Wednesday, April 17, 2024

Homework Strategies for the Overwhelmed: The Worksheet.

December 5, 2017 by  
Filed under Education, Weekly Columns

( Some people are naturally good at the self-discipline required to work steadily on boring things such as homework. Other people are not naturally good at this and yet these people (whether kids or adults) can be taught. Here are some ways of getting good at this, from someone who was not born with this skill but has learned it.

First of all, one word needs to be forbidden: “ought.” When we start thinking of what someone “ought” to do, we are opening the door to judgment about that person, often without thinking about the context that is making something difficult. Yes, an eight year old “ought” to be able to do a math worksheet independently. But that fact does not help a particular eight year old who is struggling. It is far more effective to find out what is going on. Here are some possibilities:

  • The student does not understand what to do. The worksheet seems incomprehensible.
  • The student has some kind of conflict with the teacher.
  • The student has a fear of doing things wrong and won’t even get started.
  • The student has a hard time sitting down for the length of time the worksheet will take.
  • The student has had a lot of negative learning experiences with the topic and does not want to engage with it.
  • The student would much rather do something different (e.g., watch television, etc.).

As you can see, the remedies for each one of these circumstances would be different, so in order to come up with an effective strategy, it is important to understand what is happening in the mind of the student. Here are some possible remedies to try:


Many school subjects are cumulative and math is especially so. If you don’t understand the principles of multiplication and division, fractions and decimals are going to be almost impossible. The earlier tutoring can be obtained, the better, so that the student can develop a strong foundation for future learning.

School systems sometimes have tutoring services available and they may be free of charge. There are also educational corporations that provide tutoring, although this may be expensive. Alternatively, you may be able to find a college student (preferably one majoring in education) who can provide tutoring at a reasonable rate of pay or even a high school student who seems to be good with kids. While parents can also tutor, sometimes kids have a hard time learning from parents, so finding someone else for the job may be more effective. There are also web resources for many subjects that may help.

Parent-Teacher Communication

There’s an old joke about the teacher who says to the parent, “if you promise not to believe half of what you are told about school, I promise not to believe half of what I’m told about your home.” For many reasons, kids may not be representing what is really going on in their classrooms. Students will go to great lengths to get away with watching TV instead of doing their homework. Sometimes they are trying to avoid trouble for themselves and sometimes they simply don’t understand what the teacher wants. Communicating with the teacher on a regular basis will help you to be able to solve problems between the student and the teacher.


The perfectionistic kid is the one who erases holes in the paper because the letters weren’t formed exactly right. This is also known as the “helocopter parent” approach, which, while well-intentioned, can cause more harm than good. While we want children to develop high standards for themselves, part of wisdom is learning when to apply those high standards. Perfectionism is counterproductive, for example, when writing a rough draft.

When kids have a hard time getting started on their work because they are concerned they cannot do the work well enough, they need permission (or even a requirement) to do something badly. Most work can be revised towards quality but even a bad start or highly imperfect one is much better than no start at all. Telling a student to write something as badly as possible can lend some humor to a situation and remove some of the psychological pressure. Ironically, when people set out to write as badly as possible, they often end up writing well.

Breaking it down

For some kids, twenty problems on a worksheet is totally overwhelming. Teach them to break it down. Ask them to see how quickly they could do one line of problems; having a timer will help them to get into the spirit of finding out their capabilities. After the child has done one line, allow a small break and then come back to the next one of problems. It may only take three or four sessions of breaking a worksheet down this way for the student to begin to use the strategy on his or her own. Being able to break down a big task into smaller, more doable pieces is a wonderful skill for kids to learn; it applies in so many areas of life.

Learned Helplessness

When students have had a traumatic experience in learning, they may, naturally, want to avoid that situation again. They may develop a sense that they are incapable of learning and therefore they will not even try. Learned helplessness is a psychological phenomenon identified by Martin Seligman in both animals and people-it is a response to the situation of having no control over negative events one is experiencing. Both people and animals give up.

In order to counter learned helplessness, it is important to set the student up for a series of small but significant successes and also to begin by taking most responsibility for the activity but then slowly give the student responsibility until the student is independent.

Premack Principle

The idea behind the Premack Principle is to reward the completion of one activity with the possibility of doing a preferred activity. It goes like this: “You can watch your favorite television show when this homework is done.” If you phrase it so that the first thing you say is what the child wants to hear (“you can watch television”) then that will help the child make the decision to meet the requirements. If you focus on the requirements first (“you can’t watch television until your homework is done” or “your homework has to be done before you watch television”), then that leads the child to focus on something that feels negative. Keep it positive (but also follow through-if the homework is not finished, the television show does not get watched).

Choose the Remedy

Be sure to find out what is going on when a child is having a hard time completing work. If you know what the deal is, you will be more likely to find ways to solve the problem. It is important for children to learn how to work independently and these skills can be learned.

Staff Writer; Carla Day

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