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Homework battles: What really matters

Homework. It’s a source of battles in many families. But does it have to be? How can we approach homework so that it doesn’t cause so much stress for our kids — and ourselves? 

In this episode, hosts Rachel Bozek and Gretchen Vierstra talk all things homework with special education teacher Shira Moskovitz. Hear Shira bust common homework myths, like why the best time to do homework isn’t always right after school. And why it’s OK if your child’s homework station is a bit messy. Plus, get tips on how to give kids homework support while fostering their independence. 

Related resources 

Plus, check out Wunder to get expert support around homework challenges and connect with other parents. 

Episode transcript

Gretchen: From the Understood Podcast Network, this is "In It," a podcast about the ins and outs...

Rachel: ...the ups and downs...

Gretchen: ...of supporting kids who learn and think differently. I'm Gretchen Vierstra, a former classroom teacher and an editor here at Understood.

Rachel: And I'm Rachel Bozek, a writer and editor raising two kids with ADHD. Today we're talking about homework.

Gretchen: Oh, homework. It's the source of many afterschool battles in my household. And I know I'm not alone here.

Rachel: No, you're not. So what can we do to make homework time more productive and less of a struggle?

Gretchen: To answer this, we're delighted to be talking today with Shira Moskovitz.

Rachel: Shira is a special education teacher in New York City, with expertise in technology and dyslexia.

Gretchen: Shira, welcome to "In It."

Shira: Thank you.

Gretchen: So homework. I'm guessing as a fifth-grade teacher, this is something some of your students struggle with.

Shira: Most definitely.

Gretchen: Oh, most definitely. OK. So what do you hear from your parents and caregivers who come to you with questions or concerns about homework? What are their main concerns?

Shira: I think that most parents are worried that if they don't get it all done, a catastrophe will happen. And I think my biggest perspective as a teacher is to debunk that myth. There is no catastrophe.

Gretchen: There is no catastrophe. Great.

Rachel: So what would you say are the overarching issues that get in the way of kids doing their homework? I mean, if you can just lay out kind of the top few that come to mind, and then we can tackle them one at a time or however it works for you.

Shira: Sure. Well, I'll start with probably the biggest one that applies to every child is that they are tired after a long day of school. And they come home and there's more work. That's the biggest issue.

The second issue, maybe they didn't understand the skill exactly in class, or they don't totally understand the instructions. So they come home and there's an adult at home and they say, "Help me with this." With what? Not exactly sure. I don't totally get it. I need help. And if the child is struggling, the parent is definitely going to be struggling, because the parent wasn't with me in class.

Gretchen: Mm hmm. So we have a few areas we love to tackle when it comes to homework challenges. And I'm going to start with the first one that we mentioned already, which is that hurdle of getting kids to actually sit down, maybe not sit down, but do their homework, right? Especially after that long day of school when they're tired and maybe they went straight from school to other activities. And so now it's even later and they're hungry. You know, especially kids who have trouble focusing. Kids with ADHD might have a hard time getting going on this. So what is the advice that you tend to give students and families about the first hurdle: getting on the homework?

Shira: Definitely. So I would say kind of like what you said is that it's not necessarily that they need to sit down. A lot of parents talk about setting up a homework space, and that is definitely something that you want to do with your child. But make sure it's a space that your child is comfortable with. Your child should be driving that decision of where homework is done, what materials they use. At the end of the day, if they're lying down on the floor or they're sitting on a cozy cushion and they feel more comfortable that way, or they're standing and they can get their work done, that's what's best. So ask them. Let them make that choice of where's the best place to do their homework.

The other thing is really helpful is consistency. So having that consistent space and that consistent time. If I know from this time to this time I'm doing homework, my expectation becomes part of this routine. So setting up a set space and a set time, even if it's not the most conventional space or not the most conventional materials, whatever your child feels most comfortable with, that'll be the — produce the best homework results.

Gretchen: So what about the most conventional time? Because I know, you know, when I was a classroom teacher, families were like, well, I want them to get it done right away so that I know we have dinner, that we get ready to bed and it's over. But not all kids want to do it right away.

Shira: I definitely agree. And I think that as a child, I didn't want to do it right away. And there's two things I want to address there. One is basic needs being met. If your child is hungry, they are not going to do homework. I know that if I'm hungry, I'm not going to be productive. So maybe it's not a full dinner, maybe it's a snack. Maybe that's part of their homework space is that there's a snack there. And if that's what your child needs, that's OK.

And other than that, knowing that if your child does best with homework after dinner or after a shower, that's OK. The homework still gets done. And if you create that routine for them with that expectation that, OK, we're going to eat dinner and then do our homework, or going to eat dinner, change, shower, and then do homework, whatever that may be. As long as they know that that's going to happen Monday, Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, they'll be ready for that.

Gretchen: Rachel, I know you had a perspective on time, right?

Rachel: I do. And my question — I'll give you a spoiler alert — is about getting your homework done in the morning. And one scenario that I've seen in my own house is if there's an activity like right after school or within an hour or so of getting home from school, there's not really time to make homework happen in a, you know, kind of calm the way it should be done way. But then at the same time, if they come home from, you know, softball practice or basketball practice or something and then go straight into dinner, then they're tired and like kind of done.

And for me, I'm sometimes for myself after like a full day of work or sitting at my computer, if I need to like take care of something else, I'm like, you know what? I'm going to do that first thing in the morning. So when my daughter, who's in fourth grade, is like, "I'm going to do my homework in the morning," I'm kind of like, "Yeah, I get it." What do you think about that? Because mornings are not always really set up for getting homework done. But also like sometimes her brain is in a better place to do it at that time.

Shira: Right. I want to challenge what you said that mornings aren't set up to do homework. They would be set up if you made it set up. If that's your routine, if mornings are the best for you, why is that not the best time to do homework? It very well could be with a nice, you know, you know, you could have your cereal and homework, especially when some of the homework is a little more passive, like reading a chapter from a book. There's no reason you can't do that with breakfast. You most definitely can.

Gretchen: What do you think, Rachel?

Rachel: I like it. I like it. I think the answer to my own question there is getting everybody up earlier, but maybe that is the answer.

Shira: I definitely think it takes some flexibility on the parent's part, but also knowing each individual kid. Maybe one child needs homework in the evenings and one child needs homework in the mornings, and that is a lot of extra work for us. But if it's a pressure point at home, setting up differentiated routines for our different children is something we're doing anyway in other areas of life. And homework can just be one of those things.

Rachel: OK. So we've talked about when and how to get our kids to actually sit down and do their homework. But once you get over that hurdle, what do you do about a kid whose tendency is to just rush to get it over with as fast as they possibly can?

Shira: I think this happens more when children have a lot of homework to do. That's a big reaction — I have seven assignments to do tonight, so I'm going to try to get through them as quickly as possible because TV is waiting. My friend is waiting. Dinner's waiting, whatever it may be.

I definitely recommend framing at home. The emotions around homework in general are very tense — and often very tense for the parents as well. So if we frame homework for our children in a way that it's not a race to the finish line. There's not this pressure to get everything done, but just to practice the skills you learned at school that day. Our perspective is different. Our child's perspective is different. Hopefully the quality is different, even if they don't get through every single math problem. They do three and they do them really well. At the end of the day, they practice that skill more than rushing through 17 problems or whatever it may be.

Gretchen: That makes total sense. I love the framing idea. Let's say that we've, you know, set up this tone that, you know, while we want you to practice your skills and if you're not going to get through all of them, that's fine. But you'll need to at least, you know, accomplish like maybe three or focus on this for 10 minutes. Are we supposed to hover and make sure they get that done? Or what are we supposed to do as parents in that situation?

Shira: I would really say ultimately it depends on the child. But no, the goal is independence. This is not your homework. I always tell my students, "Your mom and dad went to fifth grade already. I know they know this stuff."

So I ask parents to be as hands-off as possible in this situation. If you know your child is not yet independent and they do need more frequent check-ins, then do that for them. But I would explain to them the goal is "I'm checking in because I know this is hard for you, and this is something that we've discussed is a way that will help you. But one day the goal is that you can do this on your own."

But check-ins are only one way to make sure that they're getting done. You can also do things that help foster independence, like having them set a timer for themselves. And they say, "OK, in those 10 minutes, I'm going to get through two problems," and then they have to self-reflect after the 10-minute timer rings. Now, granted, does that take a certain level of independence when the timer rings to reflect on that goal? Yes. But maybe that's something that the first couple of times you can do with them and then they can do on their own.

Rachel: I have a question on the organization front — or really the disorganization front. You know, sometimes for us in my house, the biggest hurdle to getting the homework going is the organization factor. You know, it starts with like, "Hey, how much homework do you have?" Or "Do you have homework?" And it's like, "No, I don't." Or "I just have this one quick thing." And then later you find out that it's actually like not one thing and they're not quick things. But regardless of how much there is, sometimes it's also just like, where's your pencil? You know, like the most basic thing leads to, like, the meltdown. And I mean, do you have any suggestions for just being set up, especially if they're not doing the work in a conventional workspace? Like if we're at the kitchen table or we're, you know, kind of just somewhere else in the house besides a desk — that "having it all together" piece of it.

Shira: Yes. So I think this is another thing that you want to let your child drive. My favorite activity is going to Dollar Tree and letting my child pick out the pens and pencils and highlighters and the caddy, because that's for me, the conventional learning space is not going to work for homework, you know. So if you have a caddy and it sits on the floor, or if you've a lap desk with materials, and if your child owns that, this is mine. I picked out my Superman pencils. You want all those different pencils to go back in the container at the end of the night because you want them there tomorrow.

Will it solve everything? No. Because that still comes down to organization at school, which as a parent can be frustrating, but you can't really control. Because if there is no system in place or the system in place doesn't work for your child, yeah, you're not going to know. But that's a conversation you can have with your teacher. "Hey, you know, my child struggles with knowing the homework. What are some tools we can set up so that my child comes home with an agenda or with a list" — whatever that may be that works for your child. And it's OK to ask for that type of thing, even if it's not what works for the rest of the class, so that you do come home with the most positive potential outcome.

Rachel: I think that the caddy suggestion is actually really great because who doesn't love a good caddy for their markers and pens and pencils? And, you know, one thing that came to mind as you were talking about that, though, was the executive function piece, right? So what I've seen is we'll get, you know, the most kind of amazing setup for that kind of thing. And then it's still like everything's on the floor next to it. And so, you know, maybe that's just, you know, the executive function, you know, challenges for some kids, I think, will still probably come into play. But I think it is a great start for them to have something like that to work with so they can kind of carry it around.

Shira: Right. I think that if you're talking about executive function, really, is it a problem if all the materials are on the floor or does it just look messy so it bothers us? I would say that if their zone of doing homework includes papers and pencils on the floor next to them, maybe that's their done pile. As long as it gets put away at the end, that's OK.

Rachel: I like it.

Shira: Teaching into, you know, where to get your materials, how to put them away at the end. What it looks like in the middle may look like a mess to us. And if that's what works best for our child, that's the best mess that they can have.

Rachel: That's great. Done pile. I need that.

Gretchen: You know, speaking of executive function, let's talk a little bit about time management. I know that sometimes kids may look at an assignment and it's overwhelming, right? And they don't know — they think it might take too long or too little time or they don't plan for it. And I know lots of teachers recommend chunking assignments, breaking it down. Can you maybe talk to us about how you help kids manage their time when it comes to assignments at home?

Shira: Yes. And that's actually the first thing I wanted to say is that I wouldn't ask parents to chunk an assignment for a child if they don't totally know the background of the assignment. So let's say we do have a bigger project for a whole end-of-unit assignment. And if you're a parent in that situation and this seems overwhelming to your child and you're not sure, don't feel that pressure to come up with a timeline on your own. Reach out to the teacher. Because what I do is I will give an outline to the whole assignment.

And sometimes I'll even give a heads-up to the parent. I haven't told your child about X, Y, and Z, but this is what's coming. So in week one, I recommend doing this. In week two, I recommend doing that. So I wouldn't ask a parent on their own to figure all that out, but I'm very happy to collaborate with a parent. Or maybe I send home a timeline, and the parent's like "This is still overwhelming." Great. Let's break it down further.

But don't as a parent feel that overwhelming sensation that your child feels and then drown in it. Because like I said in the beginning, our attitude towards homework and this space that we have at home will be mirrored in our child. So we have this positive outlook. Our child can have that positive outlook. So we say, "That's OK, we'll figure this out. Let's get the teacher's help." That's what your child is going to do the next day. They're going to say, "It's OK. I'm going to go to my teacher and get help." As opposed to spiraling.

Gretchen: Yeah. Yeah. And, you know, I have found at home as a parent, sometimes when I — at first there's some overwhelm, right. They say, oh, my gosh, it's so big and I have so much to do, blah, blah, blah. And I will give space for a little bit of venting. And then I say, "Did your teacher kind of break it out into smaller assignments? Is there anywhere where you have an outline?" "Oh, oh, yeah. I have it here somewhere."

And sometimes I think that as parents, we need to — we might have to dig a little with our kids to ask for this chunking information because it's there. But they're — maybe their feelings are in the way, right? And they're forgetting that it's there, because they're just so stressed about the big assignment.

Shira: Right. And definitely validate. And I want to say in general that sometimes the assignment is not very big. But for some reason it feels very big for our child. Maybe it's just that one worksheet and today that's feeling really big. And I do encourage families to set a time limit or a question limit, whatever that may be, even if you're not going to get anywhere near finishing it. We don't want our child —I don't — and as teachers, we don't want our students to go home and feel this just overwhelmed or negative feelings about learning. Then the homework wasn't productive. Maybe they got it all right. But if that negative emotion comes back to school the next day surrounding this work, we still have a lot to deal with.

So I would rather, "OK. You only got two done. That's fine. That's what felt like your max for that day. OK. Maybe another day won't feel as overwhelming." But I really want parents to cut off. Homework should not be that stressor, should not be the thing that's spiraling. We know the concept of homework may be overwhelming. But when it comes down to doing it, if it really is getting overwhelming, that's where as a parent you can say, "OK, we've had enough for today."

Gretchen: Sounds good to me. I just wanted to check in on one particular area. So if you know your kid has dyslexia and so they have trouble with reading, or they have dyscalculia, so math is more difficult. When you're home working with your child, first of all, I wonder, do you do those things first because they're hardest? Do you save them for later because they're hardest? And what kinds of supports do we suggest to families? I mean, I'm sure there's some that they already know of from meetings with teachers and such. But I'm just wondering what your advice is around that.

Shira: Well, I would say about which comes first. That's your child. Your child is driving this homework scenario, right? So your child's going to pick whether that comes first or that, you know, because the least favorite thing for last or smack in the middle. But I would also say about tools: Mimic whatever is going on in school. If your child's able to read in school because they have assistive technology, you should have those same resources at home. And specifically with assistive technology, because you mentioned dyslexia, but really it applies to lots of disabilities, lots of times on a child's IEP, they'll say this works best for them with the support of X, Y, and Z technology. And oftentimes the school itself will provide that technology. And what a lot of parents don't realize is that that technology is not just for school learning, it is for learning, which means that your child can bring that device home every single day as long as they bring it back the next day.

Gretchen: That is such a good tip.

Shira: Build on to that. Are there virtual math manipulatives that we can use? All these things that are free and available — use them. But especially please, please, if they're using them in school and being successful with them in school, use them at home. You don't want to reinvent the wheel. If this is working for them, make sure it's continuing to work. And specifically about assistive technology, parents can ask the school to get trained in the apps or tools that your child is using so that you know how to use it the best way, just like your child's teacher did. So that it shouldn't be any different than what they're doing in school.

Not to say that it's going to be easy. Any of these tools, assistive technology or these manipulatives, don't suddenly erase a learning or thinking difference. But if it's a support that was determined to be necessary, then don't take that away from your child at home. Then you're signing yourself up for some challenges.

Gretchen: I love that advice of make sure you're getting those tools at home, ask for them, and ask for the training. I think the training is key. So thank you, Shira, for mentioning that.

Rachel: Yeah, because nobody wants to be like sitting on YouTube trying to figure out how to use this thing that, you know, the teacher probably could have shared.

Shira: Especially during a homework crisis.

Gretchen: Yes. Especially when you're hungry, when you're...

Rachel: "Hold on a minute. Let me — let me check YouTube for 15 minutes. Just hang tight. Hang tight."

Rachel: So this might be our last question, but I think it's a really important one. What is your biggest piece of advice regarding homework? Like, what do you find yourself telling families the most?

Shira: I think it comes back to the emotions. There's a lot of stress for parents about homework, and we inadvertently pass that on to our children. And that stress comes from so many different things. I'm worried that my child isn't doing well. I'm worried that I don't know the skill well enough to help my child. I'm worried that it's not all going to get done. All the things we discussed.

So when we change our perspective on homework, that it all needs to be right, that it all needs to be done, that it needs to be perfect — any of that — and we're just having a more positive outlook on homework, we're more likely to let our child drive those conversations, pick the space, pick the time, pick all of those things. And if we're relaxed, they'll be relaxed. And will it all get done? Not necessarily. Will it all be perfect? Not necessarily. And all those things are OK. And if we accept that as parents, our children will accept that as students.

Rachel: That's so helpful.

Gretchen: That's great advice. Thank you so much for joining us today, Shira.

Shira: It's been my pleasure. It's been great to talk to you.

Gretchen: By the way, you can find more great tips and insights from Shira on Understood's Wunder app.

Rachel: Should we explain what that is for anybody who doesn't know?

Gretchen: Yeah. Good idea. Wunder is a free community app for parents and caregivers raising kids who learn and think differently. So it's a place to connect with other parents who get what you're going through.

Rachel: There's all these different groups there on topics like ADHD or dyslexia. The one that Shira leads is called "Ask an Expert: Dyslexia, Tech, and Learning," where she gets into some of that stuff that we talked about today, like how parents can get comfortable with the assistive technology their kids are using at school. So if that sounds interesting to you, go check it out.

Gretchen: You've been listening to "In It," from the Understood Podcast Network.

Rachel: This show is for you. So we want to make sure that you're getting what you need. Email us at InIt@understood.org to share your thoughts. We love hearing from you.

Gretchen: If you want to learn more about the topics we covered today, check out the show notes for this episode. We include more resources as well as links to anything we mentioned in the episode.

Rachel: Understood.org is a resource dedicated to helping people who learn and think differently discover their potential and thrive. Learn more at understood.org/mission.

Gretchen: "In It" is produced by Julie Subrin. Briana Berry is our production director. Justin D. Wright mixes the show. Mike Errico wrote our theme music.

Rachel: For the Understood Podcast Network, Laura Key is our editorial director, Scott Cocchiere is our creative director, and Seth Melnick is our executive producer. Thanks for listening.

Gretchen: And thanks for always being in it with us.

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Hosts

  • Gretchen Vierstra, MA

    is the managing editor at Understood and co-host of the In It podcast. She’s a former educator with experience teaching and designing programs in schools, organizations, and online learning spaces.

    • Rachel Bozek

      is co-host of the In It podcast and the parent of two kids with ADHD. She has a background in writing and editing content for kids and parents. 

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