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  • Writer's pictureDr. Patty Richardson

Psychologist-Approved Homework Survival Tips for Parents of Teens

One of the most common concerns that I hear from parents is frustration related to getting their teens to do their homework (HW). There are ways to help support HW success even in the trickiest of situations. Here are my go-to HW survival tips. Let's discuss:

1. Fuel up/Recharge

After a long school day, maybe even school + a sport or extracurricular ... it is understandable that your child is exhausted. I would be, too! A meaningful break, a snack, and some water prior to starting HW can cumulatively be a real game changer.

2. Routines, baby!

I'm going to pull back the curtain for a moment on one of the biggest tricks in a child psychologist's playbook: helping families to develop healthy routines.

Not getting enough sleep? --> Let's work on bedtime/morning routines

Dinner time is chaotic? --> Let's give all family members a role to help with the meal

Anxiety and tears at the start of every school day? --> It's time to collab with the school to develop a consistent morning school coping plan

I think you're getting the point--routines are major. Healthy HW routines can vary among families, though there are several conventions to aim for. It is often helpful to have HW occur at a consistent time and place (e.g., child's desk, kitchen table), with reduced access to distractors (think tv/phones). It might be helpful to sit down with your teen to develop a priority list--what HW needs to be done tonight and what can be done later in the week. Try to keep up the general HW routine more days than not.

When developing HW routines, aim to be collaborative, not punitive. Ask your child what their ideas are--communicate that you are in it together. When possible, follow their lead. For example, if they ask for a 45 minute break after school--that is likely doable. If they ask to consistently start homework at 10:30pm, that is not doable.

3. Build in Breaks

All teens have differing thresholds with sustained attention. A rule of thumb to try is to encourage a 15-minute break per hour of studying/HW.

4. Disconnect From Distraction

Let's be real--phones are so distracting. Even as I'm writing these tips ... my phone is sitting next to my computer, vying for my attention. Many families have rules that phones are put aside during HW. Great--this is ideal! Some teens revolt when something like this is proposed. A middle ground might be encouraging your teen to use an app that silences notifications during HW to support focus. Here are a couple of my favorites:

Tip for Claiming Tech: Teens tend to be less distressed when asked to place their phone in a neutral location (e.g., kitchen counter) as opposed to handing their phone to you directly.

5. Balancing Independence vs. Caregiver Involvement

According to Erik Erikson, whose theory of psychosocial development surely made an appearance in the intro psych class you took as an undergrad, adolescence is characterized by Identity vs Role Confusion. The primary tasks of this stage include exploring independence and developing as a sense of self. As applied to HW, it is ideal for caregivers to structure the level of support based on your teens' individual needs, while allowing opportunities for increased autonomy. Avoid hovering when unnecessary.

Engaging With Your Teen's Online Gradebook: Periodically checking in on your child's grades throughout the term is a helpful way of seeing how HW is going and ensuring that your child is on track. Over-checking (i.e., daily) can be more stressful than helpful, and won't account for delays in teachers grading/posting grades. It is also unhelpful to wait until the last week of the semester/trimester/quarter to check the gradebook and convey frustration about grades/missing assignments to your teen, as they have a very limited window to improve the situation.

6. Monitor Your Own Affect

Keep calm and carry on. Is this cliche statement endlessly overused-- sure. But you'll need to channel it in the context of HW.

After knowing you for years, your teen has become an expert at reading your verbal/nonverbal cues.

They know exactly when you are starting to get frustrated, disappointed, stressed. If you find yourself sighing, being critical, having a short or snappy tone--it's likely that your assistance with HW is no longer helpful. Take a break, regroup, and do your best to only chip in when you can maintain a calm, neutral affect--and ideally when you have the capacity to inject some optimism and positive feedback into your support.

7. School Confidence Is a Thing

School problems are by nature, cyclical. Having an off week at school can result in both immediate consequences (a bad grade, higher HW burden) and long-term consequences (struggling with the material, falling behind on assignments, feeling hopeless, failing classes). For families who find themselves stuck in toxic school cycles, I can't underscore enough how essential it is to break it, not only for your child's school success--but also for their mental health and emotional wellbeing.

Teens with anxiety and depression often cite school as their primary stressor

Let your child know that you are with them every step of the way. Instill confidence that you will help to figure out the best path forward. Reevaluate your own expectations for your child's academics and learn how to praise their effort not the outcome.

8. Make Sure Your Child Has the School-based Academic Support They Need

Teens who have a medical, behavioral, learning, or psychological condition that impacts their school functioning are eligible for formal school accommodations, in the form of a 504 plan or IEP. In fact, when I start working with families in therapy, one of my first priorities is to ensure that teens have the correct level of support needed to help them thrive at school.

How are in-school accommodations relevant to after-school homework?

Accommodations during the school day enable your child to learn key concepts, increasing the likelihood that they will have a sense of how to do their HW. Furthermore, they will be less likely to have to add incomplete in-school assignments to their HW burden.

When your teen refuses school accommodations: some kids who are eligible for 504s/IEPs ask their parents to not establish formal accommodations because they don't want to stand out or feel different from their peers. Please know when done right, it is 100% possible for a child to have 504/IEP accommodations that peers would NOT be aware of.

9. Know When It's Time to Call in Reinforcements

Signs that you need HW reinforcements:

  • You find yourself yelling at or criticizing your child about HW

  • Poor interactions between teen and parents during HW negatively impacts your relationship outside of HW

  • You have hit your ceiling on understanding the content your child is learning and knowing how to help them

  • Despite you/your child's best efforts, what you're doing isn't working and your child is still struggling

  • You end up doing your teens HW for them

Examples of Reinforcements

  • Sometimes kids just do better during HW with one caregiver's support than the other. That's ok and it is not anybody's fault/failure. Try to have that caregiver be the primary HW helper, when possible.

  • Executive Function Coaching: when your child needs support with school organization, keeping a planner, remembering to submit assignments in a timely fashion, developing useful study habits ... an EF coach can be really impactful. Although helpful to all, EF coaches are a really important support for children with ADHD and/or EF deficits who are struggling in school.

  • Support your teen in developing a peer study group

  • Encourage your child to reach out to their teacher for extra support

  • Enlist an academic tutor for one or more subjects. Schools and local libraries often have their fingers on the pulse of tutoring programs for middle and high schoolers.

Final Thoughts

There’s no singular approach to homework that works for all kids and families. It is helpful to reflect on your child’s HW patterns to see what works for them and try to harness and increase what goes well. Feel free to reach out to a specialist at Bluebird for individualized support and school advocacy. We would be more than happy to help your family develop a new approach to homework success.


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