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My family is changing our homework mindset. Here's how.

Up until recently, I’ve always had a love/hate relationship with three o’clock, the time of day my boys get home from school.

I loved seeing them and hearing about what happened at school, but I also braced myself for the ensuing arguments, debates, and the possible tantrums that were sure to happen the minute I asked about homework. It seemed like no matter how much I tried to tell them to get their work done, my words were lost on them.

They didn’t want to hear it, and truth be told, I was tired.

That’s what lead me and my husband to discuss the problem with our son’s occupational therapist, and as awkward as it was, the therapist asked us to video tape ourselves and our sons during homework time so she could look it over and see what was happening.

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When we sat down with her, I wasn’t surprised by her report that my kids try to delay doing their homework by arguing, asking questions they already know the answer to, and staring blankly out the window for as long as possible. When she told me that my oldest wasn’t motivated to do his best, that he didn’t see value in it, I agreed.

Then she said something that surprised me…

“You’re negative about it too, Mrs. Messenger.”

What?! Maybe she was watching the wrong video. I sat with my boys during homework time, I helped when they asked. I supported them.

The therapist went on to explain positive reinforcements. “We often think of positive reinforcement as physical gifts, or things that the child can get for good behavior. But there are other ways we encourage them. We say, ‘Nice job,’ or ‘Thank you for doing you work.’ We touch them on the shoulder, or we make eye contact. Those are all signals that we send to others to let them know that we’re happy with what they’re doing. You do this sometimes.

“On the other hand, what I see you doing a lot is sitting silently. I can see that you’re tense, and they're probably picking up on that too. You don’t say much at all except to explain the work. You don’t touch, and you look mostly at his work rather than at him. I’m sure you’re probably doing this so that you don’t disturb him, but trust me, doing these things will help him work harder, not hinder him.”

It was hard at that moment not to feel like a failure.

If she was right, I had unknowingly sent my son signals that I wasn’t happy with him working. It took a moment, but I straightened myself and asked how I could change it.

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From that day on I encouraged my kids, I praised them while they worked, and I made sure to pay close attention to them--not just their work. Along with that, the therapist told us that we should make our expectations known right away, telling them to do their best work and not complain at the beginning, that way if they start complaining or working half-heartedly, we can simply redirect or remind them that they could have a punishment for that behavior. Then, the minute they’re back on track, we thank them.

The results:

It’s been a few weeks now, and I’d be lying if I told you that homework is a breeze everyday. It isn’t. We still have rough days. However, I'm seeing some pretty cool changes. My oldest smiles and gives my high-fives when he’s done with his work. My youngest asks to read to me throughout the evening because he enjoys it more, and I'm a lot less tense. We’re all on track to making the homework routine a positive one.

Though it was hard to hear that I'd been unintentionally discouraging my kids, I’m glad we took this step towards change. It’s already helping so much, and I can imagine it will continue to improve. If you struggle with homework-time, I would challenge you to try these things as well.

Your turn: What tips or tricks have you learned to encourage your children to do their homework?

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