End the Homework Wars: Secrets From an After School Expert

Ready to stop fighting about homework? Here, an expert in the field of, yes, homework, offers her best tips for getting it done.

By Katie Femia

Happy boy doing homework
When you sit down at the table with your kid, the dogs hide … and the mood turns cloudy with a chance of tears. Why? Everyone knows it’s homework time.

You want your kids to have fun after school, and you don’t want to battle with them to get their homework done. One solution to both dilemmas: Consider enrolling your child in an after school program that offers both homework help and a fun activity, such as after school tae kwon do or art classes. (If you’re sold, read no further and start seeking some of these options in your local area!)

Also a great option: Use the following tips and tricks from a former teacher I interviewed who used to run this sort of program. She knows just how to help kids focus … and when it’s time to take a break and have some good old-fashioned fun. Here, her best tips.

1. Create — and Post — an Agenda

Getting the child to understand the process of settling into their homework is key at many after school centers. Posting a clear agenda (times for play, snack, and homework) for children to see and consult upon arrival can help them anticipate the afternoon and understand what needs to be accomplished. Some children may even benefit from having a checklist to use each day, so they can best stay on track and have a successful session. You can use the same approach at home: creating a schedule, agenda, and/or checklist and posting it on the fridge or where kids typically do their homework.

2. Schedule a Pre-Homework Break

After a long day at school, kids need to unwind, refuel, and refocus. The trick is allowing them just enough time to do so without becoming so wrapped up in the activity that they have trouble sitting back down. In most cases, 30 minutes is sufficient for a bathroom break, a healthy snack (like turkey and crackers or apple slices and peanut butter), and about 20 minutes for physical activity or play (like climbing on on a jungle gym, jumping rope or playing basketball with friends). Prior to beginning any of these activities, set the expectation that homework time will begin in 30 minutes so the child knows what to expect and anticipate. Also give a 5-minute warning when recreation time is almost up, so the child prepare to transition between activities.

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3. Do a Supply Run

Many after school centers have designated homework stations that are equipped with everything the child may need to complete their work. At home, gather together any supplies your child may need at homework-time, such as pens, pencils, markers, crayons, rulers, scissors, and a calculator. Ask your child what else might come in handy to have in his or her workspace! Having all of these supplies within easy reach helps the child avoid wasting time going and searching for, say, an eraser, and then becoming sidetracked. Be sure to allow your child to organize the bins of supplies. When the child arrives at the station he or she can then simply sit down and get to work.

If you would like, you can designate a bin for completed work and a bin for extra “fun” work. When a child completes an assignment they can place it in the completed bin for the adult to check. While waiting, they can get a piece of extra “fun” work (such as a crossword puzzle, word search, or word scramble) to enjoy while their work is being checked. This way, the child isn’t given the opportunity to get distracted or bored while waiting.

girl sits at desk doing homework

4. Create a Homework Station

At after school centers, homework stations are often located in an area that is quiet and away from distractions such as TVs, kids playing, or windows (a surefire draw for daydreamers). If you wish to create your own homework station at home, you certainly can! The trick is to enlist your child’s help in designing and creating it. This means they’ll be more apt to like the space — and use it regularly and without fuss.

Choose an area of the home that gets little foot traffic and that is quiet and free from distraction. It should have a comfortable chair and sturdy table, then add the supplies you and your child have gathered.

If you still find distractions to be an issue, many tutoring and homework centers use “blinders” to help create more privacy. You can make your own blinders by taking a piece of poster board and tri-folding it so it stands freely on the tabletop creating a privacy wall in the front of the child as well as on the sides of the child. While it might feel like you are secluding the child, many children actually prefer the privacy and comfort of a smaller, more controlled space.

5. Maximize Kids’ Motivation

Most children respond well to incentives and positive reinforcement. While homework is expected out of them as students, they may work harder and be more motivated if a reward is in place. A reward chart is an excellent way for the child to track their own progress and daily accomplishments, with a reward being available to them at the completion of a week. Rewards can be extra recreation time, a special snack, stickers, a ribbon, or whatever you feel is an appropriate motivator and reward. In after school programs, instructors need to get to know each child to understand what motivates them. Even parents aren’t always tuned in to this, so asking your child for some suggestions — reasonable ones! — might be a good idea.

Remember, a reward chart shouldn’t be used to track “perfect” or “error-free” work. A reward chart can track all sorts of variables, such as the child’s effort, time spent, motivation, preparedness, attitude, and then the mastery of the skill. All of these items play an important part of the homework process and should be praised when they are evident. And while individual efforts are noted, it is also important to praise kids when they work as a team. If you see them helping each other out, encouraging each other, or using teamwork to solve a problem, celebrate it! Even having a group song, cheer, or chant you sing can be a lot of fun for children and help them feel success.

6. Know the Signs of Burnout

Many times children simply don’t “feel” like doing their homework. They’re suffering from burnout or simply are having trouble getting in gear. But other times, they might actually be struggling with the subject, and that’s why they’re avoiding getting started. So how can you tell what the issue is? Many times, starting a communication with the child is key. As the adult you can say, “I understand you are tired, but it is important that I know you understand these math facts. Can you show me that you understand?” In most cases the child will then complete the task. If a child is struggling with the subject, you may notice the child exhibiting additional signs of frustration, such as shutting down, becoming emotional, acting nervous or anxious, or making repeated errors. In this case, it is important to take a step back. Allow the child to feel some success by showing off a skill that you’re sure they do know. This can help them regain their confidence. Then let them know you’re there to help, and begin to break down the “frustrating” skill into smaller pieces so the child can slowly master it.

after school teacher helps child with homework

7. Don’t Be Afraid to Seek Homework Help

As new teaching techniques are introduced and testing standards change, homework is going to change too. Many parents are finding that their child is bringing work home that they aren’t familiar with and can’t assist with. Parents shouldn’t feel embarrassed or helpless if this happens. You aren’t, after all, trained to be a teacher! Even in after school programs, sometimes different instructors help with different subjects, because each person has different strengths.

If you feel “in over your head,” it might be time to ask your child’s school or your after school activity provider if they offer homework assistance. These programs are designed to explain current educational concepts in a way that helps the child can learn best. Also consider this a “teachable moment” for your kids: If you feel good about asking for help when you need it, you’re showing your children that they should do the same. This may encourage them to ask for help in other places, too, such as the classroom.

Have you ever heard the saying that children behave worse for their parents than for strangers? The same might be true for homework time. Children may perform better for a homework buddy or tutor than they would at home, which can make the time they spend more effective and productive. It may also take that burden (of homework buddy) off of your to-do list, leaving you free to enjoy your time with your child when their work is completed.

If you are ready for the nightly homework arguments to end, try implementing these ideas that many after school homework programs are using. Or look for such a program in your area.

Find after school programs that help kids with homework > >