Removing the Barriers to Happy Homework

In the third of his four special blogposts, private tutor Omari Eccleston-Brown shares more tips from his upcoming book, ‘The Secret to Happy Homework’. Omari explains how an understanding of Executive Functions can quickly identify and correct common learning challenges, resulting in a dramatic increase in your child’s marks and enjoyment of their work.

What do you do if the problem isn’t that your child doesn’t want to do their homework but that they don’t know how to do it? Or if their barrier to successful homework is lack of focus, organisation or time management – what do you do then?

This is such a common problem. I have worked with many parents who think that the reason homework is going badly is because perhaps their child isn’t ‘smart enough’. But often neither they nor their child have been given the tools they need to succeed. They haven’t been shown how to remove barriers, get smart about how they learn and tap into the abilities they have.

USING EXECUTIVE FUNCTIONs TO Understand What’s Really Going on

One of my first students was a 14-year-old called James. I knew for sure that James was switched on – and so did his parents – but something wasn’t connecting. He could never remember the right books and never had what he needed to do his homework properly. He was falling behind and every term his report cards said things like, “We’d like to see James apply himself and value the potential he has.” I kept on seeing situations like this. Some children couldn’t focus, others couldn’t structure their great ideas into an essay. Tutoring alone wasn’t making the difference, so for a while, I didn’t know what else to do, until I discovered executive functions.

Executive functions (EF) are a family of 10 basic brain functions that we all have. They are like the air traffic control centre of our brains. As we go through our day and approach different situations and tasks, they control our ability to plan and organise our time, remember what we need to do and when and avoid distractions. They’re fundamental and they play a key role in homework success, especially if you have a child who happens to be neurodiverse.

Once I trained as an Executive functions coach, I realised that James’ problem wasn’t with his understanding or even his motivation. We filled out an EF questionnaire together and we realised that the real issue was that he had had a weakness in working memory and organisation. So, for him remembering his books was a genuine challenge. He also struggled with multi-step maths problems, because he’d forget step one by the time he’d got to step three.

As a parent, getting familiar with Executive functions is a way of understanding that many of your children’s challenges could be simple brain functions rather than character flaws. Once James’ parents understood his particular EF needs, they were able to email his teachers and ask them to write his homework and the books he’d need on a slip of paper for him, instead of only reading it out from the front of the class. Collectively, a few simple changes like this to the way he worked helped relieve the pressure on James’ memory and his organisation, and he found it much easier to do his homework and prove to himself, as well as his teachers, what he was capable of.

There’s a short questionnaire you can take to identify your child’s top three EF strengths and weaknesses. Once you do, here are three simple ways to start using them:

  1. Start using specific EF language at home to label challenges and praise success
  2. Discuss strategies with your child to address any EF challenges together
  3. Reflect regularly on how things are going

Helping Your Child Listen to Feedback

I often wish providing proper feedback was taken more seriously. When delivered properly, feedback has been proven to be one of the most effective ways to improve children’s attainment in school.

If you tend to do your child’s homework with them every evening, try replacing just one of those evenings with time to go back over their teacher’s comments with them. Pick a piece of work and ask them these three questions:

  1. What were you being asked to do here?
  2. What exactly is your teacher asking you to improve and why is that important?
  3. How could you apply their comments?

Their answers will often reveal where in the process things are going wrong. Maybe they’re not clear what their teacher wants from them in the first place? Maybe they don’t understand the feedback or what it’s really for? Or maybe they feel unsure what to do to incorporate it into their work?

This is your chance to make sure your child’s teachers are giving them feedback that’s clear and specific enough for them to actually do something with. If you notice a certain teacher’s comments tend to be rather vague. If they say things like ‘Include more interesting vocabulary”, and your child doesn’t know what to do with that, it’s fine to ask them to be more specific and provide feedback that’s more actionable for your child. Maybe: ‘Next story try using adjectives to describe what the setting sounds like, so it pulls the reader in.’  This type of feedback is not much more work for the teacher, but is much clearer for your child who may have struggling with stories for example is beginning to resent writing them.

Learning how to study smart, not hard WITH ACTIVE RECALL

Very few of the students I coach have ever been shown how to revise and yet so much of their success at school hinges on whether they can prove what they know on a single, high-stakes exam. Now, if your child has an EF weakness in time management, task initiation, or planning and prioritisation, it’s fairly obvious that revision is going to be an extra challenge for them. But in my experience, even without these challenges, revision is stressful, laborious and time-consuming for parents and children alike.

The first thing to understand is that revision is not sitting down and re-reading a whole textbook from cover to cover. At least, that’s not effective revision. I see students waste inordinate amounts of time, energy and enthusiasm doing this. They go over topics they already know and don’t leave enough time to focus on the few topics that would make the biggest difference. And because the way they are revising is passive – focusing on recognising information rather than retrieving it and processing it, like they’ll have to do in the exam –  much of it is pointless and quickly forgotten.

One alternative you could easily teach even young children is active recall.  It has five simple steps:

  • Review one or two key pages/concepts of one topic
  • Shut your book
  • Jot down everything you remember
  • Re-open your book and check how much you’ve remembered
  • Repeat steps 1-4 this time putting the information into your own words.

As you’re actively forcing your brain to retrieve the information and do something with it, it actually files it away as ‘useful’, and it is much more accessible in the exam when needed.

This is just one method. There are many others and they’re all about helping your child understand how to use their abilities and their resources properly so they can reach their potential and succeed.

By applying these various Happy Homework strategies, parents are able to relieve the pressure they feel for their children to ‘be smart’. Once that is lifted, a lot of the anxiety that inevitably leads to fights over homework and can erode a child’s confidence over time, is released too.

Omari Eccleston-Brown is the creator of the Happy Homework™ Programme. His book The Secret to Happy Homework: 7 Hidden Laws of Success is released in December 2020.

Read part two in this series ‘Making Homework work for you’ here. Part one in this series, ‘How to motivate your child to do their homework’ is available here.

Listen to our discussion with Omari, below. You’ll get to learn the secrets to calmer, happier and more rewarding homework, as Omari gives you his top tips for motivating your children, creating a schedule that works and setting the right targets. This is a recording from our webinar held on the 4th November 2020.

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