It’s your child’s first week back to school and her first homework assignment is, let’s say, missing. You try to guide her on assignments, but she has such a hard time paying attention you feel like you’re the one doing the homework. Does this sound like a common scenario in your household? If so, psychologist Jeffrey Bernstein, Ph.D. wants you to know that you’re not alone. He says there are many parents struggling to meet the challenges of parenting a distracted child. Punishments don’t work, and many parents wonder if their child has a problem or is just plain lazy.

Bernstein, author of 10 Days to a Less Distracted Child (Marlowe & Company, 2007), says distractibility means poor attention, not laziness. The most common cause of distractibility is attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD)—a neurological disorder. But, distractibility can also be related to anxiety, depression, learning disabilities, or stress.

Your job as a parent is to help your child work through his distractions, especially during homework time. No student relishes homework, but it’s an important component of school success, and it’s especially challenging for the distractible child. But, Bernstein says there are ways to keep homework headaches under control. Here are a few of his tips, from 10 Days to a Less Distracted Child:

Be Calm, Firm and Noncontrolling

Make sure to keep your own emotions in check as you work with your child on completing his homework. Share that you understand his frustration and resistance to doing his homework. Don’t get into a power struggle with your child. Instead, encourage him to sit down and give it his all.

Getting Past the “I Can’t Do Its”

When you get this stock response from your child, you should act, “as if.” That is, encourage your child to act as if he can do it. Tell him to pretend that he knows, and see what happens. Then leave the immediate area and let him see if he can handle it from there. If he keeps telling you he doesn’t know how to get his homework done, here are a few supportive probes that may help get past the “I can’t do its”:

  • “What parts of the instructions don’t you understand?”
  • “Can you give me an example of where and how you are getting stuck?”
  • “Tell me what you think the answer is.”
  • “How could you find out?”
Establish a Schedule

You will all benefit from knowing that a certain time every day is reserved for studying and doing homework. The best time is usually not right after school. Most children, and especially distracted children, need time to decompress and unwind. The predictability of a schedule keeps distracted kids in a routine.

Know How Your Child Learns Best

If you understand your child’s learning style, it will be easier for you to help him. For example, does your child tend to be a visual learner? Does he learn things best when he can see them? If so, drawing a picture or a chart may help with some assignments. Does your child learn things best when he can hear them? In this case, he may need to listen to a story or have directions read to him. Does your child understand some things best when he can handle or move them? For example, an apple cut four or six or eight ways can help a younger child see spatial relationships.

Make Prioritizing a Priority

For many distracted children, deciding what to do first during homework is a major source of tension. Encourage your child to number assignments in the order in which they should be done, before beginning his homework session. He should start with one that’s not too long or difficult, but avoid saving the longest or hardest assignments for last.

Talk About the Assignments

Guiding and supportive questions can help your child think through an assignment and break it down into small workable parts. Here are some sample questions:

  • Do you know what you’re supposed to do?
  • Do you have everything you need to do the assignment?
  • What’s the best way to get this done?
  •  Have you seen problems like these before?
  •  Does your answer make sense to you?
  •  Where did you get stuck?

Obtain an Extra Set of Textbooks

Having a spare set of textbooks at home can improve your child’s homework and studies. Start by finding out who’s responsible for providing the spares. Then contact this individual with a good reason and something to back it up.

Give Encouragement and Praise

People of all ages respond to encouragement and praise. Children need encouragement from the people whose opinions they value most—their parents. Here are some samples of encouraging statements:

  • “You really tried hard on that math even though you couldn’t finish it. I’m proud of you.”
  •  “I know you don’t like reading the book you were assigned, but I like how you are trying to tough your way through it.”
Here are some samples of praising statements:
  • “Good first draft of your book report!”
  • “You are doing so much better than last year—wonderful!”

Homework may prove to be a constant challenge for your distractible child throughout his school career, but with positive, calm, and knowledgeable parent to guide him, the challenge doesn’t have to be insurmountable.