10 Tips to Tame the Homework Beast

Homework. If you’re like me, just hearing the word causes your blood pressure to rise and your palms to get sweaty. Or at least that’s how it was (and still is on occasion) before we did some hardcore homework trial and error.

Here are the many techniques and strategies we’ve acquired since my 4th grader started kindergarten:

? Partner with the teacher. Though it sounds obvious, I never thought I would have my son’s teacher’s phone number on speed dial or her email address memorized. You have to develop a partnership with your child’s teacher. This usually means dropping your defenses at the door and being honest about your child’s struggle so that his teacher can best help him.

Of course, staying off the defensive doesn’t mean bashing your child. Any teacher who seems overly negative about your child is the wrong teacher. You’ll know it immediately. Change that teacher ASAP! My biggest regret is that we allowed our son to remain in the classroom of a teacher who we (rightly) worried didn’t like him.

? Designate a comfortable work space. This is another obvious one, but I think making it comfortable is key. Any quiet, clean area will work … but it might not work as well as an area that suits your child. For instance, my son prefers a soft spot that he can burrow into when he’s reading, but he needs a strong, sturdy surface for math (lots and lots of erasing). Your child may want a soft spot for all work — which means the kitchen table won’t be the best work space. You may need to set up a corner with a bean bag and a small shelf that holds supplies. Ask your child to help you figure out what works.

? Use a checklist. We swear by checklists and have them for everything (seriously). The homework checklist is tacked up by the work space and gives him an exact routine to follow. This routine has not changed in the three years since we ironed out all the wrinkles, yet it is still the first place he goes when he gets home from school. That’s because checking the list is as much part of his routine as following it is. The amount of time spent on each item changes, but the order of items on the list remains the same year in and year out.

? Use a timer. We began using our time because our inattentive kid would spend hours putting on his pants but only half a second brushing his teeth (after he spent hours dancing in front of the mirror). By timing everything, we give a tangible reminder of the task at hand, we ensure he doesn’t spend too much time at a single task, and we rev his competitive engine (he loves finishing before the timer). The hidden gem here is we don’t forget anything either. I’m as good at losing track of time as he is, but the timer keeps us straight.

? Focus on length of time. Here’s one of our secret weapons that we clear with the teacher at the beginning of each year. Rather than stand over a child’s shoulder or lose your mind trying to make them meet a content goal (e.g., 10 sentences, a worksheet of division problems, 20 pages of a book), we set a time limit for active work. For example, Javi spends 30 minutes each day actively doing math work. He may or may not completely finish his assignment, but he worked hard for those 30 minutes. And that’s enough for him at this point.

? Use a highlighter. One of my kid’s greatest challenges is completely reading instructions. He usually reads a sentence or two and then jumps right in. If he does read every sentence, he’ll read them out of order. To help him read completely and in order, we’ve implemented a highlighter system. First, he pre-reads by numbering each sentence. Then he starts with the first sentence and highlights it as he reads it. He then goes to the next sentence, and so on. This method keeps his eye from skipping around and helps him literally see that there is more to a set of instructions. We don’t have to do this with reading assignments, but it would work for them.

Some other things we tried were using a ruler to stay on the right line (great for kids who read words out of order) and laying colored transparencies over blocks of text (great for kids whose brains “auto-populate” the words in a sentence as this makes the brain work harder on each word). Each of these techniques are also great for kids who need something to keep their hands busy.

? Play games instead. There are many websites that offer academic enrichment. We turn to these sites when Javi gets tired and bored with worksheets and textbooks. Using the websites helps Javi feel like he’s getting a break from the routine, gives the illusion of a video game, and are great for visual learners. We do a lot of online research for these same reasons. Most of the websites we use are login-based and are connected to his school. If your child’s teacher isn’t using them, ask her why not.

? Change your medium. Traditional homework is lots of writing stuff down — answers to math problems, answers to reading comprehension questions, etc. Sometimes, when we’re having a bad week, we throw out the writing and pick up the crafts. Dioramas, mini-books, popsicle-stick structures, replicas, and other crafts can be really informative and help kids learn in ways that writing things down won’t do.

Your child’s teacher might have some ideas for the craft you do to replace writing things down. However, a book report or journal entry is still writing things down … avoid those kinds of swaps.

? Set up immediate rewards. A big trip after a month of good behavior, a special purchase at the end of the week, a prize at the end of the day … All sound great, but none worked for my kid. He needed to see immediate consequences for actions — whether those actions were good or bad. So, we give stickers and pencils for completing a homework component without tantrums or outbursts. We do something bigger (special dinner night, going somewhere of his choice) for a week of excellent homework behavior. We keep track of all of this with a reward chart.

? Walk away. After all of this, what you read next might shock you. When all else fails, we leave the teaching to the teacher. This was really hard for us to grasp, but my many teacher and administrator friends agree that it’s better for a child to hammer out concepts with his accepted authority figure than with the other adults in his life. We learned quickly that the teacher trumps everyone else and if he’s wrong about something he strongly thinks is correct, the teacher is the one who should handle it.

These strategies are our lifeline where homework is concerned. Let us know what’s working — or not working — for your family.

Kelly Quinones Miller is the mother of an adopted son with ADHD, inattentive type. She works from home as a freelance writer and designer while trying to teach her son the strategies and skills he’ll need to succeed. Kelly blogs about family issues, casual environmentalism, backyard chickens, and more at The Miller Mix.

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adhd and school, attention/focus, General ADHD, homework, Kelly Quinones Miller, learning disabilities, NEWLY DIAGNOSED, organization, parenting/FAMILY ·

About the author

Kelly Quinones Miller is the mother of an adopted son with ADHD, inattentive type. She works from home as a freelance writer and designer while trying to teach her son the strategies and skills he'll need to succeed. Kelly blogs about family issues, casual environmentalism, backyard chickens, and more at The Miller Mix.


  1. Anonymous says:

    Great ideas, we use many of them! My son needs to start on the homework that will take the most concentration “first.” Other wise he begins to get too tired as the evening goes along. Sometimes we practice his spelling or vocabulary words while bouncing a ball back and forth for each letter or he stands on a balance board we made. When its a heavy homework night he takes frequent short breaks and runs a lap around the house or does something physical for a few minutes. I also color code his Bible Verse so it is broken down into a section a day to learn, this can be done with any memory work.It breaks it down into more manageable sections so it is not so overwhelming.In Math if the workload gets to heavy I ask the teacher to remove any work that he has mastered so he can have less homework. Asking the teacher to have frequent check ins with your child can help during in school work time, this way hopefully you can have less homework. If possible we go over anything he has learned in lets say Science or another subject and review the questions he may have answered for homework or bold words to begin studying for his test, this way when test time comes along it is easier to remember the material. Homework can be a challenge, having many strategies can help you survive.

  2. Anonymous says:

    All these ideas are great,we use many of them! I have my son start on the homework that will take the most concentration “first.” This way as he starts getting tired there is less stress. We sometimes practice his spelling or vocabulary words by bouncing a ball back and forth for each letter or he studies on a balance beam we made. These ideas allow movement. I have him review his homework that he has done and bold words in his book on a daily basis to begin studying for tests ahead of time. I color code his Bible Verse or other memory work so it can be broken down into smaller increments and each day he learns a section. I have him take frequent short physical breaks when it is a heavy homework night,usually he runs some laps around the house or does something physical. If necessary I ask his teacher to reduce his workload by eliminating areas he has already mastered. His teachers have frequent check ins with him during work time to make sure he is moving along. This helps him have less homework. Home- work can be a challenge, having many strategies
    can help.

  3. Thank you for this wonderful post. I really need to come here more often. We have homework struggles, but its more getting the homework home then getting it done. These are very good tips, and I think we really need to start a checklist too. I think she forgets way too many things.

  4. @Anon – These are great ideas! Movement is more distracting for my son, but my nephew absorbs so much more that way. Every child is so different (though so much the same).

    @Steph – I think you need an accommodation that has the teacher send homework directly to you via email or a special folder. Your girl is forgetful, but the stress/anxiety of forgetting shouldn't rule her life. There are workarounds!

  5. Lisa says:

    I will try some of these ideas to alleviate the stress that comes along while helping my daughter with homework.

    My daughter starts off the same way as Anonymous kid does…Always start on the homework that will take the most concentration “first.” For my daughter that would be reading 20 minutes than writing 3-4 sentences summarizing what she just read.

    I love your suggestion of having a comfortable work space. My daughter does her homework at the kitchen table. She complains every time! “The chairs too hard. I want to sit on a pillow”

    Thanks for the ideas and keep em' coming! I am soo glad I found your blog!

  6. Jill says:

    Thank you, Kelly! I'm saving this for reference for later. My daughter's only in kindergarten and after about a minute of homework my blood is about to boil! (And I used to think I was a very patient person…) Thanks for putting things into words better than I could too about your experience. Your descriptions help me put words to mine.

  7. The tip on this list that has been the most successful for us is the last one: walking away. Homework last year (1st grade) was a nightly battle for several reasons – some having to do with what was sent home, some having to do with my son's particular issues, and some having to do with me. This year I made the decision that I would make it so he had a good space to do his homework in, remind him *once* that it was time to do it, let him know I was available to help…then walk away.
    If he decides not to do it I tell him I'll just write a note to his teacher to that effect. This has worked wonderfully, especially due to Kelly's 1st suggestion – the teacher and I are on the same page. In the 4 weeks of school he's decided not to do his homework 2x and both times she's made him do it at school. Poof! Power struggle gone.


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