Homework is often a stressful experience for both young people and their parents. Research has shown homework is a significant source of family stress and conflict. The more homework a young person has and the less confident a parent feels in their ability to help their young person – the more likely families are to report high stress levels.
This is not an insignificant problem in our society. Some studies have even found that parents’ daily level of anxiety/depression is higher on days when they spend more time helping their child with homework.
Cross community research suggests about 15% of young people are identified by their teacher as having some kind of extra learning needs – and for them, homework is particularly likely to be the cause of significant family stress.
How much and what type of homework young people should do is still being debated among teachers, academics and parents – and there are a range of homework policies and practices which occur in different schools.
In the meantime, parents still have to figure out how what to say to young people who feel they are not “smart enough” or lack confidence in their abilty to complete homework tasks, and who say “I can’t do it” or “this is too hard” regularly.
There is no single “right” thing for us to do, as it will depend on the young person, their situation, the relationship we have with them, their age and their school’s policy – but here are some options for what you might like to say.
Option 1: Say “May I help you figure out one small step to start on/figure out?”
As adults, we have many years practice in completing larger or overwhelming projects. We know what it is like to feel stressed in the beginning, start small, persist and experience success. Children and teens often have had much less experience in doing this – and of course their less developed brains mean they can get overwhelmed very quickly.
Therefore, the skill of breaking big tasks down into smaller steps is an extremely useful one for us to coach.
Options for sentences to say to young people to help them develop this skill – when they are in the midst of feeling “stuck” on a homework task are:
If you did feel like you could do this, what would be the first thing you’d do?
Let’s skip to the middle – what’s something in here you can do, and then go back to the start later
Just tell me what you think (out loud) and then write it down (or I will write it down for you)
Why don’t you not actually do the project – but just make a list about the things you need to do for it
Let’s watch a youtube video on how to get started
Tell me something you DO know about this.
What are two questions you need answered to get started?
What did you do last time you did something like this which helped you?
Options for sentences to say to help develop this skill – at a later point, when children/teens are calmer are:
Can I share with you how I manage a big work/home task?
Is there anyway you can use making a list to help you cope with homework next week?
What helps you focus first on one step and what makes it hard to do that?
Is there anything I can do to help you do small steps at a time?
Option 2: Say “Don’t forget your brain is growing”
If you’ve been around schools at all in the last few years, you’ll have heard of Carol Dweck and the research on growth mindset. In a nutshell, this research suggests that young people who believe that cognitive or intellectual ability “grows” (or changes over time) are more likely to do well academically than young people who believe ability is “fixed” (or stays the same).
If we can help young people to believe their thinking skills are improving and will continue to improve, then they are likely to persist at tasks for longer, feel less stressed when they make mistakes and ultimately do better academically.
Options for things to say to help develop a “growth mindset” – when teens/children are in the midst of feeling “stuck” on a homework task are:
Do you mind if I tell you what I do when I feel confused or stuck?
Feeling confused about something is sometimes a sign you will learn it better and in a deeper way than people who don’t feel that way
It seems like you are having to think really hard about this – I know that can be uncomfortable – I also know that is a sign you are growing brain cells
I know mistakes or getting it wrong doesn’t feel good – but they help us learn
Options for things to say to help develop this growth mindset – at a later point, when children/teens are calmer are:
Did you notice how you have really improved in….how have you done that?
What do you think about how brains grow and change as you get older?
Do you think you will always have trouble with X subject? Do you think it’s possible you will understand it more as time goes on? I believe that can happen because…
Do you remember when you felt overwhelmed/stuck on X last year – and how you feel differently about that topic now? I wonder if the same thing will happen about this
Option 3: Say “Have I told you about multiple intelligences?”
Over 40 years ago, a psychologist called Howard Gardiner proposed the idea of “multiple intelligences”. Multiple intelligence theory states there are many different “thinking” strengths that different people possess. This is an important concept for young people to grasp. If they are aware of and notice their strengths, they are more likely to have more positive mood and feelings of confidence more often – and positive mood and feelings of confidence increases learning speed.
Options for things to say to help young people understand the idea of multiple intelligences – when they are in the midst of feeling “stuck” on a homework task are:
Could we take a 30 second break to remind you/ourselves about the thinking strengths you do have? It might help to improve how you feel right now, which will help your brain work better.
Is there a way you can use your particular thinking strengths to work this problem out?
I know this task is hard for you, but that doesn’t mean it will all be hard. There are other tasks which you find much easier.
Options for things to say to help young people understand the idea of multiple intelligences – at a later point, when they are calmer are:
What are kinds of thinking skills are you best at?
Would you be prepared to read some web research on Howard Gardiner’s Multiple Intelligences with me? I’m interested in what you think.
Do you think the parts of your brain which deal with pictures/visual information are better developed than the parts of your brain which deal with words/verbal information?
Do you think the parts of your brain which deal with knowing and understanding yourself are better developed than the parts of your brain which deal with nature and the environment?
I think you may have a particular skill in……………..compared to other people your age – what do you think?
Option 4: Say “I’m sorry it’s tough”
Having to think hard, and face the stress of not knowing how to manage homework is really tough. Sometimes it’s enough to just be empathic to young people when they distressed about homework. I know sometimes when I’ve felt a task is overwhelming – I really just needed some emotional support. Young people also just need our support at times.
Options for things to say to emotionally support young people when they are in the midst of feeling “stuck” on a homework task are:
I’m sorry it’s tough.
Wow, that looks stressful.
I really feel for you having to manage that.
I wish it wasn’t so hard/worrying.
Options for things to say to emotionally support young people later when they are calm are:
I know you go through hard times dealing with X subject. Please let me know if I can help.
I’m proud of you for persisting through the stress of managing Y.
Option 5: Say “I’m going to help you with this more in a minute but let’s take a break”
Given the stress of homework can be overwhelming, it’s sometimes important to take breaks. At times, both children/teens and their parents need to take a time out from homework or to leave it for the night. When we take a break, we often give a couple of important messages – a) things often feel better after we take some time to do/think about other things, b) it’s important to take care of our stress, and not always just “push through”.
Options for things to say to help us or young people take a break – when they are in the midst of feeling “stuck” on a homework task – are:
I’m just going to do X for five minutes to clear my head.
Often food/drink/exercise helps our cognitive processes/brains work better – let’s do X
Would you be prepared to take X minutes away from this so you can be fresh when you start again?
It’s not your fault, but I’m feeling frustrated with myself and the situation, I need a few minutes, I’ll be back soon.
Options for things to say to reinforce the importance of breaks to young people – later when they are calm – are:
Can we talk about how to break up homework time so we have a signal for what to do when it gets hard?
I think we should have a rule for maximum homework times each day? How long do you think you should do?
I’d like to talk about how to cope when it looks like you are not going to get through what is set for homework – what could we do about that?