Is Homework Stressing Your Kids (And You) Out? We Can Help.

How to work with your child's teacher to decrease homework issues

Is Homework Stressing Your Kids (And You) Out? We Can Help.

tips to handle homework stress

I remember the first time I really started questioning whether homework the way we knew it from our childhood was relevant today. The September 15th, 2006 cover story of MacLean’s Magazine was staring at me, Homework Is Killing Our Kids with the dramatic picture of a girl hunched over her books. I nodded, “Yes, it is.”

Why Did This Quebec School Scrap Homework?

Back in my teaching days, I taught junior and senior high school for ten years both in private and public schools. I saw first-hand the harm of too much irrelevant homework. Kids were bursting into tears and telling me how they were going to bed at 1am because that was when they finished their homework.

I also saw how teachers would create an assignment and continue to use it year after year without evolving along with technological advances and new information about learning. I heard two weeks ago that a child was sent home with an assignment revolving around the phone book. I wonder when the teacher first created that assignment!

Recently, at a presentation I did at Canyon Ranch Lenox, the mother of a teenager in a “prestigious prep school” was at her wit’s end about her son’s stress level because of the homework volume. The doctor also shared his concern, citing that the teen had drastically dropped off his growth curve. The mom was wondering how to still get her son into Harvard without harming his health along the way.

How You Can Help Your Kids Deal With School Stress

Now as a psychotherapist and parenting educator, I get pleas for help to “manage the stress of homework.” Parents are battling with their kids to get the work done, help with projects, and improve understanding, all while still getting to activities and some food in. Many families are over the breaking point.

The research on homework is very clear: homework in elementary grades has little or no impact on later success. Several studies showed that homework, especially assigned in lower grades or improperly, was useless.

I can hear teachers and administrators waving their hands saying, “But homework provides a content link between school and home.” Sure, maybe. But, this isn’t a necessary method for this link. Most schools have websites now, and many teachers are tweeting out content links. Communication is essential, but homework does not need to be a communication tool.

The other comment I hear from teachers is, “Homework gives the parent and child an opportunity to spend time together.” This makes my shoulders go in a knot. Do not tell me how to spend quality time with my kids! Homework is not quality time in my book.

The flip-side of this is that some parents expect homework or feel more satisfied seeing it because that improves their feeling of “getting their money’s worth” if it is a private school, or “proof that learning is happening.” I wish parents could feel school was “working” without requiring this evidence through homework.

Many schools are still using the “ten-minutes a day rule” (my kids’ whole school division still uses this), which is that the amount of homework should be ten minutes per grade, per day. So in grade five, according to this rule, each child should be doing fifty minutes of homework per day. The problem is, this rule has NO GROUNDING IN EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH. Yes, I’m yelling. Actually, according to Dr. Linda Cameron and Dr. Lee Bartel, as kids move to higher grades, if homework increases, their enthusiasm for it decreases. They found that by grade four, many kids have a negative attitude toward homework.

Dr. Cameron said, “The findings are that homework is completely inappropriate for the younger child for lots of reasons. School is enough, and they need time to play and relax.” Amen! (This quote was pulled from The end of homework as we know it? written by Tim Johnson and published in September 2013 edition of Canadian Family Magazine)

When homework decreases a child’s love of school or learning, more harm is done than good. Children have a natural love of learning, curiosity and inquiry. Homework needs to get out of the way of these natural states.

Here are my recommendations to thrive in school without homework stress:

Speak up.

No study has proven that homework for elementary kids is necessary for future success. This means that as a parent, you can talk to the teacher about any assignment you feel is outdated, irrelevant, or too long. You have the power to graciously decline your child’s homework. I do. Rather than let a school's often outdated homework policy negatively affect us, we have created a family homework policy. I am going to provide a list of resources at the end of this post for you to read and pass along to your child's teachers.

Form a strong connection with your child’s teacher.

As with any relationship, taking the time to know and care for someone helps smooth out any challenges. As much as you are able, offer to help the teacher, and smile and chat with him or her when you can. 

Use worksheets as fire-fuel or paper airplanes.

Most worksheets are called, “skill and drill” assignments. These are generally not useful. 

Ask, “What is the purpose of this assignment?”

If the answer to this question is not clear or beneficial, or if you get a vague answer from the teacher, you are allowed to veto the assignment.

Do not take on the role of your child’s grade-school teacher.

It is very clear that new school learning should not happen at home at the hands of the parents. If a new concept is sent home, gently remind your child’s teacher that new content is her responsibility, not yours.

Resist the temptation to do your child’s work for her.

I know, you need to get to soccer practice and it is just easier to finish the ninety multiplication questions for your child. It is better to make the time to talk to the teacher about the assignment’s appropriateness, the teacher’s ability to prepare the child to do the work, and the amount of time it takes to complete. You many only need to speak with the teacher a few times until things start to move more smoothly.

Make sure each and every part of a project can be done with your child’s hands.

I have seen school projects completed by parents. Adopt a rule that your child’s hands will be the only ones to touch a project. Teachers need to design the projects so this is possible. By all means help your child if she asks to have a picture printed out or a piece of Bristol board purchased, but let your child make all the decisions and creative touches.

Support well thought out assignments.

These kinds of homework are super!

  • Reading
  • Anything that promotes discussion
  • Things that peek curiosity or interest
  • Interviewing a person
  • Traveling
  • Family outings
  • Individualized assignments that allow creative flexibility
  • “Flipped” classrooms. This is where the teacher provides a learning unit via some form of video and then the students spend time in class handling the problem solving component. The kids can pause or replay the videos to learn at their own pace. (

Want more information?

Here is a list of awesome homework resources:

The end of homework as we know it? by Tim Johnson – September 2013 issue of Canadian Family Magazine. I couldn't find a web link to this story so here is a link to the magazine's website

The end of homework? by Shanda Deziel – September 2013 issue of Today’s Parent Magazine

Should I Stop Assigning Homework? – by Jessica Lahey published on September 20, 2013 in The Atlantic. I love this article! Lahey, a middle-school teacher in a prep school, carefully considers the answer to this question.

Parents: Hands Off The Homework – by KJ Dell’Antonia published on May 10, 2012 in The New York Times Motherlode

Alfie Kohn’s website – Kohn has an exhaustive list of articles and resources for parents. You can find printable handouts for help speaking with teachers and administrators about homework. 

Do you know about Khan Academy? This is a free educational resource, funded partly by the Bill Gates Foundation, which has wonderful videos to explain academic concepts. I strongly encourage each parent and teacher to look through this website. The "I am terrible at math" excuse is no more!

If your child is losing his or her love of learning and checking out of school, there could be factors beyond homework stress in play. I encourage you to book an appointment with your child's teacher early before waiting for the trouble to grow larger. If you have any questions or comments, I invite you to post them below or over on my Facebook page. 

Photo -- flickr creative commons Crystal L Davis


Techniques For Smooth Toddler Transitions

Switching activities with your toddler without the freak-out

Techniques For Smooth Toddler Transitions

Smooth Toddler Transitions

Continuing on with my tantrum series, we can't talk about tantrums without talking about transitions. It is likely that some of the most challenging moments with young children are during a “transition.” A transition is when you are moving from one activity to the next. Transitions often mean that your young child has to stop playing or doing something he loves to shift into naptime, mealtime, bedtime, or to go somewhere else.

Reasons transitions can be hard include toddlers can get very focused on what they are doing, they don’t have a sense of time, they likely don’t WANT to do the next thing, or they might go into fight-or-flight if the next thing involves separation from you. Also, the developing toddler brain just isn’t wired to make the connection that stopping one activity to start another is okay because you can come back to the fun thing again later.

The keys to smooth transitions are planning ahead, not rushing, and keeping your cool. Children can feel your stress and know when you get into hurry-mode. Give transitions lots of time in your schedule. If you're thinking, “I don’t have time for this!” make time because toddlers will freak out if you push them too quickly through a transition. (I’m sure you already know that.)

Toddlers are also usually going through the, “ME DO IT!” phase, which might complicate your transition plan. Especially if you rush to do it for him—and he completely freezes and screams, “NO! ME…ME do it.” Anyone else have to take off all the outdoor clothes on a wailing child so he can start over and do it all himself? Yup. That.

Here are some general tips to help make transitions smoother:

Manage your frustration.

Think of your calm down plan and decide what steps work to calm you down and do those steps each time you feel like snapping. If you feel your frustration growing and are having a hard time following your plan, try “fake it ‘till you make it.” I sometimes make the words come out calmly even though my inside voice is losing it. My husband told me I get a ridiculous high-pitched voice when I’m doing this, but my kids don’t seem to notice.

This is when your calm outside voice says, “It is car seat time. Let’s see if you can get in there before I count to four (close eyes) one… two…” In this scenario, my inside voice is usually saying, “JUST GET IN YOUR F***ING SEAT!” Sometimes just thinking about that makes me laugh and diffuse my anger. Be calm. Don’t yell during transitions. Ever.

Know your child’s ability to shift gears. How long is your child’s runway?

Susan Cain, the author of Quiet: The Power Of Introverts In A World That Can’t Stop Talking said that introverts will eventually take off, but sometimes they just need a longer runway. I LOVE this quote and remember it often. Can your child handle a quick shift with only one warning, or does your child do better with twenty minutes of a routine to let him know the next activity is coming. Once you understand what kind of routine is needed, make one.

Establish a transition routine and use it every time an activity shift is happening.

1) Start the routine with a signal, then use warning steps until the transition time.

An example of a signal is getting down to eye-level with your young child and saying, “___ time is coming. After ___ , then we are going to ___.” Or, “Eating time is coming. After the timer beeps, then we will sit at the table.” You might recognize the “after/then” or “when/then” as those are great to use in the transition routine signal.

Other examples of signals are going close to your child and whispering or having something like a “clean up bell” or “clean up song.” The Little Gym uses the same clean up song each time and we used that at our house, too. “It’s time to put the sticks away, sticks away. It’s time to put the sticks away at The Little Gym.”

2) Use some form of timer or counting down system.

Use a countdown like three warnings or a timer that makes a sound. Some families use a clock and say, “When the long hand touches the 12, then___,” but for some reason, seeing numbers count down like a microwave timer helps the shift go smoother. You are welcome to use any form of warning system or time reference that your child understands.

If you are using verbal warnings, give a time reference the child can understand. “Minutes” might a foreign concept t your young child so use a “when/then” like, “This is your first warning. When this song finishes, then you get one more song until it is time to sit at the table.”

Here is another post I wrote about using a morning routine to get kids out the door without battles

Remember to use short, clear instructions.

Keep the instructions to two-three word sentences and get rid of, “Okay?” Use simple language so your child knows exactly what to do first. If you are doing tidy time, “It’s tidy time” might be too vague. Tell your child specifically what to mean: “Animals go here.” (Point to the animal bin.) On that note, putting things away is SO much easier if there is a clearly marked "away spot" for the toys. Take the time to have an away spot for each thing so you can say, "Don't put it down, put it AWAY." -Rivka Caroline of SoBe Organized

Be consistent.

Most people—adults, too—like to know what’s coming. This is why routines often help reduce wild behaviour. The surprise of shifting to an un-fun activity from a fun one can bring uncertainty and emotional flooding. Use the same transition signal and routine each time. It’s okay to switch up the routines for each regular event like getting out the door, coming back home again, and something like bedtime. I use a song to let my kids know when it is time to leave their friend’s house but use a different signal for bedtime.

If the transition is starting to feel like a power struggle (both you and your child are trying to “win”), give your child at least one part of the signal or warning routine that is their choice. “Do you want the timer for 10 minutes? Or three songs?”

Be fun.

Anytime you can make a transition fun, it will go easier. I use races or being silly to avert tantrums during transitions.

For example: “It’s time to brush our eye balls!” instead of saying “teeth.” Your child will likely say, “No mommy! TEETH!” Then you can continue, “Okay, right! Let’s go brush our toes.” Then scoop your child up and pretend to brush her toes on her way to the bathroom.

Or, “It’s tooth-brushing time. I’m going to the bathroom on one foot! Do you think I can do it? How are you getting there?”

And for races, “I’m going to get my jacket on first! Don’t you dare try to beat me!”

Instead of, "Do you have to pee?" (Of course she'll say, "NO!") Try this while pretending to run to the bathroom, "I have to pee! You better not pee before me! EEEE -- I have to gooooo."

These things can sabotage a smooth transition:

-Any form of compromise: hungry, tired, over-stimulated

-If you are yelling at your child

-Surprising your child with a new signal or no warning

-If your child’s wish for independence gets ignored, “ME do it!”  -- “No… I’ll just put your coat on.”

-If your child’s attachment tank is nearing empty 

-If your child hasn’t had time to get her “ya-yas” out or do some free-play (run, get fresh air, sweat a bit)

-Also, if your child is close to finishing something but isn’t able to communicate that. If your child gets that “I’m about to blow!” look in her eyes, try asking, “What do you need to do in order to be done?” Or this, “What is left so you feel ready?” Seriously, this question has saved tantrums in our house MANY times. Remember this!

Often when a child just gets a couple more minutes to finish her picture, she will cooperate with the transition.


Letting the child negotiate for more time—every time. It is okay if on a rare occasion, you use one of the questions directly above, but don’t negotiate like this, “Just five more minutes…. Pleeeeaaaaase?!”  “Oh, okay, you can have five more minutes.” You have just inadvertently told your child she can push for an extension and may do so each and every time.

If you use the question, “What do you need to do in order to be done?” in combination with a “when/ then,” your child might not try to push you each transition time.  Here is an example: “It is coat-on time. First warning—I’ll come back and tell you when it is second warning.”

“NO! I don’t want to gooooo!” 

“Are you working on something?” nodding yes.

“Oh, okay. How do I know when you are done?”

“I’m done when the face is coloured.” 

“Alright, when you are done the face, then it is coat-on time.” Then smile. Your child will likely feel more power and that you heard her. “I look forward to seeing it all finished.”

When the transition goes sour and everyone is losing it.

I admit it; I have shoved a screaming toddler or two into a snowsuit. Some days, filling attachment tanks or remembering to signal and warn can feel like major chores. On the days when everyone is melting down, please just remember these two things:

1)    Calm yourself even if your child is too far gone, and

2)    Do no harm. This is usually when parents do something that can sever the relationship with their child. 

Firmly, but not aggressively, do what you need to but keep yourself in control. I’ll tell you that if you put your hand under a back-arching toddler’s knee and lift it up, his bum will automatically drop into the car seat. Make sure you get that between-the-legs buckle done first as fast as you can. Get the child in the seat—don’t bother talking over the shrieking—then go in the driver seat and take ten long breaths. Even if you are late for a doctor’s appointment, take those few minutes to breathe because making the shift into your rational mind is vital. Put on some classical minutes and drive. Tomorrow is a new day.

This is the fourth installment in my tantrum series. The first is questions to ask yourself when your child is freaking out often, the second is how to de-escalate a tantrum, and the third is what to do when you are in the throws of your child's complete melt-down. I welcome your questions or comments! You can either post them here or on my Facebook page. 

Photo --


What To Do While Your Child Is Having A Tantrum

Steps to shifting into "tantrum tolerance" mode

What To Do While Your Child Is Having A Tantrum


This is the third installment in my "tantrum" series. The first was on questions to consider when your child has lots of tantrums, and the second was how to de-escalate a tantrum.

Once you have done all you can to de-escalate and prevent a tantrum, but your child still breaks into a full-body rager, it is time to go into tantrum tolerance mode. How we respond to our child's anger outbursts does have a big effect on how our children learn to manage big emotions, and the frequency/ duration of the outbursts. *Tantrums are normal. Often, tantrums are sideways communication so considering the questions I posted earlier can be helpful.

The biggest help for your child to manage big emotions is to see how you manage yours, for you to be calm, and for a plan to be in place with steps your child can follow when angry. I call this an "angry plan" and will write about it more in the future. Gordon Neufeld, PhD calls this type of plan, "scripting a tantrum."

So, you've cut the "wrong end of the freezie" (I have!) and your child loses it. Here are some suggestions to getting through your child's rage-time:

Your first job is to make sure your child is not going to injure himself or others.

If you need to move him to a safe-zone, pick him up from the back so the flailing appendages are in front of you (if he isn't too big to do this). I sometimes would take my kids into the bathroom and sit down on the inside of the door with them. That way, if they suddenly needed to pee, which did happen often, I didn't care if they refused to use the toilet and just peed on the floor.

Your second job is to calm yourself down.

STOP TALKING and definitely do not yell at a yelling child. This is often the point when parents do things they regret. Collect yourself and do not sever the relationship with your child. You will not teach that child to shift out of yelling into a rational state by yelling too. People who are flooded by intense emotions can't really hear talking so save your breath.

Think about what it is like to be overcome with exhaustion, hopelessness, and pure rage. Have you ever "lost it" or "snapped" even though you didn't want to? That's likely what is happening with your child. Being in a state of feeling for him rather than attack will help both of you get through this. Empathy always wins.

Part of calming down is getting a handle on your self talk. If you are thinking, "I don't have time for this sh*t!" or "I can't handle this! Not again!" your child will feel your upset, which can rev him up. You know that animals can smell fear, well, children can tell when you are in a hurry and their tantrum is a bother. Some children might have tantrums just when you need to leave because they have learned that the chance of you caving to their demand is higher when you're in a rush.

During the time when one of my sons was having five tantrums a day, I actually rescheduled my appointments for a few weeks down the road and gave myself a huge buffer of time to handle the meltdowns if I was going anywhere. My biggest challenge was calming myself down and not blaming him for ruining my day.

I knew there was a problem because this number of intense emotional outbursts was very unusual for him. I made an effort to over-fill his attachment tank — I could see it was low and I was having a hard time connecting with him when our days were filled with so much yelling. When I put my attention on filling his attention tank, and filling my rest tank, the tantrums subsided. Many of the points I am mentioning in this series helped in our situation.

If you are in a public place, move to a more private one.

This will allow you to focus on your child's needs and not on the "hairy eyeballs" you are getting from on-lookers. I know, leaving a cart full of unpaid products is hard, but you can always come back to get it after your child is calm.

Next, do not pay attention to or engage with the yelling child.

Stay nearby, and offer a hand on his back to help with the self-regulation process (more about that in the future) but don't try to reason with him. Have a tantrum plan. Do the same thing each time he has a meltdown. I used to sit near my child, fold my legs in half-lotus position (cross them) and breathe very deeply.

Let him know whenever he is ready that you will help him.

You can use a bridging statement — this is where the child knows there is an end to the tantrum and something happens afterward. For example, "When you are done yelling, hugs are waiting for you." Watch for the futility moment and be ready to scoop him up when he gets there, which will create a positive association with allowing himself to feel his deeper emotions. Hugs reinforce that strong emotions are a safe thing, and you are a supportive person.

*Don't try to hug a yelling person. Let the anger shift to the deeper (cake) emotion FIRST.

To be continued...

Please do ask questions here or on my facebook page.