Just mention the word homework to any child and watch the drama unfold: the eye-rolling, the huffing and puffing of do I have to?!, the melt down on the floor, the bargaining for “just 10 more minutes” of play time, at times even the flat out denial and creative distortion of reality: “Actually, um, I just remembered, um, our teacher said we didn’t have to do the homework today—it’s, er, optional” (this from a 7 year old who shouldn’t even know that word) You get through the battle today only to face the same struggle again tomorrow; does it have to be this way?
Kids will try anything to not start homework. And who can blame them? Starting is hard. In fact, it’s the hardest part. The brain has a hard time transitioning, starting things that don’t have immediate gratification waiting. Like creating something from scratch, it feels daunting (read: impossible) to do all the parts—gather the materials, sit down (for goodness sake!), open your book, and actually start attending to what is on the page. But, the brain does like finishing things. It loves, loves, loves it! And so do we. Neural satisfaction circuits light up like a Christmas tree—flashing and making merriment— when we finish things. So a parent’s job is to help kids develop a routine to quickly jumpstart their work, get a hook into those books, so that their wired-in desire to finish things will reel them in and help them get the work done--the sparkly lights lit, and your sanity intact.
Here are lots of ideas to get started on getting finished, constructively.
Set Up the Launch Pad and Walk Away What’s the number one stumbling block to starting homework? Getting the papers out of the backpack. Or the backpack out of the car. An unopened backpack two feet away can feel like the mission to the moon and be a reason to delay for hours—we just can’t m-o-v-e. Crossing the room, unzipping the backpack, finding the books, the instructions, are you kidding me? There are no limits to how each one of those microsteps can become the sinkholes into which our children’s motivation falls.
As a pre-emptive strike to procrastination, have your child set up their work station, unzip the backpack, open up their books, engage just enough to decide (and take a quick peek at) what task they’re going to tackle first, and then… walk away. Yes. Walk away. Go get a snack, do something fun for 15-20 minutes, and meanwhile their mind will be secretly thinking about returning to that work because in one sneaky move you’ve turned homework from something to start into something to finish. When they return to their books they will do so with the transition already underway.
Think Menu, Food Menu That Is: Have your child start with an “appetizer,” an assignment that’s not too hard and that they’re not dreading, once they’ve warmed up their brain with that assignment, they can move into the “main dish”—the assignment that requires the most time and effort. Then, because your child’s going to be tired, finish off with “dessert”— an assignment that’s relatively easier or something that’s difficult but that your child wants to do.
Planned Breaks Rather Than Stolen Ones: Yes, it’s great to follow that strong current of inertia to a video game, the tv, or facebook, but when does the break begin? When does it end? Is it really called a break if you’re getting nothing done? Have your child sit down and plan to take a break after 45 minutes or an hour of work. Make the break short and sweet 5-10 minutes tops is best; move around, and before your child heads out on that break, have him take a look at what he’s going to do next. Your child should always leave a “path of crumbs” back to what he’s going to do next to prevent him from having to do a transition all over again.
Stop 7/8ths of the Way Done: Remember, we lose time with start up—procrastinating the beginnings—if we stop our work when we’ve finished one task, we’ll have to face the mountain of starting from scratch again to begin the next one. While it might sound counterintuitive, encourage your child to stop (for a break, or, in the case of long-term assignments—for the night) just short of completing an assignment. This way, knowing exactly where your child is going to pick up will encourage that “finishing behavior” and they can jump right back in, finish, and then move on to the next task all warmed up and ready.
Create Time Estimates for Assignments: Dread impairs our ability to estimate time accurately. When we don’t estimate time well our dread increases. It’s a vicious cycle. So, when your child sits down to do work ask—how many minutes/hours do you think this will take? First answer will likely be something like: “forever,” and you can respond—“right, that’s how it feels, but if you had to make a bet, what do you think?” Putting a time limit on it (even if it’s just an estimate) will help your child spring free from that existential sense of interminability that even the youngest students seem uncannily able to experience, and see—this is doable.
Chunk It! Like adults, children dread being trapped in something unpleasant. Instead, break an assignment down into discreet tasks, jobs or sections so that your child builds up momentum along the way by completing small goals faster as she works toward the bigger goals.
Separate Your Emotions From the Task: Does the work take a long time or is it the emotional reactions that are so time consuming? Help your child not confuse working with complaining or “freaking out” about work. If your child is worrying about the million things he has to do, this very much slows down the completion of the one task that is in front of him. Instead, have your child schedule a 2 minute “freak out” or worry time, where your child is naming all the things he has to do and how it feels impossible, then, with that done, sit down and start chipping away at the first task.
Time the Process: Children hate homework, but adding an hour of resistance to the 15 minutes it often takes to complete the work is just extending the misery. Challenge your child to see how quickly they can get their work done when there’s minimal grumbling. The result will sell itself. (Don’t ruin the project by saying things like—see, I told you it would be faster if you didn’t complain. Best if your child discovers that for himself). Alternatively, have your child set a specific allotment of “grumble time” so that their inner pessimist can speak but won’t derail them when their inner achiever has other plans.
Put Down the Ducky: Remember Ernie wanting to play the saxophone on Sesame Street? He had to put down his beloved rubber ducky first. Translated to your kitchen table—if your child really wants to get homework done, and out of the way, she’s got to put the phones out of reach, turn off the internet on the computer, make technology a reward at the end of the process, not a distractor along the way. No it’s not fool-proof, your teen can always sneak, or turn the internet back on, but challenge her to see how much more she can get done when the technology is out of the way for a bit.
Writing An Essay? Give One Minute On the Clock for Brainstorming: A blank page, a new assignment is always daunting. Sneak past the beginning by jumping in the middle. If your child is writing an essay or even a term paper, have her give herself one minute on the clock and write down all the ideas she has that she wants to say. No proper grammar or full sentences, just phrases. After a minute she can look at her list, circle the ideas she likes, then number them in the order that makes sense for now. Suddenly your child will have the beginnings of an outline. She can then begin developing those points and she’s on her way. She shouldn't worry about introductions and conclusions, she should just start in the middle and the rest will follow.
Fire the Critic! Often kids procrastinate because they are thinking about what grade they’re going to get, worrying about what the teacher will think, how this will impact their GPA, and before they know it, they’re not working on their paper, their in total paralysis about their future. Help your child see that the best way to succeed in the future is staying in the present: putting all of their focus on the work now. Make the grade watcher and perfectionist critic sit in another room until they’re done.
Many a parent has told me that these strategies work for them too. Check out my article about overcoming procrastination for adults—hey, why not now?
And, if you’d like to learn more about how to teach your child to take charge and free themselves from anxiety, check out my new book: Freeing Your Child from Anxiety: The Revised and Updated Version: Practical Strategies to Overcome Fears, Worries and Phobias and Be Prepared for Life, From Toddlers to Teens!
©Tamar Chansky, Ph.D., 2014 No portion of this work may be reproduced without permission of the author.
Turn off social media updates. We are all plugged into the matrix today, whether it be Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, or another way to connect. Regardless of the form of social media or game, turn off updates. If you can't resist temptation, there are software tools and router settings to limit internet usage.
Pull in your email. Email automatically delivered to you based on receipt or software timeline is pushed, because it's sent without your interaction. When you must look or check for new email, it's called pulling email. Every email client has a setting to stop automatic email push and notification. Remove the distraction by seeing emails only when you deem necessary.
Shut down the TV and radio. The allure of TV and radio is stronger than homework. Hearing the opening jingle of your favorite TV show, or a great quote from an intense movie, can lead to complete distraction. It's even possible the TV and radio are subliminally distracting you. 
Wear noise-cancelling headphones. Isolate yourself completely from sound and distraction. Noise-cancelling headphones are perfect for 100% focus on the task at hand. Choose one you believe will help you really focus.
Change your physical work environment. Try to make it as much like a library as possible. Bright lights will help avoid sleepiness, which can hinder motivation. Working at a desk instead of your recliner, sofa, or bed will help you stay on task. Keep only homework related items near you. Clear off the desk or your work area so the only possible temptation is homework completion.