Problematic Behaviors Associated with Homework

Jacqueline Huey, MN. Ed., School Psychology Intern

Does hearing the word “homework” make you shudder or feel sick to your stomach?  For many parents, homework time can be one of the most difficult events of the day, and you may find yourself dreading homework time as much as, or more than, your school-aged child.  If you are a parent experiencing a homework time nightmare, don’t lose hope.  Many children experience problems relating to homework completion, from mild problems to severe problems that can threaten the sanity of the entire household.  Luckily, there are a number of strategies parents can utilize to tame the homework beast and free up more time to spend engaging in more desirable activities with their children.  Keep in mind that many students may dislike homework time throughout their entire school career, but getting homework behaviors under control can make homework time only a mild annoyance amidst more enjoyable activities, rather than a nightmare.


What IS the problem exactly?  The most important thing you can do to gain control over homework time is to accurately define what the problems are for your child.  Identifying the problems will make it easier to understand why the problems are occurring and will help decide how to address them.  For some children, sitting still for the amount of time needed to complete an assignment may be difficult.  For others, remembering to bring home the right materials to complete the homework may be the biggest issue.  Here are some common problematic behaviors associated with homework time:


    • Squirming or excessive movement while sitting in chair
    • Leaving homework area
    • Talking excessively about unrelated topics
    • Paying attention to non-homework materials instead of homework
    • Disruptive behavior (e.g., making inappropriate noises, dropping pencils)
    • Rushing through and making careless mistakes
    • Forgetting to bring homework materials home
    • Forgetting to turn in completed work
    • Needing too much help from parents to complete the assignment
    • Dawdling; taking too much time to complete tasks
    • Refusing to begin homework
    • Refusing to finish homework once started
    • Destroying homework materials (e.g., crumpling up the paper)
    • Negative talk toward parents
    • Negative talk toward self
    • Tantrum
    • Crying


Set a goal.  Once you’ve identified the problem, set a goal for your child that specifically addresses it.  For example, the goal may be, “Joe will begin working on homework assignments within 2 minutes of being asked,” or “Jen will stay in the homework area until the work is finished.”  A behavior analyst or psychologist can assist you in defining your child’s specific problems, creating goals for homework time, and understanding why your child is engaging in problematic behaviors.  Most likely, your child is engaging in problem behaviors in order to escape the homework assignment; however, it may be that your child lacks the specific skills (e.g., attention skills or reading skills) needed to complete the work.


A new homework routine!  After identifying specific homework goals for your child, it is important to establish a consistent homework routine.  Find a location in your house where your child will do homework, and make sure that the appropriate school supplies are readily available in the homework area.  Next, determine the best time of day for your child to do their homework. Finally, agree upon a contingency plan for rewarding your child when they meet their goals.  A simple contingency plan may mean that the child can access a preferred activity (e.g., a TV show) after the homework is completed, while a more elaborate plan may allow the child to earn points that can be cashed in for a larger prize (e.g., a new toy).  The contingency plan may also include punishment (e.g., time out) for inappropriate behaviors as needed. Make sure your routing includes a plan for taking breaks, and smaller rewards may be given throughout a homework session for children who have difficulty making it all the way through without a reward.  Feel free to be creative and utilize visual charts, special snacks, or family involvement as a part of your plan (e.g., the whole family goes out to eat after a week of 100% homework completion).  A behavior analyst or psychologist can assist you in creating an effective contingency plan for your child, especially if problem behaviors persist after trying a number of incentive plans and punishers.


Be consistent!  Whatever routine you decide upon, make sure the expectations are clearly understood by your child and consistently enforced by you.  As much as possible, allow your child to provide input in deciding the routine, and remember that not all children work best under the same conditions.  Some children work better at a table in the kitchen with others present, while others work better alone in their bedroom. Some children need to start homework right away after school while they are still in the academic mindset, while others may be exhausted from school and need a snack and a less-taxing activity first.  Some children are motivated by tangible rewards (e.g., toys) while others are motivated by avoiding negative experiences (e.g., not having to do chores for one night).  Having a say in the routine gives children ownership and increases the likelihood that they will willingly follow the routine. Additionally, keeping his or her individual needs and preferences in mind ensures that you are setting them up for success rather than failure.

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