As a parent, it’s likely that you’ve browsed the Internet looking for ways to help your kid get into a comfortable, consistent homework routine. You’ll find responses encouraging you to organize the space, reduce the distractions, prioritize the assignments, and reward your child’s good efforts. Advice forums will tell you repeatedly to stay on your child and make sure the work gets done, which on paper sounds like good advice. But what if it doesn’t work?

Countless parents follow this advice, meet with the teachers, employ private tutors, and take their children to counselors—yet, year after year, the homework situation keeps getting worse. In elementary school, take-home work may not seem as bad since you only have one teacher involved. Even when all of his homework isn’t completed (hey, it happens), your little learner still hands in some of the assignments.

By middle school, your child’s facing a mountain of homework from up to five different teachers, each with their own expectations. He’s bringing home good grades though, so you find yourself relaxing, and feeling you’re back on track (for a couple of weeks).

Before long, you realize that your kid has done all of his work for some of his teachers—and none of his work for the others. He was feeling proud of what he had completed, so from his point of view, everyone’s coming down on him in unreasonable ways. This feeling of defeat chips away at his motivation, until eventually, like a house of cards, his performance deteriorates in all of his classes. By high school, he feels lost, and if he loses access to after school activities, his interest in school is essentially gone.

The Homework Trap

So as a parent, how do you help your kid remain interested in education? The first step is to understand why your child fell into a “homework trap.”

  • “Under the radar” learning problems. Your kid may be suffering from a learning issue that’s gone unnoticed. He may not absorb all the teacher has said, or his handwriting may be poor. Whatever the case, he works more slowly than other students. At school, it’s less evident because the school day starts and stops by the clock. At home it’s brutal because there’s no bell to tell your child when his “homework day” is done. Without an end point, he can’t function at all. If you overlook these learning issues that manifest in his work pace, you’ll have little chance of getting him on track.
  • Hard-line discipline. Penalties for incomplete take-home assignments are far too severe. Zeros factored in as up to 25 percent of the grade essentially remove any possibility for change. When consequences that don’t work are used repeatedly, they actually further perpetuate the problem. Instead of extinguishing undesirable behaviors such as laziness or poor time management, strict punishments reinforce them. Severe grade penalties are highly unsuccessful as a method for getting homework-trapped children to do their work—however, they’re quite effective in sending parents into a frenzied state.
  • Clear direction. Homework blurs the natural lines of authority between the home and the school. Children need clarity: teachers in charge in class and parents in charge at home. Homework traverses those boundaries, innocuously if your kid doesn’t have a serious problem, but dangerously if he does. Homework is a major area of family life where, when problems arise, moms and dads lack the prerogative to decide what to do.

Fixing a Broken System

Your young student doesn’t have to fall victim to the homework trap. By heeding uncommon homework advice, you’ll give him the structure he needs to stay ahead—both at school and at home.

  • Tick-tock. Define homework time by the clock, instead of requiring him to work all night long. The standard in the field is ten minutes per night per grade, so don’t make your child work a minute more.
  • Transparency. Protect your kid being penalized for your new homework system by keeping in touch with his educators. Inform teachers of your time-based decision and request modifications in the class grading system. Three options are:
    • Full credit, without penalties, if you certify that he worked the required time;
    • A failure floor of 60 for assignments that are not done, turning incomplete work into an ordinary—rather than a super—F;
    • Recalibrate grades so that homework factors in no more than ten percent of the child’s final grade.
  • Share the knowledge. Your teacher probably hasn’t heard of this approach to homework, so help get her onboard by sharing your model. Provide her with written materials to support the changes you seek, and rally fellow moms and dads to take up your cause.
  • Focus on study skills. For older students, ask that the school assign a study skills teacher, who helps your child with the homework at school, and works with the teachers to establish priorities among the different assignments.
  • Take charge. Tread lightly in pushing this point, but if disagreements can’t be resolved, be ready to assert that, for matters in your home, you are the one in charge.

When presenting this model to the school, keep in mind that, whether or not your child’s teachers agree to all of these recommendations, there can be no question that the current pattern of unrelenting pressure to get all of the assignments done is doing him far more harm than good. Students across the country need homework relief—are you ready to advocate for change?

Dr. Kenneth Goldberg is a clinical psychologist with 35 years of professional experience in dealing with many different psychological issues. Through his career, he has served children, adolescents, and adults, offering individual and group psychotherapy, as well as marriage and family counseling. Prior to starting his private practice, Dr. Goldberg served as clinical director for a children’s resident treatment facility, as director of a psychiatric day-treatment program for the chronically mentally ill, and as the head of a rural mental-health center. He is a member of the American Psychological Association, author of the new book The Homework Trap: How to Save the Sanity of Parents, Students and Teachers, and currently works in his own private practice. For more information, please visit the Homework Trap website.