Apr 30, 2013 by Martha Burns, Ph.D

do homework

As a parent, are you unsure about how much help to give your children on homework assignments and special projects? Do you sometimes feel "darned if you do and darned if you don't"? If you don't help your child enough, does she get poor grades? If you do help, is the teacher critical?

If you answered yes to any of these questions, you may feel stuck in "the parent trap." We all want our children to be independent learners, but getting them there can be difficult—especially if you have a struggling learneror a child with a diagnosed learning disability. Here are some suggestions that might help.

Avoid blame. Make it a game.

It’s hard for people to self-motivate to work hard in areas where they struggle, and children are no exception. If you feel you are always badgering your child to get his work done, try turning homework into something fun by scheduling 'game breaks' every half hour or so. Set a timer for a short interval, and as long as he has worked consistently before the timer goes off, do a few minutes of something fun together—a race outside, quick game of "go fish," a short video game, etc. Elementary age children love playing games with a parent, so game breaks can be a great motivator.

Build rewards on assignment boards.

Post a whiteboard in the kitchen or another common area of your home .Each day after school, help your child write a to-do list of assignments for that night as well as for any projects with due dates. Then work with your child to determine a reasonable reward for completion. A reward might be watching a special TV show, calling or texting a friend, or a healthy before bedtime snack.

Rewarding your child for doing homework independently builds important life skills like self-control and stick-to-itiveness. Especially when children struggle with school, rewarding something your child can control (like how long they worked on an assignment by themselves) builds confidence and increases motivation better than punishing bad grades or rewarding good grades.

The 80%-20% rule builds success in school.

Brain scientists have found that when a task is 20% challenging it promotes brain plasticity (positive brain changes). So, to maximize your child’s learning potential, encourage her to do all assignments by herself first, assuring her that you will be there to help once she has completed as much as she can on her own.

You will be the checker: finding mistakes or missing pieces and then helping her with those. If she is accustomed to you providing more help, it may take a few weeks for her to work on her own. If so, set a smaller goal (half of each assignment alone, or a designated number of problems, for example) for a week or so. Try to get to the point where you help with no more than 20% of any assignment.

Strive for drive.

Remember, by making your child's independence in schoolwork your goal—instead of grades or other measures of achievement—you are not only improving your child's motivation and ability to please you, but you also are building self-sufficiency, a trait that will lead to success in many aspects of life.

Not everyone can get top grades in school, but everyone can learn to be a self-starter. Getting out of the parent trap will not only make your life easier it will foster important life skills in your child. In adult life, the ability to self-motivate is where the real dividends of a good education are paid out.

If you have already tried these suggestions or you feel your child cannot realistically reach 80% independence, consider consulting a professional. Your child might have a specific learning issue that can be significantly improved with appropriate neuroscience-based interventions.

Related reading:

Creating the Optimal "Internal" Learning Environment

Students who Struggle in the Mainstream: What their Homework Patterns May Tell You