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Thinking Parenting Blog

When homework threatens self-esteem, it’s time to take stock

One of the things I find hard as a parent is balancing the desire for my children to fulfil their potential academically with looking after their wider needs such as wellbeing and emotional health. The two don’t always sit easily together. Supporting children to do well at school inevitably involves a certain amount of pushing – few children engage gleefully with every piece of homework they are set on the exact day when it needs to be done. But pushing too hard risks negative impacts on children’s self-esteem and mental health.

Homework often needs doing at exactly the wrong time for working parents. Adults and children’s needs tend to collide in the evenings – the children want a piece of their parents, parents want to enjoy their children, everyone is a bit tired and looking for some downtime, but there is a meal to make and eat, bags to pack for the next day, clothes to wash, hair to wash, PE kit to find, phone calls to make… And slap bang in the middle of that is homework that we know we have to do but nobody actually wants to do.

As a result, homework (reading and spellings for younger children) has become a battle in many houses. It is a chore that parents and children dread. Despite our best intentions, there is often very little joy in those home learning tasks. And joy in learning ought to be a key ingredient in children’s education.

Because we want our children to succeed but are stressed and time-poor, parents can get intensely frustrated when our children get their homework wrong or don’t produce their best or just find it hard to learn something we consider to be simple or something they ‘ought’ to know.

And it is all too easy for that frustration to come out as impatience or blame or in a way that makes children feel bad about themselves.

Handing in a perfect piece of homework or moving up a reading level or meeting an educational target on a particular date is never worth destroying a child’s self-esteem – no matter how busy or stretched or not in the mood for homework you are feeling (see School stress: are parents piling on too much pressure?).

Here are a few ideas to help you support your children’s learning in a way that nurtures their wellbeing.

Take the heat out of homework

Set a regular routine for homework: small chunks are better than long sessions. Focus on progress rather than perfection and encourage problem-solving – do not take over. Homework is not about getting everything right, it is about learning. And, above all, don’t battle. If homework is turning into a war zone, you need to call a ceasefire and get creative. Try doing it at a different time or step back and let another adult help. Think about how you can motivate rather than coerce (see How do I stop the nightly homework fights?).

Foster curiosity

I believe that our priority as parents is not to teach our children facts or knowledge but to help our children have the skills and the attitude to be good at learning (whatever type of learning that might be). Take time to foster children’s curiosity. If you are starting a new book then spend time looking at the book cover, asking questions, talking about the title and the pictures, predicting what the story might be about. To be honest, if that is all you do and the book doesn’t get read, I wouldn’t mind – literacy isn’t just about reading words on a page (see 20 ideas to boost children’s reading skills that don’t involve books).

Build self-esteem

Self-esteem comes from feeling accepted, competent and effective (see Building children’s self-esteem). If you are reading with your child then be warm and welcoming. Showing that you are pleased to be in that moment with them and communicating that you value the experience of reading with them will help them to feel accepted no matter how well they do or don’t read.

Children feel competent when they know what they are doing well. Praise your child in a way that is descriptive and believable. Don’t tell them they are a brilliant reader if that simply isn’t true – the classroom is a very competitive hierarchical place and they will know exactly how they measure up against their peers. Comment warmly and sincerely on something very specific that they have done well this time or something they have done better than last time (even if it is only that they sat still).

More than anything, our aim is to send children away from any reading session feeling like they want to do that again…

Failure is good

Supporting children’s learning is not all about achieving success or great marks, it is about process. Develop a family culture in which failure is not feared or frowned upon – getting things wrong is a natural and essential part of learning and it should be celebrated. I did that wrong – hooray – now I know how not to do it! I learnt something! Children who see getting it wrong as an opportunity to work out how to get it right are much better learners in the long run – they are more willing to take risks and push themselves and their understanding. Children who fear failure are far less resilient. Encourage children to evaluate their own achievements. What did you do well? What could you have done better? What will you do differently next time?

For more ideas on supporting your child’s education, see Teaching teens self-organisation skills and Supporting children through exams. You will also find lots of ideas for supporting younger children’s learning in school readiness skills for pre-schoolers and 101 ideas for supporting your child’s development.

Found this useful? Check out this FREE video tutorial on How to make homework a happy habit

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The Work/Parent Switch.

By Anita Cleare

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