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My child just entered third grade, and the homework load is much higher this year, with a lot of writing and math drills. It is all work that she can do easily, but it's causing the whole family a lot of pain, because she's have a really hard time just sitting down and doing it — asking many questions about things she clearly actually knows, and getting distracted by the smallest thing going on around her. (Setting up a special quiet area isn't helping, because the distractions could be her pencil or a sudden burst of word association based on something in the lesson.)

So, a page of writing and a couple of pages of math which could be done in fifteen minutes total is taking an hour and a half. She can easily explain the reasoning behind the math problems, but when it comes to writing down what she just said, it's like pulling teeth. She'll slowly write a word, sounding it out in slow motion as she writes each word. And she'll say that she doesn't understand a question, but when she actually gets her mind pointed at it, she can write a great answer. And she's clearly picking up the concepts in class; I have no doubt that she actually understands, which is part of our frustration.

My wife feels like she's just wanting attention, but I think it's more about our daughter's own ability to focus. We both feel that sitting down and working painfully through each question isn't really helping her. That works, but my wife feels like it's just rewarding the behavior, and I feel like it's not really helping her learn any better focus on her own, which, you know, she'll need in actual life. And, we're happy to spend child with our kid, this pretty much the opposite of quality time.

Neither rewards or consequences seem to have any effect, and nor do charts. All of those things basically just seem to add another layer of complication, distraction, and misery. What else can we do?

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What you describe is something that some children with Autism Spectrum Disorders deal with - I'm not suggesting your child has Aspergers or a related issue, just that some of the issues and techniques are similar and while not everything will apply in your case, it may be helpful to look at a list of suggestions some parents give for keeping children with Asperger's on task. –  Adam Davis Jan 14 at 20:08
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3 Answers 3

It's a difficult problem because you can lead a horse to water, but can't make him drink. Every child is different, but we've found the following to help our son:

  • Give him what he wants, but put conditions on it. We have a quiet, distraction-free area upstairs for our son to do school work, but he really hates being alone. We let him stay downstairs with the family where he can ask questions and get feedback, as long as he stays on task and works quickly without whining about how hard it is. It's amazing how well just the threat motivates him.
  • Redirect his focus from something that motivates him. For example, our son is obsessed with ninjas. He wanted to write about ninjas, so I let him. He wrote, "Ninjas can fit." I told him the right way to spell "fight" and had him practice writing that along with other -ight words. He ended up doing something kind of boring, but didn't realize it because I had hijacked his motivation about ninjas.
  • Sometimes the prospect of "all that homework" is overwhelming. Try allowing breaks for smaller rewards after each page, or half a page, instead of only after everything is done.
  • Try doing the homework at a different time of day. If you do it right before bed, she might be stretching it out to get a de facto later bedtime, or she might be too tired to concentrate. Our son works amazingly quickly when we say he can't have dinner until he's finished.
  • Have a "get the wiggles out" activity before and/or in between pages of work. We have our son do jumping jacks or laps around the house. He acts silly, expends some energy, then has an easier time focusing.
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+1 for breaks in between pages. Kids really do need it. –  Meg Coates Jan 15 at 21:54
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Based on the information in the question, there are a few approaches I would consider taking:

  1. Continue providing the "quiet environment" to work in, and gradually wean yourselves away from staying with her and helping the entire time. Specifically, remove yourself from her work area for increasing amounts of time, with the idea that eventually she's working by herself for the most part, with you popping in now and then to help refocus if necessary.
  2. Let her feel some of the consequences of not finishing the work - either your consequences (something you'll follow through on), or school imposed consequences. That way it can be framed in terms of a choice she made, and is given responsibility for the outcome. Perhaps even make it a race (finish early and get some sort of token prize?), though this last part might be better for younger children.

We've used combinations of these on our kids (ours are younger, though they are also very easily distracted) to help them focus on tasks we want them to do (cleaning up toys, helping with chores, etc) and now with our oldest, we are applying it to schoolwork.

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As a child (2nd-3rd grade), I had similar issues (was a huge procrastinator and would often avoid doing my homework however I could even though it was easy and could be done quickly). The solution my parents came to was a reward program.

Basically, my parents printed off from the computer fake money (they called it "Michael Dollars" - as that's my name). When I completed my homework, I was 'paid' a given amount of dollars. The amount was based on how quickly I completed the work and how correctly I did it. The faster and more correct, the more money. I could then spend these on various rewards. $20 let me choose dinner for the night, $50 let me go do some special activity that I enjoyed, $200 let me do a more expensive activity.

The nice thing about this system is it has multiple positive effects. It instilled a desire to do the work and do it right without having to be told. At the same time, I learned to manage money (saving up for things I wanted, spending frugally, etc). I also learned the actual value of money (you have to work to earn it) and so led to more responsibility with my money later.

I should point out that I was allowed to do the homework at the Kitchen table (my parents would be there doing their own thing) and could ask questions, get distracted etc. But if I let myself get distracted for long, my parents would remind me that I would earn less 'money' and I'd get back on task. I wasn't ever forced to do the work in a 'quiet' area - though I certainly could if I decided I couldn't focus (and sometimes I would ask to do it in a different room).

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