05/05/2013 20:26 BST | Updated 05/07/2013 06:12 BST

How to Get Kids to Do Homework

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Want your child to scrunch up into a pumpkin sized ball under the kitchen table? Just ask them to do their homework. My son tells me he 'can't do it'. Can't do it? He hadn't even read the questions. His desperate cunning is kind of sweet. But after half an hour of cajoling, I'm frazzled and the human pumpkin still needs to do his homework.


Embarrassingly, I'm a qualified teacher. Taking 30 teenagers through Shakespeare holds no fear. With my own kids, there was no end to the energy they would expend avoiding work. Actually, now I think about it, that was true of some of the teens I taught too. Is it laziness? Or is it anxiety?

A friend of mine came up with a novel solution to her son's homework anxiety. She pays a responsible sixth form girl five pounds an hour (seriously) to supervise her son, and it works like magic. Kids aim the biggest fireworks at their parents. They're secure enough with us to express their worst fears - which is nice. But they're also secure enough to treat us to their worst behaviour - which isn't. We're in a feedback loop: my kids' anxiety worried me; mine worried them. It was the perfect storm.

My son said he was afraid of getting the answers wrong because he wanted to impress me. He'd tense up and breathe faster when we started practising the times tables. The solution came by accident. I asked him to answer 'smoothly', not fast, gave him a big hug and told him we need to make mistakes to learn. Whenever he got too worried, I asked if he wanted a break.

The simplest solution was to insist he and my youngest write in pencil with an eraser. A friend's daughter loves her Pilot FriXion Erasable gel pen. The trick, apparently, is to 'rub it out fast, not hard!' - and it works beautifully. To help with writing, we spelled tricky words on a piece of scrap paper before starting the homework. My daughter uses a number grid to remind her of the right way round to write a three, six and nine and all the other wicked double-digits that used to trip her up. She was alternately fretful and furious about making mistakes, so for her, prevention was the cure. I set up sums that were impossible to fail, gradually increasing the difficulty.

With my son, we finally nailed the problem at parents' evening. For weeks, at every homework, he'd argue about what exactly he was supposed to do. This usually ended with him claiming he couldn't do any of it. It turned out, he was super keen to get it right, but often mis-heard instructions. His teacher explained all the mark schemes to me - and to him. Problem solved!

Find out more about our learning journey.

What Teachers are Taught

Step kids up gently. Teachers spend a long time learning how to step work appropriately. First, steps are far gentler than you think. Second, it's better to start kids on something that's much too easy than too difficult. Ask your child's class teacher about games or activities you can do with them at home.

Praise is important, but it needs to be specific, and proportionate. In other words, the word 'genius' is bad. Try focusing on specific areas of what your kids did well: 'You did that question just right, and really paid attention to the thing you forgot last time.'

It's better to ask questions than offer solutions. Try: 'what do you need to do?' and 'what do you want to do?'. Ask open questions: 'What do you think about...?' or 'Tell me something about...?' This is explained in more detail in Clean Language: Revealing Metaphors and Opening Minds, by Wendy Sullivan and Judy Rees.

Helping your kids can be stressful, but like all ordeals, can be a fab bonding experience. It may get worse before it gets better, but once it starts to improve, there's no better feeling.

Get free resources to help kids aged six-16 in English at my site,