Barring schedule-busters like after-school activities, your child should try to do her homework at the same time every day. "Without a routine, it's too easy to put off," says Jeanne Shay Schumm, PhD, author of How to Help Your Child with Homework. In figuring out the optimal time, consider the family schedule and your child's temperament. Most kids need a chance to decompress after school, and many work more efficiently following physical activity. In fact, research shows that exercise can actually increase a child's concentration.
Once you've nailed the time, create a dedicated study space. Having a consistent spot helps kids switch into study mode. But forget about the conventional wisdom of a desk in your child's room. In early elementary school, it's better to set things up in a central location so you're around to help if needed. Make room on the kitchen or dining room table for him to stretch out with books and papers. And keep supplies at the ready; otherwise, you're inviting procrastination -- the number of minutes spent searching for a pencil can easily turn into hours!
One way to provide a quiet environment is by making study time a family affair. If possible, have older siblings do their work at the same time, while you sit nearby with "homework" of your own such as bill-paying, reading, catching up on e-mail, or folding laundry. If you seem engaged by whatever you're doing, your kid will likely catch the vibe. Making a rule that the TV/video games stay off until everyone in the family is finished will keep your child focused and on task.
Grade-school kids will usually require at least some assistance. But before you decide how much help to offer, check with your child's teacher. Most prefer that kids work mainly on their own so that homework can be used as a gauge of progress. That means restraining yourself from correcting your child's spelling or figuring out the math problem for him.
On the other hand, reading his work over and challenging him to find the three misspelled words you discovered is a good way to get him into the habit of checking over his stuff.
It's also never too early to teach the value of research: Demonstrate how to find answers in reference books like dictionaries, online, and in atlases. Or look for real-world solutions. The more you foster the idea of homework as a time for independent exploration, the more kids are going to enjoy learning.
Striving to get things right is admirable, but make sure your child knows that it is impossible to be perfect. If she's driving herself crazy with self-criticism, go over each assignment and agree on how long she should spend -- say 10 minutes -- and help her stick to that schedule. If necessary, arrange a conference with the teacher, who can explain to your child that homework is practice, not perfection. "Kids will often listen to a message from a teacher that they won't hear if it's from a parent," says Dr. Schumm.
If, despite your best efforts, your child stubbornly refuses to do his homework, you need to get to the bottom of things. "It might seem like an attitude problem, but his reluctance may be a sign that he's having difficulty with the material," says Jed Baker, PhD, author of No More Meltdowns. Talk to his teacher about how he's doing in class; if he's struggling there too, he may need extra help in general. If he's simply homework-averse, try breaking up the assignment into smaller tasks and challenging him to get through at least one. "Once he reaches his initial goal, momentum might just carry him through to the end," says Dr. Baker.
Don't forget that all kids will be pleased to hear some heartfelt props for getting their work done. Your recognition of their effort -- even if it doesn't result in an "A" -- is the greatest incentive of all and a powerful way to communicate the importance of trying their best.
Originally published in the February 2009 issue of Parents magazine.