How to help with homework

Helping Homework work!
Reducing homework problems and problem-solving power struggles after school. 

How can we nurture the soil around our children and teens’ ability to create and sustain productive work environments at home?
 
How has your home environment changed since serial lockdown experiences?
This time last year, we moved into our flat in Hereford, keeping around a third of our possessions in storage whilst we started the hunt for our ‘forever home’… I remember one of our daughter’s new friends commenting that our flat ‘looked like a hotel’…

How I basked in that momentary achievement of a lifelong ambition for clear surfaces, empty, unencumbered views of wall. One year down the line, there is not much wall left to be seen. The steady waves of Amazon deliveries, the chunking up of office furniture; desks, chairs, devices, books, files, and folders have slowly eaten away at the available floorspace…

Have you ever noticed how a simple change in your surroundings can have a powerful effect on your mindset, your focus, your motivation, and ability to get on with work?
And the same is true of children and teens.
In my work as a coach, supporting teens and parents, I often find that young people are trying to force themselves to study in environments that aren’t a good fit for them. This makes engaging with work at home more of a struggle than it needs to be.

Equally, power struggles between younger children and their parents on the homework front, are often resolved by creative thinking about the environment they are working in – both in terms of space, and the way their time is structured at home…creating the right internal environment that will make the prospect of facing work more approachable.

Modifying their study environment can be a good way to go – and also recognizing that an ideal study environment isn’t just a physical space…so many factors can influence our ability to focus.

A supportive and encouraging dynamic around schooling certainly helps – and avoiding the downwards spiral of being the homework police is even better. We can often fall into the trap of comparing what we see in our kids with the selective and rose-tinted spectacles about our own motivation and prowess ‘when we were their age’…

Context:
Academics start earlier than previously – in the UK and the US. A study 10 years ago at the University of Virginia titled ‘Is Kindergarten the new first grade’ set this out in stark terms with exposure to spelling, writing sentences, writing stories, probability, writing equations, vastly increased – doubled in some categories comparing how school time was spent in 1998 with 2010.

Michael Gove’s stint as Education secretary essentially meant that what had traditionally been covered in Year 1, 2, 3 etc was pushed down a year. A much more dense curriculum than before.

The average hours in school each year has increased with the US totting up 1000 hours, the UK 1170- 1462 – with George Osborne having allowed secondary schools to extend their school day in 2016. During my time as a teacher, the school day started 20 minutes earlier over time, and finished 30 minutes later each day.

The Child Mind Institute gives statistics about the average onset of various disorders changing over time:
6 – median age of onset of anxiety disorders
11 – median age of ADHD and Behaviour disorders emerging
13 – Median age of mood disorders
15 – Median age of onset of substance abuse.
 
There is plenty of evidence that the landscape of childhood has changed considerably. We are expecting more from children – but the evolution of brain change in our species lags behind!

By Year 7 in the UK many young people can expect an hour of homework in the evening. On top of their full day at school. By Year 10 this has chunked up quite a bit. In Year 11 they are also expected to be revising as well. They are in effect doing a second shift. How motivated would you feel if after your working day you too had to go back and put in a further 2 hours?
 
Since the pandemic, the majority of parents (67%) report concerns about the long term impact of the coronavirus on their children’s mental health and 66% pf parents said the pandemic had a negative impact on their own mental health. (YoungMinds 2021).
 
Overloaded minds and cluttered spaces go hand in hand. Minds in deficit are hungry for more ‘stuff’ as shopping habits have shown (anyone for toilet roll, pasta, fuel?) I know from my 25+ years of teaching that ‘disorganisation’ is almost always the behavioural tip of the iceberg- often revealing an inner disorganisation – whether that is the developmental adjustment struggles of adolescence – or adjusting to family crises like illness, bereavement, or divorce. An inner ‘derangement’. Interesting to consider the origin of that word…to derange – disturb – and its association with mental disorder -and the physical – being the opposite of being ar-ranged…

And much research shows that removing clutter and simplifying spaces has a positive and calming effect. So what could we try that could be of use when it comes to the secret lives of families and the struggles between parents, children and schools anxious to ‘keep up’ or ‘get back on track’…
 

Environment and motivation:
Different types of environment work best for different people – what works for you is not necessarily what works for your teen – so approaching this with curiosity, collaboration, and creativity will help massively. You may have slogged away for hours at your desk in your bedroom and have some very fixed ideas…
 
Go to a hipster café and watch people work on their laptops for hours. When working from home, I would go to that sort of environment for the last tranche of my working day to get a fresh scene, different energy. Sometimes I found that it really helped me in more creative tasks than sitting at a blank screen in the quiet…

TEENS / adolescents…
Start with the feelings they would need more / less of to get them ready to start and stay with their work.
 
This is a good starting point to set up an environment that is designed to help them shift into that emotional state when they are ready to get down to their work.
 
Easily distracted students who find it easier to perform in test conditions, may prefer to work in the school library or a more formal work-space where they can work in intense bursts where silent concentration is the norm.
 
Teens who are a bit floppy, bored, tired when studying might need more energy and motivation – so they might work best in a more bustling, busy place where lights are bright, and they can have a playlist of energetic music.
 
Anxious teens may intentionally choose an environment that promotes relaxation and calm…lower lighting, comfy chair, comfortable and tactile lounge-wear, ambient, gentle natural sounds…
 
Clearly suggestions like these need trial and observation – are they able to get into ‘the zone’ or ball-park where work can start? 

Choice, agency, creativity, observation and evidence will help navigate options and opportunities to maximise their chances of creating a motivating environment…
 

YOUNG CHILDREN – 5-11. Curating their energy, getting them more likely to be ‘in the mood’…
 
Think about the data above…they may well need a real fire-break from the strains of the school day, sitting still and ‘paying attention’. They may need a really good, vigorous, play first to refuel their maxed-out brains…This is what might help them be more ready to come back to focus.
 
Have they had a snack that is nutritionally dense enough to help them change gear and get into their ‘second shift’? Help your child listen to what their body needs – don’t impose your own dietary ‘shoulds’ on them…no one is going to get anything out of fractions if they are ‘hangry’…Have they had enough protein?
 
Have they had chance to unload and reconnect? Restore their secure base after the transition from school to home. Top up their cup of love. Ensure they feel seen, soothed, safe, and secure in your focused attention – even if that’s only for 10 minutes. It’s a time investment that will pay you back. Kids can experience a shortage of love even if there’s plenty going round.
 
Lawrence Cohen writes and speaks beautifully of playful ways of going about this…eg repeated requests to ‘Look at me’…look at them and don’t look away until they’re done…Watch them absorb it…Pretend you crack a ‘love egg’ on their head and let your love spread over them in imagination, describe it’s gooey softness in visual, tactile, sensory ways…Play evolves through repetition – it’s fun and it builds in rules and dimensions…Reverse the roles… Playfully pretend that you REALLY don’t want them to do their work…role play how abandoned their books and pencils feel…Break it up, instead of repeating yourself louder and louder…

Spatial & environmental issues:
It’s not always great for your kid to work in their room. Encouraging homework and screen work in public spaces enables observation (and passive surveillance!). You get to see exactly how long it takes to do Geography / Maths / English…Remember that children and many teens are not developmentally capable of managing their time effectively. It’s not just about heading off distracting habits…it’s also about preserving and channelling skills around using deep focus for a set amount of time. On the flip side of that, it is also important to be able to head off perfectionism – a cruel task master, borne of a harsh inner critic…
 
Create a routine – a place that they will associate with their study. Eg a small desk in an area no one else is using. Be creative – are there any novelty spaces that will work for them? Think out of the box and try new things.
 
Sound distractions…Invest in noise-cancelling headphones. Create a ‘study playlist’ or listen to soundscapes like those on the Calm app or white noise on sites like ‘Noisli’.
 
Some kids work best collaboratively. Do they work best in company? Maybe working near other family members will help. Maybe for certain aspects of their work at home, they can get on facetime or Zoom to work with a friend.
 
Different environments might work for different tasks. Experiment with locations and formats. If there are difficulties with focus, investigate – is it with every subject, or certain subjects. Encourage them to check in with what they’re feeling and think about what choices they can have around how they can best get on with their work. Take a scientific approach and test out assumptions to see what actually works best in reality. Especially if you feel sceptical. Eg alternate between music on / off within set timescales and look at the quality of what emerges…

TIDINESS AND ORGANISATION – the bedroom battleground!!
 
The older the child, the more complicated it is to store, organise, find, use, and return their work, their books, their resources. Being tidy and ‘systematic’ (as my Mum used to say to me) is an important skill that will help them enormously in the transitions through from primary to secondary, from virtual or home school to in-person school…And it’s particularly important as the move into and through sixth form and into life at university.

Struggles over homework can be particularly stressful for parents who worry that their child is not going to be able to launch on the real world of work, and the consequences of not engaging with it. This can feel overwhelming, and is why it helps to break it down into skills…

Fill in these sentence starters:
I get triggered when…
Because they should…
When they don’t I feel…
Because I remember as a child…
ref Renee Jain of GoZen -Procrastination, Perfectionism to Motivation Workshop – highly recommended.
 
The earlier we give our children responsibility for managing their spaces and resources, the better. But we need to give them the skills and tools to make this both manageable and desirable.
 

Key questions:
• Who taught you to be tidy? How did they go about it?
• How often do your children and teens ask YOU where THEIR things are? What does that tell you?
• WHO puts things away in their room?
 
What exactly do you MEAN when you say ‘tidy up’? And do they actually have the tools to do it? Quite often when I want our daughter to organise her clothes so they can  be found and used, what I actually mean is sort-em, throw some away, fold them and stash them in meaningful piles…More often I tell her to ‘sort it’ and scratch my head when it seems no better… Did you ever get told to ‘tidy your room’ when you were a kid? – Serenely Sorted
 
The more precise you are about what you want, the better, or the floordrobe will merely get shoved under the bed. If you have a child or teen who is chaotic, and you want to get them to manage their toys, their clothes, their books, their work better, get more granular. Prioritise specific skills. IN all goal-setting research that specificity helps.
 
I had such an interesting and energizing conversation with Diana Spellman, founder of about the connections between the way our home environments affect our mood, I have her to thank for my inspiration for this newsletter.

Like me, she does corporate talks for Cityparents https://cityparents.co.uk – and where I talk about managing our minds, she is the guru on managing our spaces. I love, for instance, the simplicity and power of her notion of things having ‘forever homes’ so that we always know where they are an we spend much less time hunting for them or replacing them! Check out her online courses and services on https://serenelysorted.com.

Housework is a little like homework – it can feel like such a chore – but once done we can feel more rightness, clarity, and sanctuary about where we live. I had and still have such high hopes when the pandemic started that all this would enable us to take a fresh look and kickstart our lives…but here we are, swimming in the messiness of it all…How can we rise up and rise above it…? If we’re going to help our kids thrive in their work, reduce the stress around losing / finding stuff, procrastination, delay, boredom, protest, distraction, diversion…and enable them to feel more calm and spacious about their studies in the evenings, it might be more practical to stop moaning and nagging and get organised… We’ve taken on a great deal lately…and we aren’t out of the woods yet, with the ‘winter of discontent’ looming. We’re hugely aware of lacks – of food, fuel, supplies, and we are hugely aware of gaps in our children’s schooling. They may be under pressure because the school is putting its foot on the accelerator of ‘catch-up’ culture. And what goes around comes around with pressure contagion. More is not always more…let’s see how we might streamline and organise things better and help our kids take control too.If this newsletter has resonated with you in some small way, let me know. If you feel stuck and overwhelmed with dynamics to do with housework, homework, groundhog day stuckness that we all completely get from time to time, consider getting in touch for a consultation / ‘discovery’ session.I am now off to help our daughter address her nightwear drawer…and pour myself a herculean Friday G&T #wellbeing!With love and gratitude,Emma. 

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