It is officially Fall! That means the leaves are turning yellow, nights are getting cooler and homework hell has officially begun. Teachers are assigning homework daily and the content is increasingly difficult. And my son’s homework anxiety has re-emerged.
Even though my kiddo has made great strides at school, homework seems to be his Achilles heel, especially at this time of year. And just as he is feeling the pressure, so am I.
I know that there are a few different ways I might approach my son when he needs homework help and some are more successful than others. I am sure you can imagine the unsuccessful ways, so I am not going to get into the ugly details here. Suffice it to say that when I try to impose a solution on my son, it does not go well. Yet I usually need to fall in that ditch a few times before I remember that there are better ways to support him when he is struggling.
Over the years I have learned to use three strategies that on balance tend to be effective. They include using empathy to connect with my son, reframing homework as an opportunity to “teach the teacher,” and approaching the situation collaboratively. So what does that look like in real life? Let’s take a look.
Using empathy to connect. I can definitely get caught up in what I think my son “should” be doing when it comes to homework. But when I approach him from this perspective, I am not really in touch with where he is emotionally, developmentally or academically. I am, in fact, divorced from reality. Can you guess how he feels about that? He hates it. That’s just a battle waiting to happen. When I remember to approach him with empathy, I am open to his experience. I’ll try to find out what is going on with him. I’ll ask him what, in particular, is making him anxious. I remind myself that he can be anxious about something even if he has done it successfully a dozen times before. When I approach him in this manner, he knows that I am interested in him and his experience, that I am on his side, and that my expectations of him are realistic. I also like to use reverse empathy in these situations. I’ll reflect on my own struggles as a student and tell him about what was difficult for me. I’ll also share the strategies I developed to help me overcome those challenges. Showing him that we all have struggles, as well as different approaches to resolving them, helps to normalize his difficulties.
Homework is a way of “teaching the teacher.” Very often, my son’s anxiety is about wanting to be perfect. He places unrealistic expectations on himself to “do it perfectly.” However, doing it perfectly is unrealistic, especially when you are learning something new. I remind him that it is his teacher’s job to help him learn. I also remind him that learning isn’t easy and one of the reasons teachers assign homework is so that they can see what their students have learned and what they are having difficulty with. When the teacher gets that feedback from homework, my son is “teaching the teacher” what his teacher has not yet learned. For example, if a math teacher assigns a set of problems on multiplying and dividing fractions for homework, they may find that the students understand the rules of multiplying fractions, but might need some help better understanding the rules for diving fractions. The students have “taught the teacher” what they need help with. My son loves it when I remind him that it is his teachers’ job to teach him, and when he does not do well, it is the teacher’s job to help him master the material. Framing the teacher-student relationship as more of a two-way partnership helps him feel more open to doing his best rather than being perfect. Whew!
Helping by collaborating. I can either help my son by unilaterally trying to impose a solution, which generally doesn’t go well, or I can take a collaborative approach. Taking a collaborative approach means asking him for his thoughts on how to deal with the challenges he is facing. I’ll ask him to think about what resources are available to him and what options he has for getting the assistance he needs. I may have my own perspective, but what works for me may not be right for him. If I can open up the conversation so that we are bouncing ideas off one another, considering different strategies and trying to be creative, that teaches him the valuable skills of self-advocacy and creative problem-solving.
If all else fails, I remind him of the unofficial motto of my college, which is “Done is Good.” It is so true and reminding myself of that over the years has helped my slog through some tough projects. Finishing an assignment that is not perfect is so much better than doing nothing at all. Sometimes, that is the only thing that will help my son to overcome his perfectionism and finish his homework. It may not be his best quality work, but won’t be getting a zero, and he will be “teaching his teacher” what he needs more help with!