How to Help Your Child Build Great Homework Skills

by Dr. Emily Levy
(Originally published in NY Metro Parents, September 2007)

Does your child ever come home from school and complain that he has too much homework, has no idea how to complete the work, or has no homework at all? Kids invent all kinds of excuses to avoid sitting down and doing their homework. Some lack the academic abilities to complete their work independently. Others, however, simply need to learn effective homework strategies. By learning specific tools for time management, organization, and general homework skills, students will be well on their way toward homework success.

Time Management

Time management is one of the underlying components of effective homework skills. When students sit down to work on their assignments, they may feel overwhelmed by the number of tasks they need to complete. They may not know which order is best for completing them, and they might feel that they need frequent, or not frequent enough, breaks. Some may not write down their assignments at all, and may find themselves frantically looking through their notes or calling friends the night before the assignment is due.

To help solve this recurring time management problem, all students should first have some sort of daily planner or assignment book. This should be large enough to provide ample space for each day of the week. (It should not be a monthly or yearly calendar that has only a small box for each day). It should also have space not only for daily homework assignments, but also for any afterschool or evening activities. Students should be able to see a global picture of all school-related, athletic, and social activities for that week.In their assignment books, students should divide each day into five columns: ET (Estimated Time); AT (Actual Time); O (Order); D (Done); and a wide column for “Assignment”. Each day might look something like this:Students should create these columns in their assignment books, in advance, for about two weeks of time. The only place where students should write any information while at school is in the “Assignment” column. Once they arrive home from school and sit down to complete their assignments, their first task is to estimate how much time they think it will take to complete each assignment. They should write that estimated time in the “ET” column.Next, based on the estimated time for each assignment, students should decide which order they will follow in completing the assignments. For example, they might feel that math will take 35 minutes, science will take 20 minutes, and English will take 40 minutes. Based on these estimates, they can choose to either complete the shorter assignments first to get them over with, or focus their energy on completing the longer assignments first. Either choice is fine, as long as they try to stay consistent with their approach. As they complete each assignment, they should time themselves, using a clock or stopwatch. In the “AT” column, they should write the actual time it takes them to complete each assignment.

Finally, when the assignment is completed, they should draw one side of an “ex” in the “D” column, and once the assignment is put away in the right place to be turned in, they should complete the ex. A sample day from a completed assignment book might look like this:

Often, when students begin using this strategy, they notice a large discrepancy between the estimated and actual times for each assignment. Many students initially have unrealistic expectations of how long an assignment might take to complete. The more they practice using this strategy, however, the more realistic they will become with their time.


Maintaining a well-structured organizational system is important for effective homework management. To organize homework assignments, all students should have a homework “inbox” and “outbox”, contained in a two-pocket folder that they check on a regular basis. The pocket on the left is the “inbox” and the pocket on the right is the “outbox”. Younger students can have one homework inbox and outbox folder to use for all subjects, while older students usually benefit from a separate inbox and outbox folder for each class.

At school, when teachers pass out assignment sheets, students should place these into the “inbox” section of their folder. After they complete the assignments at home, they should put them into the “outbox” section on the right. Thus, when students are at school and are asked to turn in their homework assignments, they will know exactly where to look to find them.

General Homework Skills

As a general note, students should choose a consistent place at home for completing their homework each night. A clean desk with basic supplies, including pens, pencils, erasers, notebook paper, a hole puncher, a pencil sharpener, and other materials for their classes is ideal. They should choose a consistent time to complete their homework, either right after school, after a social or athletic activity, or after dinner. They should stick with this time on a daily basis.

You may want to help them to break down large projects into small steps, and to enter each step into their assignment book. With practice, they will begin to use this strategy independently. Give them positive reinforcement and encourage them to try to complete as much of the assignment independently before you help them. If need be, help them complete an assignment by asking them questions that guide them to their own answers, rather than immediately telling them what to do.

Homework can be a challenging task. Yet with the proper strategies in place, this task can become easier, more efficient, and even enjoyable.

Dear Dr. Levy, My son received an excellent report card. I can’t say enough good things about his EBL tutor. She has done a tremendous job helping him improve his reading and writing skills. Most importantly, she is wise and kind. She is always patient with him. Because of his tutor, my son writes with much more ease.
– Parent