Help! My Teen Doesn’t Turn in Homework
To solve this frustrating dilemma we need to get to the root of the problem: Why do they not turn in homework?
As a middle school teacher I’ve seen many reasons why students do not turn in their homework. I’ll go over the main ones I see and give you strategies to tackle the problem. I hope they work for you and your teen.
Distraction is a huge reason why students don’t get their work done.
Solution: Provide a Quiet Place Free From What Distracts Your Teen
I have a student who needs a quiet place to focus and not be tempted to interact with those around him. We even have a nickname for his quiet spot: his office.
Sometimes it’s not people who distract students, but electronics. They go home and find their phones, computers, or tv shows tempting. Who wants to do homework when you can catch up on all the latest trending videos or chat with a friend? Have your teen sit in an area without those distractions like the kitchen table and leave their phone somewhere else.
Problem: Lack of Follow Through
Once I was helping a student with strategies at home so she could pass her classes. Upon talking to her we realized that she started many assignments but never finished them. This meant she kept having incomplete assignments while more homework piled up, and didn’t go back to finish them.
Solution: Set a Goal – Complete 1 Assignment at a Time
This really helped her. She chose the assignments that were the hardest to do first and left the easiest ones last, thereby getting the least motivating and most time consuming work out of the way first. By the time she was done with those, she could expend less mental energy on the easier assignments.
It sounds simple, but it’s more common than you might think. A student starts an assignment in one sitting and then at a different starts another and never finishes the first, or gets bored/finds it difficult and moves on. It’s the out of sight out of mind mentality, later realizing s/he never finished x assignment.
Problem: Forgetfulness / Disorganized
When I’ve talked to students about this issue we talk about having a consistent place where you sit or hang out. They say things like their bed, desk, couch, kitchen table etc. Where do they put their stuff? Similar answers, but add the backpack.
Teens don’t have their prefrontal cortex fully developed yet. This is the part of the brain that deals with organization and decision making. Often adults help fill that gap by reminding teens, but there’s another way that doesn’t involve feeling like you’re nagging. Routines!
Consistency is essential to build habits so that teens can cope with their lack of organization and tendency to forget things. It can as simple as doing their homework in the same location, putting their completed work in a folder and then in their backpack after they finish it. Creating one new routine at a time until it’s part of the everyday experience will help your teen become more organized and hopefully find those papers more easily or complete more assignments. It won’t happen overnight though, so have some patience if s/he slides back a bit and forgets things again.
The most important part of this is having your teen be involved in the process. Sometimes well meaning adults organize everything for a teen and then wonder why it’s a mess again. You need to work with the teen to create a routine that works for them that they can follow through with.
Problem: Lack of Understanding
Sometimes teens don’t turn in work because they don’t understand it. However, they might not tell you that. Things to look for would be some key phrases that might clue you in: this is stupid or I’ll come back to it later. They might spend a long time on an assignment or too short. Either of these are red flags that they might not understand or even that they don’t know where to start and just need to talk it out. If they can’t explain the assignment back to you and are really general, that’s another clue.
Solution: Seek the Teacher’s Help or a Peer
For this problem, the hardest part is determining if they don’t understand. Seeking help from a teacher or peer is the easier and more straightforward part. I say a peer because sometimes students feel more comfortable seeking help from people their own age because it’s less embarrassing to them. Plus it can be more convenient because friends can come over at seven o’clock at night or talk to you on Facebook or the phone to help explain the assignment, which you’re less apt to be able to do with a teacher. Seeking extra help might be tough for a teen but it’s definitely worth it both for their grade and their self esteem.
Sometimes just talking with your teen about the assignment and helping them work through the process can help them get started and push through.
“Have you started x? Let’s work on some ideas together. What if the character… / you started with …”
“Let’s look at your notes. What do find the hardest part? What’s the easiest? Okay. How is problem 2 like this one? Do you notice any patterns?”
Problem: Lack of Motivation
Content is school is not always going to be interesting. Nor is a student always going to feel particularly motivated to finish an assignment, especially a large one. This will lead to procrastination and sometimes this is show in the quality of the work produced.
Solution: Start with Incentives
There are two types of motivation: extrinsic and intrinsic. Students who do their work because it makes them feel successful and capable have intrinsic motivation; they work for the feeling it gives them. Students who work for rewards have extrinsic motivation; they work because they get something in return.
We want teens to have intrinsic motivation, but sometimes to get there they need a little incentive. Then over time they can develop the habit of working for what it gives them. It’s the same thing we do for ourselves sometimes: I’ll reward myself with a smoothie after I workout. It doesn’t have to be money or a punishment; it can be something simple like having a friend over if they complete their homework and show it to you or access to electronics.
The goal is for teens to see that working hard allows for fun later. Then they can set their own goals and see the rewards of their hard work, becoming intrinsically motivated. This does take trial and error; it can be tough to figure out the right incentive for your teen.
I’ve seen students who are unmotivated start working when they joined a sports team and had people depending on them. They enjoyed being part of a group and belonging and was willing to work for it. Other students worked for the positive reinforcement of adults in their lives. I’ve also seen students work hard to continue to play sports and not get kicked off the team or to earn a trip or experience with a friend. The strategy I’ve seen work with a lot of teens is taking away electronics and earning them back. Whatever it is, it needs to be tailored to the student.
Another way to help a student with motivation is just to work with them on the assignment. Just be a support as they work through it and experience frustration. Ask questions to help them think through the process but not take over the conversation or give too much information away “What if… Do you notice a pattern… Where could you find information about … etc.”
There’s a balance between providing too much support where the teen feels stupid they can’t do it themselves and not enough that they can’t move forward on the assignment. Helping them think through things to help them figure it out for themselves is often the best way.
Problem: Outright Refusal
Often refusal is due to a deeper issue: lack of control. The teen needs to feel like they have control of something in his/her life so refusal of work is the easy avenue to take. Getting poor grades doesn’t matter. Incentives and punishments sometimes work but to really be effective you need to get to the root of the issue.
Teens want to feel independent, competent, and in control. In order to eliminate the power struggle provide clear boundaries and choices: the negative first and then the positive. You can either stay after school and do your work or you can do it at home. You can either lose your phone privileges or do your homework assignment.
Let them be a part of the solution. Provide them choices and let them provide options as well to choose from. This will give them the sense of control and independence they crave within appropriate boundaries. Maybe they can choose what times to do their homework or the location (without electronics). They can choose the reward or consequence for completing/not completing work.
Often teens with refusal will try to engage in an argument. Don’t. I’ve done it: you don’t win. Just stay calm and repeat the choice and then follow through with a consequence if necessary. The key though is to provide choices.
May the Stress in Your Family from Lack of Homework Completion Dissipate.