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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Homework Trouble

The Conversation Continues...

Submitted by Larry Epstein, Ph.D.
March 17, 2013

Is your child struggling with homework on a frequent basis? Join the crew!

Homework may be the #1 source of meltdowns in homes around North America and beyond! It is also one that is very well suited to the model described in the book Treating Explosive Kids: The Collaborative Problem Solving Approach.

Trying to impose your will (Plan A) can make for some ugly scenes at home, and doesn’t solve the types of problems that are probably causing homework to be difficult for your child in the first place.

And while dropping the expectation of doing the homework (Plan C) avoids a sure meltdown, it causes other problems, and typically doesn’t sit too well with most parents and teachers, who feel homework completion is important.

So Plan B is your best option – Proactive Plan B that is. Plan B can be a life-saver when it comes to solving problems having to do with when and where homework gets done, who, when and how help might be provided if needed, etc.

Having said that, with especially thorny homework problems the second step (“Define the Problem”) of the Plan B is typically where parents get stuck addressing homework struggles with their kids.

Let’s talk about why.

The “Define the Problem” step of Plan B is when we parents get to put our concerns on the table. And, as we always say, the more specific your concern and your child’s concern the better the chance you’ll have at arriving at a good solution that will stand the test of time.

The trouble is that, as parents, our concerns about homework tend not to be too specific because we aren’t the ones who assign the homework in the first place!

Parental concerns can sometimes be things like, “We don’t want you to get behind in class or to have your grades impacted by not doing your homework,” but those concerns ultimately seem to lean heavily in the direction of one and only solution – doing your homework!

That’s because as parents we usually inherit homework expectations from our kids’ teachers without knowing more precisely what the goals of the homework are – which makes Plan B difficult. So to do Plan B, we’ll need to know what the teacher’s concerns about homework really are.

Chances are they are some good concerns – and if they aren’t, then maybe Plan C is our best choice.

Teachers' concerns about homework could be everything from wanting your child to practice what was learned in school that day, to developing independent work skills, to having a metric of assessing what your child is learning, etc.

But we need to know what the concerns are to enable Plan B to proceed without sliding back into Plan A.

So how exactly do you figure out what the teacher’s concerns about the homework are? By involving your child’s teachers in the discussion. In other words, your job as a parent might be to help get your child’s concerns on the table and then arrange an opportunity to meet with the teachers to get their concerns on the table.

While the teachers might not have heard about Plan B just yet, an approach like this will likely send things in the right direction:

“It would be helpful if we could meet to discuss the homework, because Emma is really struggling with it. We’ve got some ideas about why it's so hard for her, but we thought it might help Emma and us to understand the goals of the homework from you, so together we can brainstorm solutions that help her while accomplishing your goals.”

So in this case, you might be more of Plan B facilitator between your child and her teacher. In our experience, educators are thrilled to have parents give them information about what’s going on at home when it comes to a student’s learning, and are eager to help if things aren’t going well once they understand the problem.

Adults collaborating with adults - another excellent application of the model!


Homework may well be the #1 cause of meltdowns in homes around the country and beyond! Let's see a messy example of real-life Plan B.

While that example didn't flow quickly or easily, all three ingredients were present.

The father was (1) working hard to keep his cool and understand his daughter's concerns. He then had to (2) prioritize what to work on before (3) sharing his concerns and inviting her to collaborate on some potential solutions.

The good news is that even messy Plan B tends to be better than clean Plan A! Like most difficult problems that Plan A hasn't solved in years, this problem wasn't solved the first time around using Plan B, but now father and daughter are on the same team working on it together on it and moving in the right direction.

You may be thinking that this example took a while - six minutes to be exact! I think we would all agree that is time well spent on a chronic problem like this.

Plan B helps adults pursue their expectations and reduce challenging behavior, while improving their relationships with kids. Perhaps the best thing about Plan B though is that just the process of using Plan B to solve problems with kids teaches many of the skills found on the
Pathways Inventory.

Plan B is hard! It takes work, patience and practice.

About Think:Kids

Think:Kids is a program in the Department of Psychiatry at the Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), which has its roots in what was originally known as The Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) Institute. The CPS Institute was established in 2002 under the auspices of the Department of Psychiatry at MGH and under the direction of Drs. Ross Greene and Stuart Ablon.

The CPS Institute sought to disseminate the Collaborative Problem Solving approach to understanding and helping challenging children and adolescents that was described by Dr. Greene in his book, The Explosive Child, and subsequently further developed and described for clinical populations in the book Greene and Ablon co-authored, Treating Explosive Kids: The Collaborative Problem Solving Approach. The Collaborative Problem Solving (CPS) approach has also been described in numerous co-authored journal articles and book chapters.

For additional information or to seek help with your challenging child, please call Think:Kids at 617-643-6030 or email info@thinkkids.org.


NOTE: In mid-July, 2008, NESCA's entire clinical staff completed two days of intensive training in the "Collaborative Problem-Solving Approach" with Dr. Stuart Ablon.

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