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Homework: A Guide for Parents

In this folder, tips on:

  • Helping Your Child with Homework

  • Test-Taking Strategies

  • Helping Your Child Become a Reader

  • Developmental Stages of Readers: Birth to Preschool

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Homework: A Guide for Parents

By Peg Dawson, EdD, NCSP
Seacoast Mental Health Center, Portsmouth, NH

Homework has been around as long as public schools have, and over the years considerable research has been conducted regarding the efficacy of homework practices. While the results are not uniform, most experts on the topic have drawn some common conclusions.


Harris Cooper, a leading homework researcher, examined more than 100 studies on the effects of homework and concluded that there is little evidence that homework at the elementary school level has an impact on school achievement. Studies at the junior high school level have found some modest benefits of homework, but studies of homework at the high school level have found that it has clear benefits.

Despite mixed research on homework effects, many teachers believe that assigning homework offers other benefits besides contributing to school achievement. Homework teaches children how to take responsibility for tasks and how to work independently. That is, homework helps children develop habits of mind that will serve them well as they proceed through school and, indeed, through life. Specifically, homework helps children learn how to plan and organize tasks, manage time, make choices, and problem solve, all skills that contribute to effective functioning in the adult world of work and families.

Reasonable Homework Expectations

It is generally agreed that the younger the child, the less time the child should be expected to devote to homework. A general rule of thumb is that children do 10 minutes of homework for each grade level. Therefore, first graders should be expected to do about 10 minutes of homework, second graders 20 minutes, third graders 30 minutes, and so on. If your child is spending more than 10 minutes per grade level on work at night, then you may want to talk with your child's teacher about adjusting the workload.

Strategies to Make Homework Go More Smoothly

There are two key strategies parents can draw on to reduce homework hassles. The first is to establish clear routines around homework, including when and where homework gets done and setting up daily schedules for homework. The second is to build in rewards or incentives to use with children for whom "good grades" is not a sufficient reward for doing homework.

Homework Routines

Tasks are easiest to accomplish when tied to specific routines. By establishing daily routines for homework completion, you will not only make homework go more smoothly, but you will also be fostering a sense of order your child can apply to later life, including college and work.

Step 1. Find a location in the house where homework will be done. The right location will depend on your child and the culture of your family. Some children do best at a desk in their bedroom. It is a quiet location, away from the hubbub of family noise. Other children become too distracted by the things they keep in their bedroom and do better at a place removed from those distractions, like the dining room table. Some children need to work by themselves. Others need to have parents nearby to help keep them on task and to answer questions when problems arise. Ask your child where the best place is to work. Both you and your child need to discuss pros and cons of different settings to arrive at a mutually agreed upon location.

Step 2. Set up a homework center. Once you and your child have identified a location, fix it up as a home office/homework center. Make sure there is a clear workspace large enough to set out all the materials necessary for completing assignments. Outfit the homework center with the kinds of supplies your child is most likely to need, such as pencils, pens, colored markers, rulers, scissors, a dictionary and thesaurus, graph paper, construction paper, glue and cellophane tape, lined paper, a calculator, spell checker, and, depending on the age and needs of your child, a computer or laptop. If the homework center is a place that will be used for other things (such as the dining room table), then your child can keep the supplies in a portable crate or bin. If possible, the homework center should include a bulletin board that can hold a monthly calendar on which your child can keep track of longterm assignments. Allowing children some leeway in decorating the homework center can help them feel at home there, but you should be careful that it does not become too cluttered with distracting materials.

Step 3. Establish a homework time. Your child should get in the habit of doing homework at the same time every day. The time may vary depending on the individual child. Some children need a break right after school to get some exercise and have a snack. Others need to start homework while they are still in a school mode (i.e., right after school when there is still some momentum left from getting through the day). In general, it may be best to get homework done either before dinner or as early in the evening as the child can tolerate. The later it gets, the more tired the child becomes and the more slowly the homework gets done.

Step 4. Establish a daily homework schedule. In general, at least into middle school, the homework session should begin with your sitting down with your child and drawing up a homework schedule. You should review all the assignments and make sure your child understands them and has all the necessary materials. Ask your child to estimate how long it will take to complete each assignment. Then ask when each assignment will get started. If your child needs help with any assignment, then this should be determined at the beginning so that the start times can take into account parent availability. A Daily Homework Planner is included at the end of this handout and contains a place for identifying when breaks may be taken and what rewards may be earned.

Incentive Systems

Many children who are not motivated by the enjoyment of doing homework are motivated by the high grade they hope to earn as a result of doing a quality job. Thus, the grade is an incentive, motivating the child to do homework with care and in a timely manner. For children who are not motivated by grades, parents will need to look for other rewards to help them get through their nightly chores. Incentive systems fall into two categories: simple and elaborate.

Simple incentive systems. The simplest incentive system is reminding the child of a fun activity to do when homework is done. It may be a favorite television show, a chance to spend some time with a video or computer game, talking on the telephone or instant messaging, or playing a game with a parent. This system of withholding fun things until the drudgery is over is sometimes called Grandma's Law because grandmothers often use it quite effectively ("First take out the trash, then you can have chocolate chip cookies."). Having something to look forward to can be a powerful incentive to get the hard work done. When parents remind children of this as they sit down at their desks they may be able to spark the engine that drives the child to stick with the work until it is done.

Elaborate incentive systems. These involve more planning and more work on the part of parents but in some cases are necessary to address more significant homework problems. More complex incentives systems might include a structure for earning points that could be used to "purchase" privileges or rewards or a system that provides greater reward for accomplishing more difficult homework tasks. These systems work best when parents and children together develop them. Giving children input gives them a sense of control and ownership, making the system more likely to succeed. We have found that children are generally realistic in setting goals and deciding on rewards and penalties when they are involved in the decision-making process.

Building in breaks. These are good for the child who cannot quite make it to the end without a small reward en route. When creating the daily homework schedule, it may be useful with these children to identify when they will take their breaks. Some children prefer to take breaks at specific time intervals (every 15 minutes), while others do better when the breaks occur after they finish an activity. If you use this approach, you should discuss with your child how long the breaks will last and what will be done during the breaks (get a snack, call a friend, play one level on a video game). The Daily Homework Planner includes sections where breaks and end-of-homework rewards can be identified.

Building in choice. This can be an effective strategy for parents to use with children who resist homework. Choice can be incorporated into both the order in which the child agrees to complete assignments and the schedule they will follow to get the work done. Building in choice not only helps motivate children but can also reduce power struggles between parents and children.

Developing Incentive Systems

Step 1. Describe the problem behaviors. Parents and children decide which behaviors are causing problems at homework time. For some children putting homework off to the last minute is the problem; for others, it is forgetting materials or neglecting to write down assignments. Still others rush through their work and make careless mistakes, while others dawdle over assignments, taking hours to complete what should take only a few minutes. It is important to be as specific as possible when describing the problem behaviors. The problem behavior should be described as behaviors that can be seen or heard; for instance, complains about homework or rushes through homework, making many mistakes are better descriptors than has a bad attitude or is lazy.

Step 2. Set a goal. Usually the goal relates directly to the problem behavior. For instance, if not writing down assignments is the problem, the goal might be: "Joe will write down his assignments in his assignment book for every class."

Step 3. Decide on possible rewards and penalties. Homework incentive systems work best when children have a menu of rewards to choose from, since no single reward will be attractive for long. We recommend a point system in which points can be earned for the goal behaviors and traded in for the reward the child wants to earn. The bigger the reward, the more points the child will need to earn it. The menu should include both larger, more expensive rewards that may take a week or a month to earn and smaller, inexpensive rewards that can be earned daily. It may also be necessary to build penalties into the system. This is usually the loss of a privilege (such as the chance to watch a favorite TV show or the chance to talk on the telephone to a friend).

Once the system is up and running, and if you find your child is earning more penalties than rewards, then the program needs to be revised so that your child can be more successful. Usually when this kind of system fails, we think of it as a design failure rather than the failure of the child to respond to rewards. It may be a good idea if you are having difficulty designing a system that works to consult a specialist, such as a school psychologist or counselor, for assistance.

Step 4. Write a homework contract. The contract should say exactly what the child agrees to do and exactly what the parents' roles and responsibilities will be. When the contract is in place, it should reduce some of the tension parents and kids often experience around homework. For instance, if part of the contract is that the child will earn a point for not complaining about homework, then if the child does complain, this should not be cause for a battle between parent and child: the child simply does not earn that point. Parents should also be sure to praise their children for following the contract. It will be important for parents to agree to a contract they can live with; that is, avoiding penalties they are either unable or unwilling to impose (e.g., if both parents work and are not at home, they cannot monitor whether a child is beginning homework right after school, so an alternative contract may need to be written).

We have found that it is a rare incentive system that works the first time. Parents should expect to try it out and redesign it to work the kinks out. Eventually, once the child is used to doing the behaviors specified in the contract, the contract can be rewritten to work on another problem behavior. Your child over time may be willing to drop the use of an incentive system altogether. This is often a long-term goal, however, and you should be ready to write a new contract if your child slips back to bad habits once a system is dropped.

Involving Siblings

Parents often ask how they can develop one kind of system for one child in the family and not for all children, since it may seem to be "rewarding" children with problems while neglecting those without. Most siblings understand this process if it is explained to them carefully. If there are problems, however, parents have several choices: (a) Set up a similar system for other children with appropriate goals (every child has something they could be working to improve), (b) make a more informal arrangement by promising to do something special from time to time with the other children in the family so they do not feel left out, or (c) have the child earn rewards that benefit the whole family (e.g., eating out at a favorite restaurant).

Adaptations and Further Support

Suggestions provided in this handout will need to be adapted to the particular age of your child. Greater supervision and involvement on the part of parents is the norm with children during the elementary school years, while, by high school, most parents find they can pull back and let their children take more control over homework schedules. Middle school is often the turning point, and parents will need to make decisions about how involved to be in homework based on the developmental level of their children. If problems arise that seem intractable at any age, consult your child's teacher or a school psychologist.


Canter, L. (1993). Homework without tears. New York: HarperPerennial. ISBN: 0062731327.

Dawson, P. (2001). Homework problems and solutions. Unpublished manual. For information on obtaining a copy, contact Peg Dawson at her e-mail address (Please be aware that e-mail addresses may change): pegdawson@comcast.net

Dawson, P., & Guare, R. (2003). Executive skills in children and adolescents: A practical guide to assessment and interventions. New York: Guilford. ISBN: 1572309288.

Romain, T., & Verdick, E. (1997). How to do homework without throwing up. Minneapolis: Free Spirit Publishing. ISBN: 1575420112.

Click here to download the homework planner and incentive sheet.

Peg Dawson, EdD, NCSP, is a school psychologist with the Center for Learning Attention Disorders of the Seacoast Mental Health Center in Portsmouth, NH, and a past president of the National Association of School Psychologists.

Test Taking Strategies


Effective Study & Test-Taking Strategies for Kids with Learning Difficulties

Effective study strategies are the gateway to school success, graduation, college entry, and job advancement. Poor study habits can bar even bright students from many important opportunities that would otherwise enable them to realize their potential. For many children who have learning and/or attention difficulties, studying is an overwhelming challenge. Consider your child’s current study skills; he may not know what to study or how to approach studying, may have difficulty remembering the information even when he has studied, may have trouble expressing what he knows (especially in essays). If your child struggles with these problems, he is far from unique.

From late elementary school into college, problems with studying and test-taking represent a major hurdle for many children and adolescents, especially those who have learning and attention problems1. These difficulties are often identified only after discrepancies are discovered between these students' high grades for class work and their low scores on standardized tests. Their test scores frequently do not reflect their strong conceptual understanding or their level of ability. As a result, study sessions are often highly charged and extremely stressful for these students and their parents.

It is now recognized that many children and adolescents with learning difficulties need explicit, intensive instruction in study strategies2,3,4,5,6 . This article will describe strategies your child may need to learn, including prioritizing and shifting approaches, and identifying global themes while ignoring irrelevant details7. Self-monitoring strategies such as checking, planning, and revising are critical, as your child, like many others, may not use these automatically8,9. Finally, your child may need to be taught explicitly how to figure out which strategy is appropriate when preparing for a test10.

Identifying Problem Areas

How can you help your child improve his study skills and reduce the stress involved? You can play a critical role in preventing a negative cycle where your child’s poor test performance discourages him from applying himself and learning more effective study strategies. The first step is to determine why your child is having difficulty. Here are some questions to consider and discuss with your child:

  • Does your child usually know what to study?
  • Does he use a systematic method for studying?
  • Does he seem to have inefficient study skills (i.e., he spends long hours studying, yet performs poorly on tests)?

Knowing What to Study

Children are often unaware of the breadth and depth of the material to be covered in an upcoming test. To determine your child’s level of awareness, ask him:

  • Has he checked in with the teacher about the content of the test?
  • Has the teacher provided a study guide or practice test?
  • Is there a review session your child can attend?
  • Does your child have a plan for studying?

Help your child understand that his teacher may offer clues about important details to focus on when studying for a test. Phrases teachers use to signal importance include:

  • "Write this down"
  • "Let me summarize"
  • "Let me say it again"
  • "This is important"
  • "I'll write this on the board"
  • "Remember… "

Next, assess your child’s listening skills, attention, and focus. Does he listen for the teacher’s "signals" as to what is important? Active listening in the classroom during everyday lessons helps children to "zero in" on key facts or skills that a teacher may include on a test.

Textbooks offer clues that identify important information. If possible, review your child's textbook and discuss the use of different size or colored fonts, side-bars, figures, etc. included in the chapter(s) he’ l be tested on. Think about your child’s learning and reading style. Remind him to use active reading strategies when reading his textbook. For example:

  • Review the chapter and section headings and convert them to questions. For example, the header, "Causes of World War I" might be changed to "What are the causes of World War I?"
  • Review the words, phrases, and sentences that appear in bold type to denote their importance.
  • Study the pictures and tables.
  • Look at the sidebar information.
  • Review and answer the questions at the end of each chapter.

Encourage your child to use colored highlighters or Post-it"! notes to flag important information in textbooks and class notes. This will help him review the material more efficiently.

Learning How to Study

Your child may need to learn specific study strategies for organizing, remembering, prioritizing, and shifting approaches flexibly. These processes are the underpinnings of strategic learning and are essential for accurate and efficient studying. He may also need strategies for identifying global themes while ignoring irrelevant details and shifting from the details to the main ideas11,12. Self-checking strategies such as editing, planning, monitoring, and revising are critical, as many children do not use these automatically13,14 . The study and test-taking strategies cited below are derived from the intervention research and clinical work we have done at the Research Institute for Learning and Development (Research ILD) over the past few years, which have demonstrated the efficacy of strategy instruction for all students, particularly for students with learning or attention problems15,16.

Strategies for Organizing and Remembering

In order for your child to remember information, the information needs to be filed away in his brain in an organized way. The information will then be much more easily accessible when it is time to retrieve and use the information in the classroom or on a test. Tests are often used by teachers to evaluate how much students understand and retain after days, weeks, or even months of class work, reading, discussions, homework, and projects. It is important that your child develop organized systems for keeping track of information, or he may become overwhelmed or confused about the many details. You can help your child accomplish this by:

  • Making sure he is doing nightly reading assignments and using a system to record or summarize, such as taking notes, writing section or chapter summaries on sticky notes, or answering questions at the end of each chapter.
  • Having him summarize orally to you what he has read to make sure he derived the main ideas.
  • Assisting him in organizing materials, such as cleaning out binders and folders, creating sections with tabs or folders, and making sure all study materials, including study guides or review sheets, are gathered in one place.

Your child will probably remember information better when it is meaningful, familiar, or even silly! The following memory strategies may help your child with those details and facts that just won’t "stick."

  • Crazy phrases: If your child has to remember a list of items in order, such as the planets in the solar system, help him come up with a silly sentence using the first letter of each item on the list. The following is an example many teachers use to help students remember the nine planets in order:
      My Very Eager Mother Just Served Us Nine Pizzas
      Mercury, Venus, Earth, Mars, Jupiter, Saturn, Uranus, Neptune, Pluto

  • Acronyms: When the order of the information does not matter, your child can take the first letters of each item on the list and try to form them into a word. For example, to help remember the systems of the body, the acronym "RED CRaNES" can be used:
      a — (no system — place holder)
      Nervous Endocrine

  • Cartoons or pictures: If your child is a visual learner, it may help to make cartoons to illustrate concepts (e.g., history, science) or to draw small pictures to trigger his memory for vocabulary words.
  • Word associations: You can help your child make connections to other information he knows by using the sounds or visual representations of words. For example, if he has to remember that the word "distinct" means "different or unmistakable," you can help him find another word that sounds similar, such as "stink." If something stinks, it is definitely different and unmistakable!

Strategies for Self-Monitoring

For all students, an important part of studying is becoming aware of their most common mistakes, so they can try to avoid making the same errors on the next test. To help your child become more strategic while studying, you can:

  • Ask him to look through his graded homework assignments and previous tests to find any patterns of mistakes.
  • Help your child to make a personalized checklist of test-taking techniques to remember while taking the test, such as remembering to look back to make sure he didn’t miss any questions or remembering to answer all parts of the questions. Checklists can be subject-specific as well. The following is a sample personalized checklist for a math test:

Math Test Checklist

  1. Did I copy the problems correctly?
  2. Did I remember to label my answers?
  3. Did I use the right operation?
  4. Did I check my answers to see if they make sense?

Making a Study Plan and Sticking to It

The following suggestions may be helpful when your child is studying for tests in content areas such as history or science. Encourage your child to:

  • Assemble all relevant materials before he begins, namely, textbooks, class notes, homework, and old quizzes.
  • Make strategy cards for important concepts or terms by listing the term on the front of the card. On the back of the card, your child can list the key information and a memory strategy.
  • Review class notes, homework, and quizzes, highlighting important information.
  • Make a chart of the important events and note their causes and consequences.
  • Predict possible essay questions and jot down notes for answering each question.
  • Explain the main ideas of the chapter to a parent or friend.
  • Have friend or parent quiz him.
  • Make a time-line of important events in the chapter.
  • Answer questions at the ends of the chapters.

Goal-setting and Self-pacing

Does your child rush through his study sessions? If so, you can teach your child to set goals and to pace himself. Here are some steps to take:

  • Review his study plan and set a timer for a certain study period according to the plan.
  • Make sure he builds short breaks into his study schedule. Shorter blocks of work time (e.g., 30-45 minutes) are often more productive than 2-hour time blocks. For example, your child might try working for 30-45 minutes, then taking a 15-minute break, and resuming work again for 30-45 minutes.
  • Discuss a goal for studying. What does he want to master and how well does he want to do on the homework or the test?
  • Suggest that you will quiz him on the material when he thinks he is ready to make sure that he knows the information.

Analyzing the Format of Homework and Tests

Does your child have difficulty understanding and remembering the homework assignments, teacher expectations, and test questions? Children with learning and attention problems often misread questions, focus their attention on sections of the question rather than the entire question, have difficulty understanding nuances in the language, struggle to determine what’s most important, and do not easily differentiate between similar answers. If this description matches your child, here are some suggestions that may help:

  • Ask the teacher for sample questions and examples of high quality sample responses, and review them with your child.
  • Make your child aware of specific key words that clarify the meaning of the question (for essays and short answers) and help to eliminate some of the answer choices (on multiple choice questions). One way to remember these keywords is to use an acronym such as RED CRaNES which was shown earlier. In addition to memorizing the acronym, it is important to insure that your child knows the meanings of each of these words and is able to apply this knowledge to succeed on tests.
  • Encourage your child to practice multiple-choice questions if teachers use this format on tests. On multiple-choice tests, the vocabulary, and the visual layout of the answer sheet can confuse children. For example, children with visual-spatial or fine motor difficulties may have difficulty filling in scantron forms rapidly and accurately or copying answers onto a separate answer sheet. If your child struggles with the layout of the test or answer sheet, talk to the teacher and advocate for a different format or permission to answer directly on the test.
  • Remind him that multiple-choice questions often have a correct answer, an answer that is obviously wrong and then one or two choices that are close to the right answer. He will need to read each choice carefully and try to eliminate as many of the answers as possible before choosing one. Encourage your child to stick with his first answer unless he knows that he made a careless error.
  • For matching questions, suggest to your child that he read all of the choices, match the items that he is certain of, cross off the choices that he has used and then proceed with the remaining items. Some children have difficulty with the visual aspect of the task — looking at two lists and keeping track of those answers that have already been chosen. Others may have trouble remembering the specific vocabulary or connections between items.
  • On short-answer questions, encourage your child to plan essay questions ahead using maps or 3-column organizers. You can help your child review study guides, practice tests, text books, and class notes for the teacher "signals" discussed earlier so that he can predict likely essay or short-answer questions. This will enable your child to map out key points and arguments ahead of time. Even if the actual questions he prepares are not on the test, the work he does will give practice in thinking through questions and formulating answers.
  • Remind your child not to get stuck on any one item. Teach him to move on to the next question if he doesn't know the answer. The answer will probably "pop" into his mind later in the test.
  • Because anxiety can adversely affect memory and attention to detail, encourage your child to check his work for careless mistakes as much as possible. A personalized checklist of the most common kinds of errors that your child makes (based on previous tests) can be helpful for prioritizing which problems or questions to recheck before handing in the test.

Putting it in Perspective

Sometimes anxiety can impede a student’s performance on tests even when he prepares well. If your child panics or become anxious when studying for tests, here are some strategies you can try:

  • Encourage your child to focus on his strengths. "Remember, you have a really good memory and can recite all of the important facts."
  • Help your child put the test in perspective. "Remember this is just one test — you've done so well on the papers and projects, it won't matter if you make some mistakes."
  • Emphasize the importance of your child's effort and the strategies used. "You studied really well, and can be proud of that… It will really pay off on the test," or in terms of the rest of his life…. "No one's going to care what you get on this test — a year from now, twenty years from now…"

As adults, we know test performance is only one small way of measuring understanding and that learning is a complex, multifaceted process that needs to be measured in many different ways. We also know how important it is ensure our children have positive and successful school experiences so that they have as many options as possible open as they advance into adulthood. We hope these suggestions will help you to support your child with learning and/or attention problems so he can develop successful study skills, and can achieve success in and out of the classroom.

Many of the examples provided in this article are from BrainCogs®, a CD-ROM that helps children learn study strategies in a self-directed way. Institute for Learning and Development -Fable Vision, 2002.

©  2008 GreatSchools Inc. All Rights Reserved. Originally created by Schwab Learning, formerly a program of the Charles and Helen Schwab Foundation   Created: 12/03/2004


About the Contributors

Research Institute for Learning & Development Colleagues
Lynn Meltzer, Ph.D., Bethany Roditi, Ph.D., Judith Stein, Ph.D., Kalyani Krishnan, M.Ed., and Laura Sales Pollica, M.A. are colleagues at the Research Institute for Learning and Development. They develop resources that teach strategies to help all learners succeed, including the award-winning BrainCogs® CD-ROM.


Other Resources

Strategies for Success: Classroom Teaching Techniques for Students with Learning Differences
By Lynn J. Meltzer, Bethany N. Roditi, et al.


Essay Express
By Lynn J. Meltzer, Bethany N. Roditi, et al.

By Lynn J. Meltzer, Bethany N. Roditi, et al.

What's Up? A Hello Friend Student Planner
By Hello Friend / Ennis William Cosby Foundation



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