There are several reasons why kids are unmotivated when it comes to homework. Once these reasons are understood they can be addressed, and once these reasons are addressed, children can be much more motivated to start and complete homework.
Possible Problem: The child has a fixed mindset
One possible reason for a lack of motivation around homework is that the child has a fixed mindset. A fixed mindset is one where a person believes their intelligence and capabilities are set and are unable to be changed. For instance, if someone has traditionally done poorly in school, they may say to themselves “I’m not smart”.
The problem with this mentality is twofold – first of all, if a child believes that they inherently aren’t smart, then every time they do schoolwork it becomes yet one more time to “prove” to themselves that they aren’t smart. This can put a child under a lot of pressure and can threaten to unnecessarily hurt their self-image, which can decrease their performance in the future. The task of doing homework is hard enough without worrying about judging yourself!
Secondly, viewing your mind as ‘fixed’ isn’t even true. By thinking “I’m not smart”, a child is viewing their brain as something unchanging in its capabilities, kind of like an engine in a car.
But a brain is very different – the more you use it, the more you can use it. The better it becomes. Just like a muscle, the brain adapts in response to undergoing challenges. This is very much related to the concept of brain plasticity.
Suggestion: Reinforce a growth mindset
A growth mindset is one where a person believes that their capabilities will grow with more effort, and that the upper bounds of their capabilities are unknown. The focus is on effort, not intelligence. So what does this have to do with doing homework?
When a child has a growth mindset, they approach homework as something to be overcome, because it expands their horizons. They know that the harder they work, the more they’ll learn, and the more they’ll be able to do in the future.
How parents can help reinforce a growth mindset in their child:
- Praise the effort the child is making
- Be strategic in your help – let the child struggle for a little while, but help them when they may be having a really hard time.
- Reinforce the idea that you know the child can complete the homework even if it’s tough and they require help
- Reinforce the idea that the child’s brain grows and improves with effort – use the analogy of using a muscle.
- Praise the child for pushing after a hard work session
- Believe yourself that your child is capable of doing the work and they will improve over time
- View scores as a way to determine how the child can improve in the future, not as a judgment on how smart your child is (If your child gets a good grade, say something like “look at how all that hard work paid off” rather than “look how smart you are!”)
- Don’t prematurely offer to help the child at the first hint of discomfort (when you prematurely help, you send the hidden message “I know you aren’t good enough to do this so I have to rescue you”)
- Don’t focus on the child’s intelligence (neither complement how smart they are or say how they inherently are or aren’t good at something)
Possible Problem: The child is tired
A long day of school and extracurricular activities can wear a kid down. When children are tired, they aren’t nearly as effective at mental tasks, so recharging before doing schoolwork can help.
Suggestion: Have the child take a 20-30 minute nap right after school
This is enough time to recharge their brain and short enough that it won’t mess up their nightly sleep.
Suggestion: Ensure the child is getting enough sleep at night
Kids typically need more sleep than adults so make sure they are getting enough and that they go to bed at the same time each night. Kids 6-13 need up to 12 hours of sleep a night while kids 14-17 need up to 10.
Possible Problem: The child keeps thinking about more fun, non-homework activities
Homework and other tasks are much harder to do when a kid is continually thinking about the stuff they want to do after the work is done (for instance, if they are going to play their favorite video game afterward)
The core problem here is that the child has two conflicting thoughts going on at the same time – one, they perceive as very pleasant (playing a game), and the other involves doing potentially frustrating work. It is easy for them to keep mentally dropping into daydreaming about the fun time coming up and then get slammed back to reality knowing they have homework in front of them. This dramatic contrast can make homework much harder than it has to be.
Suggestion: Use a daily schedule
One tactic that can greatly help a child keep focused on their current task is to have them use a daily schedule. This achieves several things:
- Lets them know that work is not endless, and it consumes only a fixed amount of time
- Lets them know that after they get done their work they will have free time
- Lets them mentally shift into ‘homework mode’, signaling to them that their full mentality should be focused on the here and now, on the work at hand, and not on a different time period when they will be playing.
Using a schedule promotes agency in the child and helps them understand the bigger picture. When they are supposed to work on their homework, they know they are supposed to be in ‘homework mode’ now and need to stay focused. Once the homework is done then they can move on to other things that they may prefer to do more.
How to Create the Schedule
It is important both you and the child agree on a schedule together, ideally in the early morning. It’s also important that you as the parent try to not break the schedule yourself or the child will be much less likely to think the schedule is legitimate.
Note: Make sure that you try to put in play/fun blocks in the day – at least one after the homework block, if possible. This reinforces to the child that homework isn’t endless and that they also can do things they were looking forward to.
- Print out a daily schedule that is broken down by the hour or half-hour. Since this is geared toward a child, the schedule should be fairly simple.
- Mark different time blocks on the schedule. I recommend the following blocks on the schedule: Breakfast, school, lunch, dinner, homework, chores, play/fun time. Depending on the day you may not have all of these blocks (for instance, on a weekend you wouldn’t have a ‘school’ block, while on weekdays you probably wouldn’t have a ‘lunch’ block since they would be at school during that time) For the homework block, be sure to give at least 50% greater time for that than you think the child should take. For instance, if you think the child can complete homework in 30 minutes, set that block to 45 or 60 minutes. The reason being is that sometimes homework can just naturally take longer than anticipated, and we want to reinforce in the child’s mind that the schedule is reliable (whenever a kid goes beyond the allocated time, he/she can feel extra stressed, thinking the scheduling system isn’t working)
- Print out the schedule. Print out one or more copies and put them in places where the child will always be aware.
How to Use the Schedule
Throughout the day, the child should be aware of which block they are currently in. This helps shift them between ‘work’ and ‘play’ modes. Using the schedule to drive the child’s mindset (their ‘mode’) is important because it will allow the child to stay in the present moment more and not be so distracted by upcoming events.
When homework time arrives, show the child the schedule, and let them know now is the time for homework; thus they should now be in ‘homework mode’. If they have fun stuff coming up later that is fine, they can be in ‘play mode’ during that block, but for now, they are in ‘homework mode’.
Possible Problem: Kid goes into ‘avoidance thinking’
Because of previous bad experiences involving homework, or schoolwork in general, a child may have gotten into a cycle of avoidance. The child may now feel very negative feelings about homework, and the way they deal with those feelings is it avoid doing the homework. The child may realize this is highly illogical because he has to do the work sooner or later, and may as well get to it, but they can’t bring themselves to do it.
They may drag their feet, hoping against hope that the work goes away magically. Or perhaps they secretly wish that someone (ahem, the parent) will eventually do it for them. In all cases, though, the child had learned to deal with homework passively and negatively – it is something to be avoided rather than confronted directly.
Suggestion: Use a modified exposure therapy technique
When humans purposely take on and expose themselves to things they have viewed as negative, and then overcome those things, they build up a tolerance and eventually gain confidence over those things. Exposure therapy is often used with phobias – such as having a person who is frightened of flying go to the airport, or a person who is scared of bugs purposely approach an ant hill. The thing is, exposure applies to not just phobias but to all, or almost all experiences in life. The more we get exposed to something, the more we get used to it.
So what does this have to do with homework? Well, if you believe your child has been somehow traumatized by previous experiences involving homework, come up with a gentle program to gradually expose them to it.
For instance, if their daily homework is 10 problems long, and they feel it’s a daunting task, allow them to do one problem and then have a two-minute break. Then tell them to return and do two more problems, then a small break, and so on until it’s done. The next session has them start with two problems, then a break, and grow from there. Then the next night perhaps starts with four problems etc.
The point is to have them start small and gradually build up their tolerance so they are sitting and doing longer and longer stretches of the work so they aren’t so intimidated by it.
The way a child approaches homework is rooted in their psychology. Kids need stability, reliability, and a way to know that homework isn’t something to be avoided, but something that will allow them to even grow their brains. Parents can help transform the regular negative homework experience by following the above suggestions as well as trying to understand the underlying problems driving the child’s behavior.