Nikki was frustrated. Her 13-year-old daughter Kirsten had just finished her required summer reading. She needed to write a summary, and Nikki urged her to do it while the details were still fresh.
"It's June, Mom," Kirsten said. "I can get to it later."
As a school counselor, I reassured Nikki that it was too early to worry about her daughter's work ethic.
"A 13-year-old brain is thinking, 'I don't have to do it now, so why should I?' " points out Peg Dawson, a psychologist and the author of "Smart But Scattered."
Kids procrastinate or shut down because they fail to see the relevance of a task, prefer other distractions, or struggle with comprehension, organization or motivation. And nagging isn't going to work.
"Homework is about control," says Rick Wormeli, an education consultant and author of "Fair Isn't Always Equal."
"Kids want a voice, and many would rather have the reputation of being forgetful or irresponsible than admit they don't know what they're doing," he says.
With a little creativity, though, parents can help kids overcome those barriers to productivity. Here are 10 ways to encourage kids to approach homework with more confidence and less conflict.
Establish routines and discourage bad habits
"The perfect intervention is something that only takes five minutes a day, but you're willing to do it every day," Dawson says. "With my kid, I'd say: 'You have 10 algebra questions. How long do you think it will take?'"
Set the tone with an uncluttered, well-equipped study space, and create a consistent schedule that includes breaks. One child might need to do his homework in the kitchen with a parent nearby, while another works best independently in her bedroom. Some kids reliably follow a planner, while others need checklists.
Prevent bad habits by intervening when kids toggle between texting and studying, sacrifice sleep for gaming or start work at midnight.
Name and tame negative voices
Train kids to notice defeatist thoughts. When a voice whispers, "You're not good at math," they can give it a name, such as Mike. Ask them to choose a different name for a voice that affirms they are good at something. Then say: "It's not you. Mike is causing you problems." Follow up with questions. "What does Mike need to feel more confident? What would the positive voice tell Mike to do?"
When there is distance from a problem, kids have an easier time coming up with solutions, says Ana Jovanovic, a psychologist and coach at the online tutoring service Nobel Coaching in Potomac, Md . It also helps them understand that their perceived weakness is only one part of their persona. She has kids name their planners to make them harder to reject. They buy into it, saying: "What do I have to do today? I should ask Jake," she says.
Dress for success
Have your kids choose special learning attire, such as a thinking hat or a pair of glasses, that they wear only while studying. Researchers at Northwestern University found that even adults are influenced by their clothing. When subjects in white lab coats were told they were wearing doctors' coats, they were more focused than those who were told they were wearing painters' coats. Similarly, in a study published in the journal Child Development, researchers found that young children persevered longer when they pretended to be a superhero.
Let school be the bad guy
If negotiating homework becomes toxic, it is time to contact the child's teacher or school counselor. Jennifer Goodstein, a sixth-grade teacher and executive-functioning coach in Bethesda, Md. , says she tells parents to stop and write her an email when their child melts down. "We can be the bad guys and say, 'Okay, Brendan, you were fighting with your mother, so you're going to do the work here,' " she says. She creates a schedule for the child to get help at school.
When Goodstein's 11-year-old son is frustrated, she will quiz him or help him understand directions. But if he does not understand a concept, she asks his teacher to provide more examples. She also lets the teacher worry about quality. "If he writes two sentences when I think he should write five, and he says that's all the teacher wants, that's her job to pull that from him."
Give kids options, but inspect what you expect
Allow kids to choose when they work or how they would like to approach a teacher, but follow up, says Kim Campbell, an eighth-grade global studies teacher and consultant for the Association for Middle Level Educators in Minnetonka, Minn. If kids promise to connect with a teacher on their own, they need to know what will happen if they do not follow through. "You can say, you have until the end of Tuesday, and if that doesn't happen, I'm going to email the teacher," she says.
Introduce physical breaks
"When I see that kids are falling asleep, we'll do 20 jumping jacks, or play rock-paper-scissors, or pretend we're in the ocean and there are sharks and we need to swim really fast," Campbell says. Even getting a drink can help. To enhance concentration, she recommends that kids take a walk, play sports or go on a bike ride before they start homework. When kids hit a wall, parents can have them try simple mindfulness exercises, such as kneading dough or blowing bubbles with controlled breathing.
Establish reward systems
Rewards work best when they are immediate. "You earn them when you do your homework for a week, not a quarter," Campbell says. "Some parents will say you have to get all A's for the semester, but long-term goals don't work." The payoff can be something small, such as stickers to decorate their notebook. Jovanovic likes anything that personalizes study accessories.
Make modifications and connections
"My older son was assigned a diorama, and he wasn't good with fine motor skills, so we battled," Wormeli says. That assignment had more to do with suspending things from the ceiling of a shoe box than science, so he contacted the school about adjusting it.
Enhance the homework experience by taking field trips or making connections to sports, popular media or current events. Parents also can make the most of technology. Kids can study with friends online or use apps to make flashcards, break units into smaller exercises or brainstorm ideas for essays.
But don't do the work for them. As Wormeli says, "What's the greater gift we can give our kids, that they learn it and it goes into long-term memory, or that they get a false sense of competency?"
Identify role models to build grit
Parents can ask kids to name people they admire, whether they are professional athletes or favorite writers. When the child wants to give up, ask what that role model would do.
Movies also can provide perspective. "Inside Out," for example, can help kids appreciate the benefit of negative emotions. "When you're sad, you're more likely to ask for help and to connect with people," Jovanovic says. She urges parents to challenge children when they say they are stupid or stuck. "I'll say: 'Convince me you can't do it. Give me two examples where you failed.'" She then asks kids what would be different if they told themselves they could do it. To build resilience, praise effort and emphasize that the child simply has not mastered a skill yet.
Go easy on the pressure
Too much pressure causes kids to push back. "At an age when you're just starting to discover who you are, you're already being told who you need to be," Jovanovic says. "When the gap between who you want to be and who your parents need you to be is big, you start rebelling."
Instead of fighting, Nikki and Kirsten agreed to an experiment. Nikki would write down her predictions, and they would revisit the issue after Kirsten wrote the essay. When they debriefed, Kirsten admitted she was foggy on the plot, but she said she was okay handing in mediocre work. "I had a good summer with my friends, and I didn't spend it obsessing over some dumb paper," she told her mom. They had different agendas, and that may be okay.
"Kids this age are navigating a much more complicated social world," says Dawson, the psychologist. "From a human development perspective, that's probably as important as any academic task."