The homework challenge

Experts weigh in on how to bring love, not war, to the table

You want to start 2019 with peace and goodwill. But if your child’s homework is turning your dining room table into a war zone, it might be time to take a closer look at the way you approach it.

If you and your child struggle with the motivation to do work after school, you’re not alone, says Cameron Montgomery, an Ottawa-based educational psychologist and former assistant professor of education at the University of Ottawa and educational psychologist at Centre Jules Leger. Getting kids to do work after school is a common battle that parents have.

“Getting students to sit down and focus has become a major problem/challenge in western society,” he says.

It’s understandable. After being in class all day, children need time to themselves. “Play, especially physical exercise, is a proven remedy to obesity and leads to greater learning and concentration because the brain’s chemistry seems to be more alert and ready to function. I am a firm believer in physical exercise and the link to stress reduction,” he says. 

On the topic of homework, and how much is appropriate, Montgomery says it is a question of balance.

“I remember distinctly a school board in the State of Colorado where students were burning out because of school demands. They were run ragged by the school board and were burnt out from countless hours of school and homework. This is unacceptable and we must realize that our children need time to digest learning from the day,” he says.

“We need to consider the child’s well-being balance above all else. Coming home and doing another six hours of homework at five to 10 years old is untenable and unfair,” says Montgomery, who, as an educational psychologist, delves into fields including psychology and sociology to create learning strategies for students and teaching strategies for teachers. “Gradually increasing the amount of homework over the early years may be a better way to habituate children to increased life responsibilities.”

Although some schools have shifted away from giving homework, it is too early to generalize the effects of such a policy, Montgomery says. “It may give children in other schools who are driven to succeed an unfair advantage getting into universities, for example.” 

So what works?

Carol Tuttle, the author of the best-selling parenting book, The Child Whisperer: The Ultimate Handbook for Raising Happy, Successful, Cooperative Children, says parents can make homework easier on everyone by taking into account a child’s energy type.

“Every child has a dominant energy type that determines the way they move through life. It affects everything they do—playing, talking, eating, sleeping,” says Tuttle. Different personalities require different approaches (see fact box).

Montgomery says it is important to establish quiet reflective time with children so that they can review and hopefully do their homework.

For parents of younger children, it’s also crucial to start good habits early – ideally before a child starts school and homework begins to come home. As the father of a four-year-old boy, Montgomery tries to increase his son’s sense of responsibility with simple tasks, such as cleaning up his toys and practicing his numbers and the alphabet. But it’s a struggle, even for an expert like Montgomery, because kids will be kids.

“It really depends on my son’s mood and the time of day,” he says. “Parents know their children and know when they can gently push them or encourage them do their homework. Children need to somehow find meaning and value in the homework process.”



Limiting screen time

Parents need to establish the importance of having a quiet space away from the ever-dominant cell phone/computer which overrides all typical scholastic tasks such as pen and paper homework, says Montgomery.

“I have conducted research on children with Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder and this dynamic has become particularly difficult for these children and their parents as there is a constant pull towards technology which offers instant gratification, versus homework which is less immediately rewarding and more demanding at a cognitive level,” he says.

“In France, schools have banned the use of cell phones in the hope that students will become more focused and less dependent on technology,” says Montgomery. “This is an interesting development and we need to measure the effects of such a practice. 



Carol Tuttle’s homework tips for the four types of children


The fun-loving child

Characteristics: Bright-minded, quick thinking, likes to move

Challenges: Engaging in a linear experience can be challenging

Tactics: They need time to do something light and free before jumping into homework. Allow them to jump from one activity to another. Extra movement of things going on in the background is actually helpful for them because it allows them to disconnect from their homework and then connect again.


The sensitive child

Characteristics: Quiet, works methodically, great with details

Challenges: Speaking up about what they need

Tactics: Help your child plan a routine. Recognize what they are doing and invite them to share their work with you.


The determined child

Characteristics: Active, likes to get things done

Challenges: Performing detailed tasks they feel are tedious

Tactics: Help them see the practical purpose of their homework.


The serious child

Characteristics: Self-motivated, needs respect

Challenges: These children feel offended when you tell them what to do because they’re aware of their responsibilities

Tactics: Set aside one consistent place that they can take ownership of at the same time every day to do their homework. Get them their own desk or a place that’s separate from where everyone is moving around.