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Three Kids, One Homework Packet...and a Million Distractions

Three Kids, One Homework Packet…and a Million Distractions

By Amalah

My oldest started Kindergarten this year and has a surprising amount of homework. He has a spelling list (like hit and big), 10 site words and a book to read. If he would sit down and do it, it would take about 15 minutes to complete. I also have a nearly 3 year old and a 5 month old with colic so I usually don’t have 15 minutes to completely devote to him.

Our usual routine is pick up up from the bus stop, 15 mins of snack/playtime and then homework time. He doesn’t really fight homework time as much as he draws it out so it takes forever.

How do you get homework done? What do you do with the littles during homework time? I don’t want to use TV because I don’t want the big one to look at homework as punishment (which I think he’s starting to do), but I do need something to engage them so I can focus more on him. I found a few busy bag ideas for the middle one but he’s over them in 5 minutes. The baby is either crying or wants to eat the homework and I’m pretty sure “the baby ate my homework” is not a valid excuse.

What’s your routine and do you have any tips for me?

~ Three kids is rough!

Oh yes. This. This is a good question. And one that we are still fumbling through at our house.

My oldest is in second grade this year and the homework has gotten certifiably insane — in past years he would get a weekly packet that we could get through at our own pace, but now multiple pages of worksheets come home every night and are due the next day (plus a reading journal and a comprehension question, and occasionally a quiz or special project). And thanks to a quirk in the kindergarten birthday cut-off, my middle son is still in preschool and thus blissfully homework free, but oh, he wants to be like his big brother SO BADLY that it’s hard to keep him from hovering and causing distractions. And since my oldest already struggles with anxiety, sensory and attention/hyperactivity issues, you can only imagine how long it takes us to get through homework some nights.

But while we’re still muddling through the particulars of second grade, we have found a few things that have really, really helped:

Experiment with the timing. In kindergarten and first grade, we actually had more success with doing homework right after dinner. (Now there’s so much that we split it up — half after school during snack, the rest after dinner.) Noah would simply stay seated at the table and I’d bring him dessert and his homework supplies. This worked for us for several reasons:

1) Noah required waaaaay more downtime/transition time after school than a 15-minute snack or play time would provide for him. This made sense in a “oh, DUH” kind of way — his OT was the one who suggested we switch — because Noah has always been a kid who needs a lot of transition time. While “getting homework out of the way first thing” works for a lot of kids, it’s not necessarily right for all kids.

2) After dinner meant my husband Jason was home from work and we could take turns helping Noah, rather than it always being “on me” to do, while also trying to care for my other two boys. I would lose patience with Noah for the exact reasons you describe — if he would just sit and FOCUS, we’d be done with this by now. By alternating who sits with him (either for actual help or just keeping him on task), we’re less likely to get irritated and thus feed the impression that homework is a negative or punishment.

3) After dinner, his siblings had other things to focus on, and thus we could eliminate Noah’s distractions. They might still be eating, or be happily focused on dessert, or eager to get back to whatever play scenario they were working on before I called them to dinner. These days, the non-homework parent can also ditch cleaning up the dishes and get the bedtime routine started early if the other two are getting in the way — I take them upstairs for PJs and such, with the promise that they could come back downstairs afterwards. (This is still a weird, big exciting treat for them — like they’re getting a reprieve or later bedtime even though they TOTALLY AREN’T.)

4) Noah is at his most motivated to get through his homework after dinner, because after dinner is when they got to watch their one cartoon of the day. I was amazed how suddenly a worksheet that used to involve 10 minutes of whining, another 10 minutes of ignoring, and 10 minutes of “I CAN’Ts” would now get done in like, five minutes.

If after dinner doesn’t sound like it would work, what time do one or both of his siblings go to bed? Could you pad in a 15- or 30-minute break in there where they are go to bed a little earlier and he gets to stay up a wee bit later to finish homework and maybe have a special big kid treat? You don’t want him exhausted, of course, but any time you can schedule homework when your partner is home to help you (taking the baby to cry elsewhere, at a minimum), might be the stress-reliever you ALL need to get though the homework in less time.

Involve the younger sibling, when appropriate. Your middle child is probably a little too young for this, but I occasionally eliminate the Ezra Distraction by involving him in homework instead of constantly shooing him away. I give him paper, scissors and glue or the day’s junk mail and task him with some made-up homework of his own. Cut out some paper shapes and put them in an envelope so we can mail them to someone, for example. Try to spell your name with Play-Doh, cut out your favorite foods from the grocery store circular. (I should note that Noah despises anything that involves scissors or mess so I can usually come up with something that he won’t be jealous of.) Maybe have your middle son sit nearby with the busy box and make a big deal over it being “his” homework? (As opposed to putting him in another room where he’ll be tempted to wander back for attention.) Oh, and a no brainer: When it’s time for Noah to read a book, I have him read it out loud to his brothers.

Breaks, breaks, breaks. Yeah, I know. He could have this crap done and over with in 15 minutes if he just stopped dragging it out and being all dramatic about it. Tell him he can take a break every 10 minutes anyway. You’ll be SHOCKED at how much more productive those 10 minutes will be than the usual “you’re gonna sit here until it’s done no matter how long it takes” approach. Use a visual timer (Time Timer) or just set a kitchen timer if you think a visual aid will be a distraction. 10 minutes on, 10 minutes off. He’ll probably finish everything after just one break, but because he GOT that break he’ll feel so much more positive about the homework time overall.

Talk to his teacher. Trust me, your son’s teacher WANTS him to be successful with homework. He or she does NOT want it to be an nightly struggle full of tears and strife. It’s a learning experience in kindergarten, and it’s not the end of the world if there are nights when it just doesn’t get done. Noah’s teacher nearly had a stroke this past fall when I confessed that homework was taking us over an hour to get through and there was a lot of anxiety and tears over it on an almost nightly basis. No! No no no, she insisted. Noah only needed to try and do his best. If he couldn’t get through it that meant he didn’t adequately absorb that day’s lesson, and she needs to know that so she can give him additional help and extra review. (And how would she know that if we’re the ones basically dragging him headfirst into the right answers in a desperate desire to JUST GET THROUGH THIS OMG?) By all means, she told me, send the homework back uncompleted with a note or send her an email. Noah would not get in trouble. (She also had this talk with Noah to let him know that it was okay to do his best but ask for help the next day.)

It turned out that the insane homework load was not really the Super Serious Bizness that we were all thinking it was. And his teacher has a son with similar issues as Noah and was able to offer us a lot of additional advice and — in the end — just plain UNDERSTANDING that hey, you do your best. Homework should not be poisoning your time together at home and taking over everybody’s lives. In other words, I’m pretty sure your son’s teacher would get a big kick out of the baby eating the homework and sympathize with the colic situation AND give you similar peace of mind that sending a kindergarten worksheet back unfinished every now and then isn’t the end of the world. As long as you guys are trying to establish good skills, nightly reading and a sense of academic responsibility, that’s enough for now.

Perfection isn’t expected. In fact, it’s downright impossible. And I think, for some of us, that’s harder to grasp as parents than it is for the actual kid with the actual homework.

About the Author

Amy Corbett Storch


Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Ama...

Amalah is a pseudonym of Amy Corbett Storch. She is the author of the Advice Smackdown and Bounce Back. You can follow Amy’s daily mothering adventures at Amalah. Also, it’s pronounced AIM-ah-lah.

If there is a question you would like answered on the Advice Smackdown, please submit it to

Amy also documented her second pregnancy (with Ezra) in our wildly popular Weekly Pregnancy Calendar, Zero to Forty.

Amy is mother to rising first-grader Noah, preschooler Ezra, and toddler Ike.

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  • Ally

    January 20, 2014 at 2:03 pm

    Soooo I am right there with you. I have a kindergartner, a 4 year old, an almost 3 year old, and a 3 month old. We do homework a couple different ways. If it’s a night where he has soccer or tumbling we have to do HW pretty quickly after school. If he does it quickly without complaint he gets a ten minute coupon that he can use for TV or iPod time. That is a huge motivation for him. Other nights of the week we save HW for after dinner and when the other kids go to bed. He does it with my husband and he enjoys the time with just him. If the little kids are around I try to get puzzles or something out for them to do.

    • Ellain

      January 20, 2014 at 3:23 pm

      Ooh, I like that coupon idea!

      • Trish

        January 21, 2014 at 9:45 am

        A friend of mine with older kids used media time “tokens,” which were smallish stones they had painted. They got very little media time that they didn’t earn in some way (extra chores, etc.)

  • Melissa

    January 20, 2014 at 5:10 pm

    What Amy said!  My in-laws were middle school teachers with several kids and SWEAR by the after dinner time slot plus YES, breaks in the middle of it all.  They felt kids just did all those hours of school time and then possibly bussing time, then what?  15 minutes and MORE school?  The after school period, they felt, needed to be a letting off steam/snack time before dinner, then homework (with breaks if needed), then light play, then the bedtime routine.  It really does work!

  • eva

    January 20, 2014 at 5:35 pm

    We do homework in the morning before school – my grade one daughter is way more focused at 6:45/7am than she is at the end of the day when she is sick of worksheets and just wants to play! She will sit and focus and get through her work for the 10-20 minutes wtihout complaint when it’s early. When we were doing it at 5pm or 7pm it was taking ages and full of frustration and mistakes. It is a quieter time of day for us too, since my husband has left for work and my younger daughter is busy eating breakfast or sleeping until around 7:30.

  • Amy

    January 20, 2014 at 6:26 pm

    We do our kindergarten work in bed right before bedtime stories. It’s quiet, baby brother is in bed and it’s all reading related, sight words etc. if he’s uncooperative then story time gets cut down to one short story.

  • Christina

    January 20, 2014 at 11:22 pm

    I have a first grader, preschooler and 1.5 year old. HW was a big problem for me to juggle too. I let the preschooler have one 20 min show while my first grader does his HW. He is motivated to settle down and get the work done so he can have his tv time. Then when HW is done, we switch and it’s the first grader’s turn for a show and I do puzzles alone with the 4 year old. My 1.5 year old is always coming in and out but that isn’t much of an issue. This way the kids each have devoted time with me to do their work and I only have 1 or 2 kids to handle. It just makes it THAT much easier and it makes all the difference!

    I also agree that sometimes after dinner is a great time to do it (I still do the TV swap thing since my husband still isn’t home yet). That playtime afterschool where he can relax and have fun is crucial to his happiness!

    FYI: if there is legitimately more work than he can finish in 20-30 minutes, sometimes I leave the easiest worksheet for after dinner or at breakfast. I also don’t have a problem sending a note in that we didn’t get to this last worksheet(s). The teacher knows we value his education but I refuse to make the kid do crazy amounts of HW in first grade! Sometimes I just put my foot down!

  • Christina

    January 21, 2014 at 1:15 pm

    I work in education, though I am not a teacher. My husband is a teacher and I spend my days surrounded by former teachers who are now either master teachers or experts in various education areas.

    Homework, up until about 6th grade should be practice. What Amy said about talking to the teacher is so important. But its important in ways beyond that. If the teacher doesn’t see homework as a practice concept then that teacher really needs to rethink their instruction strategy. I realize its easy for this parent to say that but if I were you I’d find out the teacher’s theory behind the homework and if the teacher is not seeing homework as a learning concept, in and of itself, I’d talk to the Principal or the grade chair. The teacher should be teaching the concepts during the day, full stop. Kids shouldn’t be learning much of anything from the actual homework until at least Middle School.

  • Andrea

    January 22, 2014 at 2:39 am

    Thank you Christina. This exactly was running through my head.

  • Stephanie

    January 22, 2014 at 6:38 pm

    My kids are now in middle school and high school, but I remember the agony over homework in the early elementary years.  It took me a very long time to figure out that homework at that stage in school is more about getting used to the idea of homework, getting into a routine for the later years, when it does count, not so much about the work itself.  
    Definitely talk to your son’s teacher.  It shouldn’t be a huge, tear-inducing ordeal.  And I second switching to an after-dinner homework routine.  I’ve learned through lots of trial and error that it just goes much more smoothly than right after school. 

  • Susan:)

    January 23, 2014 at 7:49 pm

    We have a kindergartener and a four year old.  Of course, the younger one wants to do what big sis is doing. So she does her “homework”, basically preschool level workbooks. She loves doing them when her sister is doing her homework, and bonus, she’s learning to write her letters much faster now!

  • Cara

    January 23, 2014 at 10:09 pm

    Just a practical idea for the colicky baby – does (s)he tolerate baby-wearing?  If so, maybe you could put your oldest at a bar or counter and strap the baby on for homework time, allowing you to bounce and keep the baby soothed while still helping with the homework.

  • Betttina

    January 27, 2014 at 2:39 am

    All of THIS is why I do not assign homework to my 6th graders. If they don’t finish in class they will have to finish at home but I do not assign homework and I design lessons to do in class. I already have them 8 hours a day, why do they need more work? They aten’t going to learn more.

    Now, my 8th graders do get foreign language practice at home each night for five to ten minutes, to rehearse the new vocab from that day.

  • Julie

    January 27, 2014 at 3:22 am

    I just have one kid in 2nd grade, but homework is such a chore! I WOH, and am essentially a single parent. We don’t get home until 6:30, then I have to get dinner on the table, do homework, actually play with my kid, and do the whole nighttime routine, all by 8:30 (any later and he’s a bear to wake up at 7). He has to do 15 minutes of reading, and 10 minutes of extra handwriting practice, and then his actual homework, which usually takes at least 30 minutes. I tried to build in breaks, but then it took an hour! He’s super reluctant and whiny about every step of it, and 90% of that time is spent just getting him to freaking FOCUS. Needless to say, this is not sustainable and I feel lost about what to do.

  • Lindsay

    February 9, 2014 at 10:31 pm

    Wow.I don’t have a kid with homework yet, but this response has already eased my mind about it. It’s ok to send back unfinished worksheets occasionally! Hallelujah! I will remember this and use it (sparingly). Thanks for another rockstar answer.