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How to handle homework meltdowns

POSTED: August 21, 2014 11:00 a.m.
Willie B.Thomas, ©istockphoto.com/Thomas_EyeDesign/

If the homework seems too hard, his reading comprehension seems low or he has trouble with math, it could be a serious disability or even a minor learning style difference.

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Question:
As a new school year approaches, I am noticing the dread of homework time again at our home. My son, who is still struggling to read, can be having a great day and when I just say the words "It's time for homework," it turns into such a battle and it's hard to know where to push and not let reading be such a negative thing. Do you have some tips for homework time and how I can manage it better?

Answer:
This is a tricky one because your stubborn child knows you can’t force him to think, write or read. You can force him to sit at the table, but you can’t force much more than that. So force isn’t the way to go.

The most important thing is that you don't lose it. A child in meltdown will trigger your two core fears: failure and loss (failing as a parent and losing a child who is headed for failure in life). You must stay in trust about your value and in trust with your classroom journey of life if you are going to help your child. Remember that your value isn’t on the line here, and this isn't the end of the world, no matter how bad tonight is.

I am going to address some common homework meltdown, power struggle, and discouragement issues though, and give you some advice for each, but the very first thing you must do (if your child is struggling with homework) is find out if your child has any kind of learning problem.

If the homework seems too hard, his reading comprehension seems low or he has trouble with math, it could be a serious disability or even a minor learning style difference. If you suspect this kind of problem, have your child tested and ask the school to help you set up an education plan that works better for him. You could also explore how he learns best on your own. Try teaching him using different methods (visual, verbal and experiential) and see which one he relates to. There is also an article I wrote back in 2012 on tips for starting the school year right you may want to read.

Here are some common problems and tips for battling homework fear.

Fear of failure avoidance issues: This happen when a child is afraid he just isn’t smart enough and avoids doing homework completely. These kids often say they just don’t care about school. They may not hand work in, because it feels safer to be labeled irresponsible than dumb. They may lose things, forget books or papers, or completely forget to tell you about the assignment, because they are so scared of failure. If your child behaves like this, he is functioning under the idea that life is a test and his value is tied to his performance. This means you need to have regular conversations about how mistakes are no big deal. Explain that life is a big classroom and there are some hard lessons and we will all perform badly on occasion — but those scores don’t affect our value as a person, they just show us where we have more to learn. Our value is based on the fact that we are a one-of-a-kind irreplaceable soul, and our value is infinite and absolute. You may need to read some of my other articles to get this idea down yourself so you can teach it to your child.

Fear of failure perfectionist issues: This happens again when a child thinks his value is tied to his performance, but instead of avoiding the work, he stresses and cries about not doing it perfectly. I had a son who came home saying he was failing math. I called the teacher and she told me he was her best student, but that he had missed one problem on a math test (which in his perfectionist mind meant he was failing). These kids, again, need to learn that their value isn’t tied to their performance. They need to learn how to be motivated by a love for learning, growing, stretching and becoming without any fear of failure because even if they fail a test, it doesn’t change their value. You still want them to work hard but from a place of passion for learning, not because there is anything to fear.You may need to work on this one yourself.

When the homework is too difficult: Challenging homework assignments are the perfect learning opportunity to talk with kids about the challenges of life and how we can choose to handle them. What are our options when things are difficult and don’t make sense? What can we try? What resources are out there to help us? Who could we go to for help? You ask the questions and let your child come up with the answers. Teaching them how to solve problems and deal with challenges may be more important than the homework.

When the homework is too easy: The reason some children hate homework is that it’s boring and not challenging them enough. If your child resists doing homework but can get it done fast, you may want to talk to the teacher about more challenging work. Some teachers don’t have the time and resources to give bright children separate work, but you could offer to help with that.

Is your child lazy? I believe most kids are not lazy. I think their lazy behavior is really hiding the fact that the homework is too difficult, too easy or doesn’t interest them, or they are just passionate about other things they would rather be doing. You need to have some long conversations (where you do more listening than talking) with your child, to find out how they really feel about school and all the things they do. What gets them excited? What are they really interested in? What about homework bothers them? What could possibly motivate them to care about their grades, their future or their life? (I’m all for rewards that are natural consequences of hard work — like a bonus at work will be someday.)

Lack of organization, memorization and study skills: I wrote another article with some study tips you ought to read back in 2011. It has ideas for helping kids memorize facts and learn math. There is also a great book out there called "Why Bad Grades Happen to Good Kids" that might help you with a disorganized child.

Parents who are controlling or do homework for them: Parents should guide but not push and should help but not do their work. Guide them through editing a paper instead of editing it for them. Help them find resources online to solve a problem instead of telling them the answer. This will make kids see themselves as capable and smart with the skills to do things on their own. You must watch for fears of failure and loss that could make you impatient, controlling and overly picky about the quality of their work. Let them own the quality as much as possible, and ask permission to give suggestions instead of just giving them. This shows kids you respect them and will earn their respect back.I would also recommend that you get outside help if necessary. Think outside the box on this one because outside help could be anyone other than you. For example, I knew a family that decided to have all of their children sit down at the kitchen table as soon as they got home from school to do homework together. The older children helped the younger ones and if someone didn't have any homework, he could either read or help a sibling. Another idea is to trade with neighbors — homework help for lawn mowing or a home-cooked dinner once in awhile. If you have the means, there is always professional help such as Sylvan Learning Center or even college students needing to earn a little extra money. Children often work better with someone who isn’t YOU.

Also remember that each night’s homework is a lesson (in your classroom of life) and another opportunity to practice being wise, mature and loving. You won’t always handle it perfectly, but you will always get another chance to practice tomorrow.
Just keep working at it — and you can do this!

Kimberly Giles is the founder and president of claritypointcoaching.com. She is also the author of the new book "Choosing Clarity: The Path to Fearlessness" and a coach and speaker.

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