How Can I Get My Child to Do His Best on His Homework?

by Susan Stiffelman 

I don’t want to speak in absolutes, but I can say with reasonable certainty that there aren’t more than a handful of children who actually like doing homework.

Kids are wired to enjoy the moment, and generally speaking, answering questions about Saturn or writing paragraphs about Woodrow Wilson is tedious, time-consuming and robs children of the precious opportunity to do really important things — like watching TV or chasing the dog.

Still, if your children go to school, chances are they have homework. And while the little ones (yes, most schools now give homework to kindergartners) might actually enjoy pasting kidney beans onto pretty yellow construction paper for their “science project,” for most parents, it’s takes a Herculean effort to simply get little Ethan or Delilah to locate that “missing” math worksheet and get started.

Once children have accepted their fate and are at least sitting at the table with the worksheet and a functioning pencil, you have to inspire the reluctant scholar to activate a few of his or her brain cells to at least attempt to do a decent job on the assignment.

Whew! Getting a child to even start their homework can be fairly exhausting, can’t it? And then we have to get them to try their best! Seems impossible!

Here are some things to keep in mind as you try to motivate your child to put in some earnest effort when they do their homework:

First, recognize that human beings are motivated by reward. Children (and most adults) operate from a “What’s in it for me?” standpoint. While I’m not recommending that you pay children to improve their grades (though I’m also not entirely opposed to that strategy), it is important to acknowledge that most children are not intrinsically motivated to do a great job on their school work, at least until good grades represent a realistic reward for them in terms of college, scholarships, staying on the team, and so on.

While some youngsters simply find satisfaction in a job well done, most kids race through their homework so they can get it over with. It’s vital that you create a more immediate payoff for making the effort today to try their best on something that may not translate into anything to them for weeks or even months. (In other words, a child who tends to rip through his math sheet typically isn’t going to slow down and be more careful when the payoff — a better grade on his or her report card — is months away.)

Invite your child — with your help — to come up with a list of small incentives. It might be that if they show that they checked their math answers, they get an extra bedtime story. Or it could be that if the teacher reports that they’re showing improvement in their writing assignments, you go out for an ice cream after school on Friday.

Another way to get kids to raise the bar on their effort is to have them grade their work. When your child says, “I’m done!” after a homework session, encourage them to assign a grade to what they’ve done. Teachers who have implemented this approach in the classroom have found that the quality of their students’ work rises significantly when they give a smaller quantity of homework, but ask students to raise the quality of what they do. (Check out “The Quality School” by William Glasser.)

You may also help kids focus more on doing a good job if you make homework time more pleasant. Play quiet music, light a fragrant candle, or break a long task up with short breaks so they don’t feel they’re trapped in Homeworkland forever.

Encouraging children to make more than minimal effort on their school work starts by recognizing the reality of the situation: there has to be some motivation and enjoyment, other than lectures and threats. By coming alongside them and acknowledging that it’s not much fun, but pointing out some small incentives, and by making homework time more enjoyable, you’ll help them know that there is a reason to try their best, and that it actually feels good to show the world how smart they really are.

For more support with homework issues, register for my class on Homework and the Self-Driven Child here!