Liza Varvogli, Ph.D.
Amy, an otherwise cheerful first grader, every time she comes home from school is sulking. “How was your day honey?”, mom asks “bad,” Amy answers and dashes in her room.
“Hi Mat, how’s it going buddy?” Dad greets his 8-year-old second grader when he gets home. Mat is roaming around the house knocking things over, trying to shoot hoops in the waste basket, and not being able to sit quietly for a moment. engrossed in a video game he plays on his mom’s smartphone, held close to his eyes, and he doesn’t respond.
“Time to go to gymnastics,” mom reminds Kelly who is in third grade. The response she gets is an enraged “I don’t wanna go! I hate gymnastics!” and that gets her started to talk some more about all the things she hate.
“Time to do your homework,” mom reminds Betsy who is in fifth grade. She yells back “leave me alone! You always snoop around and tell me what to do” And continues yelling some more for different issues.
What happens next is along the lines of parent trying with patience one more time, child’s digging heels, parent yelling, child yelling back, frustration, anger, maybe tears. Not a nice home atmosphere.
Afterschool is a stressful time for most families, but does it have to be so?
Parents are already stressed out when they return home from work and if they don’t work they still have other stressors to bug them. So, when the kids get home the situation can easily get out of hand with meltdowns. Is there a specific issue to blame? Yes! Homework.
Experts say that a major cause of stress and problematic behavior is the direct result of the homework pressure. You are not surprised to hear that, are you?
With kids having three times more homework than recommended by the National Education Association (http://neatoday.org/tag/10-minute-rule-homework/) and the National Parent-Teacher Association, tension at home rises: parents have a hard time getting their kid to sit down and do the work, they may even feel they cannot help their kid adequately. The tension results in whining, tears, fighting between parents and kids, frustration and anger on both sides. Robert Pressman and colleagues (http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/01926187.2015.1061407) corroborate the stressful effect of homework on families in a study of over 1,100 English and Spanish speaking parents published in The American Journal of Family Therapy the summer of 2015.
What Parents Can Do
Communication: when less is more
When the child returns from school try a different line than the usual “How was your day?”, “What have you been up to?” and similar ones that require the child to give you an answer, when they may not be in the mood to share about school, because for example they had a rough day. Instead of focusing on the child, focus on how you feel about seeing your kid: “hey, buddy, nice seeing you!” The simple welcome that doesn’t require any action on the part of the child is an effective way to ease the transition to home.
Crankiness, whining, general bad mood may be caused because of dehydration or hunger. Offer your child some water or juice and a healthy snack.
Children may have different needs when they get home and some prefer to get some down time before starting homework or after school activities. Allow your child to relax, hang out, listen to some music or do some drawing. Avoid TV or watching movies, as this may lead to another round of bargaining for extra time till the end of the show or movie.
Let your child burn excess energy
Yet some other kids return home and need to burn the extra energy they have. Let them run, jump, do somersaults, whatever they need to do before settling down.
Prioritize and organize
Then it’s time for homework! Remember that your child’s part of the brain responsible for planning and organization is still growing, which practically means that the child will require help in organizing themselves. Ask them to bring all the necessary materials for homework, papers, pencils, erasers, etc. and for younger kids (up to 3rd grade) show them on the face of a clock how much you anticipate them to take to complete the homework. Before getting started, do a simple relaxation exercise with your child: close your eyes and tell them you are going to blow up imaginary balloons, in their favorite colors. Have the child imagine the colors of the balloons and imitate the act of blowing, first taking a deep breath through the nose, then exhaling through the mouth. Then proceed with homework.
Sometimes as adults we think that if you can only sit down for an x amount of time and concentrate, we will complete what needs to be done and get it over with. Effective strategy, but it doesn’t always work with kids. If your kid needs a short break, allow them to have it. Let a few minutes elapse before switching tasks.
Rewarding a child is different than bribing! Catch your child ‘being good’, concentrating, forming nice letters, working independently, whatever, and comment on their effort (without waiting to see the end result). Say something positive about the progress they have made since last week or last month (no matter how small). Remember that kids crave parental attention. Most often they operate and do what they do because they want to get mom’s or dad’s attention, even if it’s negative attention. It’s up to us to make it a habit to give them more of our positive than our negative attention.