predictable even if homework time is not at the exact same time each day.

2.     Put it all on the table – literally!

The first step for homework should be to take out all the work and determine everything that needs to be done.  As you go through the work begin writing a list.

3.     Now take it off the table – literally!

Create an organized workspace that is easy to understand.  Maybe three piles – 1. To Do 2. Completed & 3. Need to Ask My Teacher a Few Questions . . .

4.     Estimate

As you develop the list, engage your child in a conversation about how to estimate the amount of time each assignment is going to take to complete.  Note the estimated time on your list with your child.  Model a think-aloud with them so they learn about how to estimate the time it takes for their work to be completed.

5.     Integrate

Take a moment to talk with your child about their other obligations and interests (any chores, extra-curricular programs, having a snack, unstructured play, brushing their teeth, etc) and add those experiences to the list too.  If hockey starts at 7 and dinner needs to be eaten beforehand, that should be part of the plan.  Same goes for down time and home responsibilities – embed those experiences into the plan.  Realistic timing is the key here and it doesn’t hurt to have some easy wins added to the list.

6.     Revisit the list

Model out loud with your child about how much time it all adds up to, reorganize the order so it is manageable, you might start with the most challenging to get that out of the way, etc.  Be sure to add in a line about putting all the work back in your bag so it is ready to go first thing in the morning and there is no scramble to get ready for school.

7.     Include “What if?”

Ask your child ‘What if you don’t finish in the estimated time?”  “What if you don’t know how to do something?”  “What if you get really frustrated?”  Throw these kinds of questions out there so they have a sense that these circumstances might be on the horizon and they can handle them with a thoughtful plan.

8.     Schedule breaks

Be sure to add in body and mind breaks in between tasks or as needed.  Write the breaks into the schedule.  It can be as simple as ten jumping jacks after each completed section or a bike ride on a beautiful spring evening.

9.     Create a celebration

Encourage the children to check off each section they’ve completed.  You might consider creating a symbol for the sections that you couldn’t complete because you had questions or because you need to take some additional time the next day.  Those are accomplishments too and a unique visual cue for both celebration and to revisit the next day is useful. For young children, don’t underestimate the power of some stickers. They are always a hit.  A sense of accomplishment is an important contributor to being engaged in your learning.  This celebration does not have to include successfully completing all the work. In fact, it’s possible your time estimates were shorter than the actual time and you might have had to stop working and leave some until tomorrow.  The celebration is about the process and not about the content.

10. Time to do the homework

OK, I know, you’re probably exhausted from the list of 9 suggestions I’ve shared before the child has even opened a book to do their work.  However, after investing some time in the above process, steps 1-9 become habitual and much faster.  If you begin this process now, then you have helped to set a really strong foundation for work habits that are healthy and productive for years to come.

A Note About Teachers

This is a process that would make most teachers quite pleased. You might consider sharing this approach with the teacher ahead of time so they understand that incomplete or incorrect work is not a reflection of

This is a process that would make most teachers quite pleased. You might consider sharing this approach with the teacher ahead of time so they understand that incomplete or incorrect work is not a reflection of lack of effort but rather, a shift in focus to support the overall development of your child’s learning skills.  Teachers generally prefer that the students complete the work and not their parents so this process is a win for everyone

Conversely, if your child didn’t complete the work or had questions, encourage your child to talk with the teacher about those issues rather than you sending the teacher an email or calling on behalf of your child right away.   This is where that “third pile” noted above or the “what if” scenarios come into play.  Part of that dialogue should be about how the child can and should let the teacher know what is on their mind.

One Last Consideration

If you have set all these things in motion and the workload and plan are reasonable and your child is still not living up to their end of the bargain then allow them to be accountable for incomplete work with their teachers, responsible for creating a plan to move forward (possibly still needing adult support) and model for them how to turn a challenge into an opportunity for learning.  Our children should be working just as hard as all of the adults and they benefit from being held to a high but realistic standard.

One caveat is that in some situations, ongoing challenges might be reflective of other needs your child has.  Checking in with your pediatrician and school staff can be very useful next steps if basic day-to-day experiences are becoming excessively difficult for your child.

It is important to have an accurate understanding of your children’s strengths and needs in order to set fair and attainable goals together.

The Bottom Line

The bottom line is that each homework experience is a relatively low-stakes opportunity to build confidence, efficient work habits, personal responsibility and healthy stress management techniques.  It is worth considering a shift to focusing on these broader life skills.


Dr Dina Kulik, Kids Health Blog - dyslexia in adults

Barbara Sandler

Written By: Barbara Sandler

Barbara Sandler is currently a Vice-Principal in the TDSB. She has a Masters in Educational Administration and also worked as Adjunct Professor and Additional Qualifications Instructor at York University. Barbara earned Specialists in Reading, ESL, Special Education and Guidance & Career Education and also holds certification in Alternative Dispute Resolution.

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