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What’s the worst thing about helping your child with homework? Is it actually sitting down in the first place? Battling distractions and complaints? Trying to figure out what the heck the teacher actually wants? For me, it’s communication. When my son struggles with worries, the pitch and volume of his voice start to rise. He asks me questions like “CAN YOU HELP ME?” and another favourite “WHY AREN’T YOU HELPING ME?”  I don’t always know where to start, so I give suggestions, hints, directions or start asking questions of my own. It’s frustrating for both of us, and my own tone of voice can be hard to manage. I don’t want to seem annoyed or tense, but sometimes, talking just seems like counter-productive (at best) and neither of us can find the words to figure out the problem.

How can I make homework less emotionally draining for us both?

When your child is worried, confused or bored, it’s hard for him or her to find the right words to get help from you. Sometimes it comes out like pleading, whining or demanding, which can trigger more discussions about how to ask politely.

Emotional self-regulation is hard work for kids, and sometimes it’s hard for your child deal with feelings of worry, annoyance, self-doubt or inadequacy on top of all the math, vocabulary or science flying at them. 

I realized that if I wanted to really help my child, I could try to give him a better way to ask.

Giving homework help when and how it’s needed, without the drama

Naturally, I thought of using a drawing of some kind! (You know me by now, I hope.)

I grabbed a scrap piece of paper and a marker, and started setting up our brand new “Homework Help-Bot.” On the piece of paper, I drew a few simple buttons, and a label for each. Each button represented a question my child could ask. When he tapped the paper, I would instantly provide a reply. This visual helps to reassure my child that I’m standing by to help if needed, and it helps me to relax and not try to jump in or try to guess when he’s getting frustrated. 

When I finished, my son grabbed a handful of markers and made sure that each button got its own colour (it’s always a good sign when kids participate and offer their own ideas!) I think he liked the idea of being in charge of his very own Homework-bot!

Here are the questions we used to complete a page of French vocabulary homework:

  • What does this mean?
  • Is this right?
  • Can I get a clue?
  • I don’t know where to start

Behold… the homework bot in action!

What kind of feedback or correction does my child need during homework?

Having a pre-set list of questions really helped my son to ask for exactly the kind of help he needed, so he didn’t feel frustrated when I gave too much or too little information. 

We also set up a way for me to help him check if the answers were correct. It might seem strange to use a noise instead of a comment to communicate, but we already use sound to get feedback in so many of our everyday interactions. The phone makes a swishing sound to assure you that it has sent your email. Your bus pass beeps when you swipe it. If you don’t hear the sound, you check and try again. Conversely, when we try to give feedback to each other with words, we often falter. We try to be polite, and fail to get the point across. We try to be clear, and end up being too blunt. We struggle to find the right tone of voice. A sound-effect can take some of the emotional weight out of the message “Correct!” or “Try again.” 

I offered to use my clicker, which has been a great help when he first started to learn how to write letters (I have some training in TAGteach which is all about giving quick, precise auditory feedback) but my son wanted to invent his own noise. He chose an eraser that I tapped on the table when he completed each question, and I tapped twice to let him know if there was an error.

Success!

Instead of whining or complaining, my son simply tapped a question on the page and looked at me, bright-eyed and expectant. 

Instead of protesting or scrambling, I gave exactly the information he was looking for. 

It was the fastest, happiest homework page we ever completed together.

In the future, I know he will need to be more confident, more persistent, more resourceful, but we are just starting out.

Right now, it makes sense to offer feedback after each question, and to sit close by. As he grows older, I’ll be able to check his work at the halfway point, or a page at a time. He’ll be able to keep his cool and stay focused even when I’m not sitting right beside him because I’ll gradually help him get used to it. 

 

    Improving homework help with your own Homework Bot

     

      Designing your own system might be as simple as doodling some “buttons” and devising some questions your child can ask. When words get in our way, we can find other ways to communicate!
      My son made a tweak to our Homework-bot today that didn’t quite work when he added an extra button that said “I don’t know what to do. Please explain.” This was hard for me to interpret, so I might add my own tweak that includes the words “I’ve read the instructions, but…” It’s a work in progress, but it’s already so much better than it was.
      You might want to understand your child’s struggles more deeply so you can add questions that fit his/her needs, so I’ve also included a link to this free resource I created. This handbook can help you find hidden areas of need (e.g., planning, emotional self-regulation, perspective-taking) so that you can offer support exactly where it’s needed.

    I’m happy to help 1-1 as well. 

     If you need online behaviour coaching to get you through a tough phase, I’m available. We can chat for free to map out the struggle, and you can reserve a spot that’s convenient for you here: 

    http://ameliabehaviour.as.me/intro

     You don’t have to do this alone. Looking forward to connect with you soon!