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Case Studies of Families Doing Third-grade Homework

by Jianzhong Xu & Lyn Corno - 1998

In this article, we describe data from six cases studies of children doing third-grade homework with their parents. The study combined observation and interview data from children, parents, and teachers to take a close look at the dynamics of homework and its potential to develop self-responsibility in children. We discuss both methodology and results in the context of related investigations and modern theoretical direction. Our data provide clear evidence that everyday experiences with homework, as mediated by parents, provide opportunities for children to learn to cope with various difficulties and distractions associated with doing homework. How children seize those opportunities and begin to develop strategies and skills for doing homework, along with the nature of the mediation parents provide, are key topics for discussion. Our study suggests directions for future research, theory, and practice regarding homework.

In this article, we describe data from six cases studies of children doing third-grade homework with their parents. The study combined observation and interview data from children, parents, and teachers to take a close look at the dynamics of homework and its potential to develop self-responsibility in children. We discuss both methodology and results in the context of related investigations and modern theoretical direction. Our data provide clear evidence that everyday experiences with homework, as mediated by parents, provide opportunities for children to learn to cope with various difficulties and distractions associated with doing homework. How children seize those opportunities and begin to develop strategies and skills for doing homework, along with the nature of the mediation parents provide, are key topics for discussion. Our study suggests directions for future research, theory, and practice regarding homework.

We undertook the present study to investigate how parents in six families actually do homework with their third-grade children and some of the social-emotional influences that come into play. By treating parent involvement as a mediating variable that influences the psychological effects of homework on children, this type of research opens a new avenue of theoretical investigation. It also provides a practical illustration of how parents can assist their children with homework, helping them to develop desirable attributes and skills related to organization and self-regulation. Such information ought to be useful, particularly for younger students whose academic achievement has been shown to benefit less from homework than that of older students (Cooper, 1989). As Hoover-Dempsey, Bassler, and Burow (1995) recently noted,

Much less attention has been given to the highly significant precursor elementary years, arguably the years when significant patterns of parental involvement—and child attitudes and activities related to homework—are developed. (p. 436)

In addition, a better understanding of the contexts in which homework takes place may help teachers and parents communicate more effectively and be more supportive of one another’s efforts.


Our methods were informed by two lines of related research. One line of research suggests that parents may have nonacademic influences on their children during and/or after doing homework together. Two studies have examined this hypothesis using self-report methods.

Leone and Richards (1989) employed the experience sampling method, developed by Csikszentmihalyi and Larson (1984, 1987), to investigate students’ subjective experience while doing homework. Four-hundred-one randomly selected public school students in grades five to nine carried an electronic pager for one week. When signaled, every two hours between 7:30 A.M. and 9:30 P.M., students completed brief self-reports on where they were, whom they were with, what they were doing, and what they were thinking. They rated their affect, arousal, motivation for doing the activity, and attentiveness on seven- or ten-point scales.

These data showed that students’ moods while doing homework were generally negative. Their levels of affect, arousal, motivation, and attention were rated lower than similar subjective experiences rated during other activities (e.g., classwork, leisure, and maintenance, such as eating and doing chores). In addition, students said they were most attentive to homework when completing it with a parent, rather than with a peer or alone. Those students most likely to do homework with parents were high achievers (students with a higher grade point average) who also appeared to spend “more time on homework as they got older despite the accompanying negative effect, while the remaining students did even less in the higher grades, perhaps to avoid the negative experience” (Leone & Richards, 1989, p. 544). Based on these data, we speculated that attention to homework—mediated by a parent—was a key factor related to high achievement.

A different type of study by McCaslin and Murdock (1991) relied on interviews with parents and children to investigate how two sets of parents and children from the same sixth-grade class interacted around homework, and how this interaction influenced the child’s “adaptive learning.” Adaptive learning was defined as the internalization of goals, the motivation to commit to and challenge them, and the competence to enact and evaluate those commitments. Parents were interviewed about their general managerial style and expectations, their child’s strengths and weaknesses as a learner, and their child’s and their own responses to mistakes and frustrations in home and school learning. Interviews with children incorporated four vignettes intended to elicit their perception of the portrayed events in a particular mathematics task. Children also predicted the character’s inner speech during the vignette and immediately afterward.

Results showed that doing homework was one of many areas in which parental values, expectations, management styles, and views of their children influenced children’s collective perceptions, beliefs, strategies, and goals. For example, in one family, the parents emphasized the importance of homework, although they often could not help their son with his homework because of language differences between the parents and the child. The child’s homework was written in English, and the parents spoke only Spanish fluently. Given this situation, all Julio’s parents could do was attempt to persuade and motivate him to do the homework and to try to do well in school. The father also used distal goals as a motivating tool—a prospect of a good job one day—combined with regret that he himself had not used educational opportunities to get a better job. At times, the father also tried to teach Julio some emotional control strategies (Corno, 1986, 1989; Kuhl, 1985):

He gets a little upset if it [doing homework] doesn’t come the right way. . . . [When this happens] we try to calm Julio down so he can get back on the track. We tell him, if you get mad, your mind ain’t going to be on the problem, you got to relax, so you can get to the bottom of the problem . . . let it cool off a little so you can get your mind, concentrate . . . get control and get to work. (McCaslin and Murdock, 1991, p. 229)

From Julio’s responses in the four vignette records, it appeared that he had internalized some work strategies modeled by his father. He became aware of distal consequences-of frustrated coping (e.g., refusing to ask for help would eventually result in a failing grade). He also realized the self-destructiveness of anger and began to control his emotions. For example, when he gets “mad,” he said, “I don’t feel like doing the work. But I keep doing it” (McCaslin & Murdock, 1991, p. 229).

Data from these studies taken together imply that (1) some self-regulatory factors (e.g., the child’s emotion control and follow-through) may play an important role in doing homework, and (2) the manner in which a parent and a child do homework together (e.g., describing strategies to enhance the child’s attention) may influence the ways in which a child later does homework assignments alone. However, data from these studies, derived primarily from participants’ self-reports, do not document the actual processes by which a parent and child do homework together.

The second line of research related to our study provides more direct evidence that parents use a variety of strategies to structure and monitor their children’s homework. Two studies obtained actual descriptions of parent-child interactions around homework (McDermott, Goldman, & Varenne, 1984) and during a laboratory homework-like task (Chandler, Argyris, Barnes, Goodman, & Snow, 1986), respectively.

The study by McDermott et al. (1984) was published in a previous issue of Teachers College Record. These authors analyzed videotaped homework sessions from two working-class families in the same neighborhood. Focal children both attended the same Catholic school; one was a third-grade boy and the other a fourth-grade girl. In each family, the taping was done in the location where the children usually did their homework, with the people usually involved, except for fieldworkers.

Data from the study illustrated ways that parents structured the physical environment, sequenced procedural matters, motivated their children to do homework, and prevented potential distractions. For example, in one family, the mother tried to monitor her daughter’s homework progress (e.g., “This is a consonant?” “Well, you better find something”). When facing distraction from her baby sister, the child sought her parent’s help (“Ma, get her away”). The mother quickly responded to the child’s request to restructure the physical environment by asking her younger daughter to stay away. Meanwhile, the child also took the initiative to restructure the environment by asking her sister to move herself. Once the child finished what her mother asked her to do (“Ma, this is the best I could do”), the mother continued to monitor her child’s homework by challenging her, “Well, you better find three more consonant blends.” Although parental manipulations such as these were evidenced in this study, these authors’ (McDermott et al., 1984) own research agenda focused on sociopolitical features of the community that influenced home-based literacy events.

The study by Chandler et al. (1986) selected thirty-two children from grades two, four, and six in one urban school system based on dual criteria: (1) below-and above-average readers (as measured by scores on standardized tests) and (2) eligible for the free-lunch program at school. In this way, students represented different grade and achievement levels while socioeconomic status (SES) was held constant (equivalently low income). Observations of parent-child interactions were made during a structured “homework-like task” assigned by researchers. Parents and children also completed time-allocation “diaries” of children’s activities for four consecutive weekdays. Two researchers were present for each diary-observation visit. One researcher explained the task of filling out the diary, while another took notes.

Data showed that parents strategically structured the work environment (e.g., turned off televisions and turned away visitors). They also encouraged their children to concentrate and stay on the task (e.g., saying “I’ll help you, don’t worry”). But again, these parent intervention strategies were not the focus of this study. Instead, it sought to examine the hypothesis that discontinuity in the uses of literacy between home and school results in a failure of low-income children to achieve adequate levels of literacy. Furthermore, no data were available from either of these direct observation studies to characterize what homework and strategic interventions by parents might have meant to these families, because interpretive self-reports were not obtained.

Thus, the present study may be viewed as bringing together the best of current available methods to bridge a gap in homework research. We videotaped in-depth homework interactions between children and parents in order to focus on effects other than academic achievement as mediated by parents. Specifically, we were interested in how parents helped to structure the home environment, cope with distractions, and direct children’s attention to relevant dimensions of the homework experience. Of equal interest was how, through everyday homework experience, children might learn to deflect distractions and motivate themselves to follow through on homework. Finally, we wanted to know how doing homework together was interpreted by parents and children respectively in their own life contexts.


Case methodology was used to highlight the research questions concerning “how” and “why” particular events occurred. Multiple and embedded descriptive studies were preferable because no previous study focused precisely on those aspects of natural homework events of interest here (Yin, 1984). Case studies also permitted in-depth analysis of individual families, while remaining comprehensive enough to sample a range of interaction patterns across families.


Participants were six third-grade children from one K-5 public school in New York City and their parents, who volunteered. Located on the Upper West Side of Manhattan, the school ranked 36th out-of 626 elementary schools on a citywide standardized reading test administered in 1993. Of the school’s 1,200 student population, 45 percent were Caucasian, 30 percent African-American, 20 percent Latino, and 5 percent of Asian descent. The third grade was chosen for the study because it was the point in this school when children began to receive substantially more homework. Also, in third grade in this school, the children began to grapple with a number of transitions and school formalisms, including standardized achievement testing.

We contacted the Parent-Teacher Association president and the principal to get permission to put a notice in the school’s weekly newsletter seeking volunteers. Eight parents volunteered initially. However, two original volunteers withdrew prior to data collection, each citing discomfort with in-home videotaping.

The six families who volunteered reflected an array of cultural backgrounds; at the same time, the parents were similarly well educated, held professional jobs, and all said they assisted their children with homework on a regular basis (see Table 1). The children were all eight-years-old at the time of the study, and characterized by their teachers as “average to high achieving.” Conclusions drawn from this study are not therefore limited to any particular cultural group. At the same time, our conclusions are based on committed professional families with relatively high achieving children.


The children from families A, B, and C were in two different third-grade classes in which they were assigned homework on a weekly basis. They received a homework package for the whole week on Monday, to be completed and turned in on Friday. Each package usually contained six to seven pages of assignments, covering the following areas:

A reading log. The children had to read fifteen minutes every day, then comment on their readings.

Current events. Once a week, they were asked to read newspaper stories or watch news on television, then answer questions such as “Who is in the news and where is it taking place? How do you feel about it?”

Spelling. They were given the same spelling words two weeks in a row. One week the task was to rearrange them into alphabetical order; the second week they were to write a story using the spelling words.

Social studies. They were asked to read an article and answer related questions.

Math. They were given problems related primarily to addition, subtraction, and their applications. For example, the children might be asked to read a chart, interpret it, and draw graphs based on the information given.

The children from families D, E, and F came from two other classes, in which they were assigned homework on a daily basis. Their assignments included a range of work similar to that of the children in the first group. However, their assignments were tied to in-class course work, and so varied from day to day. Occasionally, these children were also assigned a long-term project, such as a writing project with a due date several days later.


The children in both groups were asked to-spend about forty-five to sixty minutes on homework nightly. If they exceeded the time spent and still did not get their work done, they were expected to spend extra time to complete it. Otherwise, parents were asked to write a note to the teacher to explain why their child could not turn in homework on time.


Data were collected through three sources: (1) open-ended interviews with children, their parents, and teachers; (2) videotapes of two homework sessions in each family; and (3) stimulated-recall interviews with parents following each homework session.


To understand what homework meant to the parents, children, and teachers, interviews were important. Also, as both parents and children had opportunities to observe various patterns of interaction in a broad range of situations and over extended periods of time (Maccoby & Martin, 1983), interviewing them provided a broader scope that helped in interpreting the observed homework sessions.

Interviews with the parents and children incorporated questions about children’s use of various self-regulatory strategies (e.g., goal setting, pacing, resource management, and self-monitoring) (Corno, 1993; Kuhl, 1985; Zimmerman & Pons, 1986). In addition, we incorporated the Homework Problem Checklist developed by Anesko, Schoiock, Ramirez, & Levine (1987). From a list of twenty problems (e.g., “Must be reminded to sit down and start homework”; “Procrastinates, puts off doing homework”; “Easily frustrated by homework assignment”), each respondent rates the frequency of each problem’s occurrence according the following scale: never, at times, often, very often. Also incorporated were other issues and concerns raised in popular books (Rosemond, 1990; Sonna, 1990) and professional literature on homework (Birnbaum, 1989; Clark & Clark, 1989; Connors, 1991; Epstein & Pinkow, 1988; Salend & Schliff, 1988) (see Xu, 1994, for complete transcripts of these interviews).

The interviews with parents and children posed a series of parallel questions on what the typical homework session entailed, so that parents’ and children’s views of doing homework could be compared, contrasted, and complemented with data from videotaped observations. Open-ended questions explored how parents and children set up and followed through on homework, their affective responses to homework experiences they described, and the relative values they placed on doing homework. Examples of questions are: “Does your child (or do you, in the case of interviewing a child) ever get frustrated by homework assignments? If so, how often does this occur? What do you do then? Why?”

The study was conducted between October, 1992, and February, 1993. During the study, all families were visited at least five times, with each visit lasting an average of three hours. Data were collected in the form of field notes, as well as audiotapes and videotapes. The first home visit was to interview parents; each visit lasted about ninety minutes and was scheduled at times convenient for them. Following that, another home visit was arranged to interview children; each of these lasted about seventy minutes. All interviews were audiotaped and subsequently transcribed.

Videotaped Observations

In four of six families, a preliminary visit was also arranged to try out the video camera and help children feel more at ease being videotaped; the remaining families thought that it was not a big deal for their children to be videotaped, or videotaping was something they routinely did as a family. The video sessions were scheduled in advance to represent a range of homework assignments and subject areas, as well as to fit into individual family schedules. When changes occurred in either of these factors, homework sessions were rescheduled. As a result, the interval between the two homework sessions in the six families averaged about a month.

In each homework session, parents were asked to do homework with their children in the location and at the time of the day they usually did, and with the other family members who were usually involved. It was hoped that this familiar context would facilitate comfort and display of competence on the children’s part as well as authentic assistance on the part of parents.

Stimulated-recall Interviews

In seven out of the total number of twelve videotaping sessions, a stimulated recall interview (Calderhead, 1981; Clark & Peterson, 1986; Marland, 1984, 1986; Shavelson & Stern, 1981) was conducted with the parents, by replaying the entire videotape. During these interviews, parents were asked to stop the videotape whenever they wanted to make some relevant comment. We also stopped the tape at points where a parent (1) looked around, stared ahead, smiled, or made some other unexpected gesture; (2) suddenly changed voice tone, such as repeating; (3) appeared to be expressing emotion through gestures or raised voice; (4) expressed confidence, approval, reassurance, or a threat to the child; and (5) expressed some ambiguous verbal or nonverbal behavior. The parents were also encouraged to reflect on and relate any relevant previous homework experiences that affected their interactions with their child in that homework session or more generally.

In three instances, after spending up to an hour supervising their children in homework, the parents did not feel they had time or energy to sit down and watch the entire videotape. To comply with this concern, field notes were kept while videotaping, and these parents then watched only selected portions of the videotape where their verbal or nonverbal behavior appeared ambiguous, or in which episodes were particularly illuminating for purposes of the study. In one family, the mother insisted that she did not have time to watch the videotape at all, but she was willing to give a brief interview after each homework session. In this case, instead of stimulated recall interviews, post-homework interviews were conducted on the spot.

Interviews with the children’s teachers were conducted in late March 1993, to understand the school context in which homework was assigned for each family. These interviews took place at school, lasting an average of thirty minutes. Questions were posed to teachers about their reasons for giving homework, their expectations for children and parents, and relevant academic histories of the children being studied. Again, these interviews were audiotaped and subsequently transcribed.


Audiotaped interviews and videotaped observations were transcribed and checked for accuracy against original recordings. Each case yielded from 80 to 118 pages of audio- and videotape transcripts, with a mean of 102 pages.

Each case was written separately to retain the holistic nature of the homework interaction in each family. The case was read by each parent prior to cross-case analysis, and parents’ comments were used to revise the text in instances when they wished to correct factual details or challenge our interpretations. These six case reports then served as a basis for cross-case analysis. Interpretation based on data from several cases is more compelling than that from a single case study (Merriam, 1988; Yin, 1984).

The constant comparative method (Glaser & Strauss, 1967) was used to analyze data from the case reports, starting “from comparison of incident with incident to comparison of incident with properties of the category that resulted from initial comparisons of incidents” (p. 108). First, we tried to have several excerpts that were similar in language before we labeled a category. Then we examined whether the inclusion of the next excerpt in the category would change its meaning. If so, when that excerpt was incorporated, the existing category was modified. If not, we compared this incoming excerpt with those already in that category. We replaced an existing excerpt with the incoming excerpt if it provided a better example to illustrate the category. At the final stage of analysis, when we excerpted responses or comments to illustrate categories, we further discussed alternative interpretations for each excerpt. We stayed close to participants’ own language in our interpretations.

Multiple sources of evidence and triangulation were employed. Patton (1980) and Yin (1984) suggest this tactic as a means of enhancing internal validity and safeguarding against researcher bias. Thus, a converging line of inquiry was developed. For example, data from one source (e.g., interview) and perspective (e.g., a parent) were compared with data from another source (e.g., observation) or perspective (e.g., a child), with the intention of verifying, clarifying, and amplifying the meaning of findings taken from any single source or perspective. This method also enhanced reliability claims for each individual data source (Guba & Lincoln, 1982; Yin, 1984) and, consequently, of the overall study.

Six categories were developed through these different analysis procedures. The first category, the meaning of homework, referred to what homework meant to the parents, children, and teachers involved. It was based on data taken directly from one source, the interviews with parents, children, and teachers.

The second category, arranging the environment, referred to parents’ and children’s efforts to arrange the physical and psychological environment before homework started, as well as their continuing efforts to restructure the physical and psychological environment during homework sessions. The third category, managing time, referred to parents’ and children’s efforts to budget time to meet deadlines. The development of categories two and three here was informed by data collected from three sources: open-ended interviews with parents, children-and teachers; observations of homework sessions; and stimulated-recall or post-homework interviews with parents.

Formation of categories four, five, and six—namely, monitoring attention, monitoring motivation, and monitoring emotion—was also derived from the above three data sources. Unlike the former, however, the latter categories were influenced by Kuhl’s (1985) work on volition and self-regulation (see Corno, 1986, 1993). Thus, in the view of Constas (1992), these three categories originated from relevant literature:

Researchers who attempt to build on the discoveries of research conducted in situations and on topics similar to the ones they are investigating may refer to research or published works in the relevant area. Categories are then derived from statements or conclusions found in the literature of other researchers who investigated a similar phenomenon. (p. 258)

Monitoring attention referred to parents’ and children’s efforts to “discriminate task-relevant information from other [social and physical] distractions” (Corno 1986. p. 337). It also included efforts to discriminate task-relevant information from nonessential dimensions of a task, and to adjust the child’s attention to the demands of the specific task at hand. An example was parents’ efforts to help children protect attention by stopping them from engaging in irrelevant activities (e.g., playing with a cup or initiating an irrelevant conversation). Monitoring motivation was defined as generating thought that “increases the strength of the current intention by selectively processing information that supports it” (Kuhl, 1985, p. 107). An example of this would be parental effort to assure their children that they were able to do their homework (e.g., ‘You know how to do this”). Monitoring emotion referred to “the use of reassurance to control negative affect, or redirect an emotional response” (Corno 1986. p. 339). For example, when one mother saw that her daughter was upset with a broken notebook divider (“Oh! Look!“), the mother immediately told her not to be bothered about it and prompted her to move on, saying: “Nothing to worry about. Just put some tape over it and stop leaning on it. All right. Let’s go.”


Our results, discussed by category, include all data sources:


The meaning of homework is discussed in terms of reasons for doing it for teachers, children, and their parents, as well as how homework was done in each family’s context.

Reasons for Doing Homework

Parents and teachers shared similar reasons for doing homework. All teachers indicated that one reason for assigning homework (in fact, for half of them, this was the only reason) was to reinforce what children were learning in school. One teacher stated that “there is so much to cover this year that we don’t have the time for reinforcement all of the time in the classroom so they need . . . to do that at home.” Half of the teachers also used homework to develop a sense of responsibility in the children. One teacher gave this example:

If they are reading an article on the coastal areas [in Peru], when they come back to class, they know they have to contribute. They are going to sit down, have a discussion; and they will have to have something to say, rather than, “Oh, I don’t know anything about the article. I’m just going to sit there and wait for you to tell me something.”

Five out of the six parents similarly believed that doing homework helped children reinforce school learning (e.g., “understand better what’s going on in the classroom,” “reinforce something they’ve learned from school so that they can really integrate it”). Four parents also said they believed homework could help their children work independently and develop responsibility (e.g., “You have to have responsibility to complete daily assignments; you should make sure you’re doing them if you consider yourself to be a responsible person”). In addition, three parents believed that doing homework would have implications beyond their children’s formal schooling. One mother explained:

This [doing homework] is part of the deal of being in school. . . . I am trying to get him [her son] to see that he will grow up, and he’ll have a job, and his boss will say you have to do X, Y, and Z; and you will have to do X, Y, and Z.

For a father,

Doing homework is teaching [his daughter] the ultimate lesson—you must complete a task. . . . I do not see homework [simply] as homework. . . . I see it as a stepping stone to other things.

Like their parents and teachers, the majority of the children (four out of six) said that doing homework helped them understand better what they had already learned in class (e.g., “learn more,” “write better,” and “do math better”). In addition, all of the children said they enjoyed doing some assignments (e.g., “I am happy when I get to a good part of my homework; I like it a lot, like math sheet”).

Unlike their parents and teachers, the children studied here also cited extrinsic reasons for doing homework. All the children sought teacher approval. For example, one boy was much more willing to do his homework in the third grade because he got along better with this teacher than with those in previous grades. Often, after he got homework back, this boy wanted to see quickly if he got a “Great!” Some children expressed anxieties about not turning in homework on time. Five out of the six children said explicitly that they did homework because they wanted their parents’ approval. One girl, for example, wanted her father to be proud of her; she said it made her feel good when he told her that all of her homework was right.

Taken as a whole, the parents and teachers shared similar views about the purposes of doing third-grade homework, although teachers appeared most interested in homework as reinforcement for school learning. Parents appeared interested in homework as reinforcement, as well as the expected enhancement of self-regulatory attributes and skills. For the children, in addition to academic reinforcement, doing homework became one route to gain approval from significant others. The third-graders seemed unaware of their parents’ view that homework may foster development of desirable attributes and life skills.

Doing Homework in the Home Context

Four of the six parents expressed mixed feelings about helping their children with homework once they had done it for a while. They wanted to be involved parents, they said; however, they also found that really helping their children do the assigned homework required more of a commitment in their daily lives than they initially expected. They indicated that making themselves available to their children often prevented their doing other things, ranging from their own evening work or social activities to having some personal time for themselves. One mother noted:

I guess I feel the pressure, yes. I don’t resent it very much because I feel it’s a part of being a Mom. Part of being a parent is having this commitment. But there are days when . . . I have a very busy day, I haven’t had any time to do some of the little things that I need to do, like pay bills, return phone calls, or whatever. I do find I’m more short-tempered, and it’s like another commitment of time that competes with other things that I need to do in a very short day.

To accommodate her children’s needs, including helping them with their homework, another mother even decided to give up her profession: “I left the hospital. I had a good job in management. I liked it; I loved it. [But] I gave it up because I wanted [my schedule] to be more flexible for my children.” Still, she felt that helping two daughters do homework “interferes with a little bit of social life that I would like to have after work, after dinner, and before I’m too tired to talk.” But “I accept that.”

All of the children reported liking some of their assignments; however, five of the six indicated that working on homework was not their favorite activity, compared with other activities they wanted to pursue after school. One girl indicated that although sometimes doing homework was fun, she did “not really like homework because it takes a lot of time.” Her father confirmed that homework was not something she always enjoyed. Instead, it was “something she accepts,” something “she understands has to be done,” and something “she wants to get over with.” One boy said that among all the things he did after school, he liked playing with his friends the best because he “can get to talk to them . . . that’s fun.” If he had his choice, he would “play with my friends for the whole day,” or at least “five hours,” and would like to spend only “two minutes” doing homework every day. His mother added that “his expression shows that it’s not his favorite thing to do” and that he would much rather keep on playing or talking with his friends on the phone.

Only one child said that she liked homework most among all the things she did after school (e.g., watching TV and playing checkers). This was an only child who had no after-school programs on weekdays. Thus, she was not presented with alternative activities that competed with homework, and said she did not like to watch TV.

In general, doing homework presented a challenge for both the parents and children in these six families. The infringement of homework on family life, a concern voiced by some parents three decades ago (Arnold, 1965 and Mathews, 1961, cited in Lipman, 1985), remained an issue for the majority of parents in this study. However, these parents also expressed a vested interest in seeing their children learn to self-direct their own studying and accepted homework as important to that end.

It was no surprise to find that doing homework was not the favorite activity of the children compared with other activities available after school (see also Steinberg, 1996).


How the parents and children arranged the homework environment is the focus of this section.

Parental Efforts

All six parents tried to find the best place possible in their homes for their child to do homework. Four children did homework at the dining room or kitchen table, because they shared a bedroom with a sibling (e.g., “It’s a very small [room] and it’s not really good for them [her children] to work”), or because it gave them more access to parental assistance (e.g., “He has a desk in his room, but he likes to work near me; and there is really no place for me to help him there”). One father let his daughter do her homework at a small table in her bedroom because no table or space was available for her to work either in the kitchen or the living room. In the case of another girl, who was the only child in the apartment, the mother usually let her decide where she wanted to work, either at the dining room table or in her own room, because she wanted her daughter to be comfortable with where she studied.

Regardless of where the children worked on homework, the parents in each family helped them prepare a proper work space. Before starting a homework session, all of the parents helped their children clear off the table, remove distracting materials such as toys, and create adequate space to work. During one homework session, a father took several books away from the table where his daughter was working. As he mentioned in the stimulated-recall interview, he tried to “keep the table clear” to give her “enough space” because she needed “room to move things around.” In another family, the mother reminded her daughter, “Before you get started, you need to clear your desk, so you can function.” Four out of the six parents helped their children find a place where they could put their assignments and related materials (e.g., pencils and erasers) so they could easily locate everything needed for homework.

During the homework sessions, all the parents banned television and radio, which they viewed as “distracting” (e.g., “When she is doing her work, wherever she is, I try not to put on the radio or television or anything to distract her”). Some parents tried to prevent other potential distractions. One mother would not sit at the same table and read the newspaper while her son was doing his homework because he tended to look at a picture or read a headline in the newspaper and then start up a conversation unrelated to his homework. Other parents tried to minimize unavoidable distractions that arose in the family. For example, if one boy received a phone call from a friend, his mother would write out a message for him, reminding him to call his friend when he finished, because doing homework should be his first priority, she said, and “he cannot be distracted.”

Children’s Efforts

Five out of the six children had an idea about what was the “best place” to do homework, and often viewed the best place as being quiet, less distracting, and offering easy access to parental help. For one girl, the best place to do her homework was a desk in her bedroom, because “I have all my things . . . and all of the space I need to do it. And it won’t be as noisy as out there [in the dining room].” But when she had harder homework to do, she ended up working at the dining room table so she did not have to get up from her seat to ask for her mother’s help. Sometimes, she also turned off the telephone in her room, so she would not be distracted by its ringing.

Five of the six children managed to cope with other distractions by arranging environmental contingencies, by moving themselves away from noise, and by stopping others from interfering with their homework. One boy would try to “go to another room or somewhere far away from the windows” when he was distracted by outside noises. Another child raised her voice and asked her brother to be quiet, although he was in fact trying to help her remember a Spanish word:

Shhh, be quiet, Bob. I’ll figure it out by myself. Bob, you are not going to tell me that, because I am going to have a test coming up; and if you are saying that, I am not going to remember anything. So be quiet!

Consistent with the findings from other studies (Chandler et al., 1986; Hoover-Dempsey et al., 1995; McDermott et al., 1984), the present study showed that parents made deliberate efforts to help their children arrange an appropriate homework environment. In addition, it showed that these third-grade children also took initiatives to control their homework environment themselves. Although our data were insufficient to trace derivations of children’s knowledge about how to arrange their homework environments, it appeared that they had benefited from the experience of doing homework in a familiar environment, aided by parental scaffolding (see Corno, 1995, for more detail on this point). Rather than dictating everything to their children, these parents set up scaffolds that not only provided children with a sense of direction for-arranging an environment conductive to success, but also helped to make the task of arranging it more manageable.


How the parents and children managed time to meet homework deadlines is the focus of this section.

Parental Efforts

All six parents said they wanted their children to spend some time relaxing after school, before doing homework. They also wanted their children to start homework at a similar time every day, whenever possible, to “establish a routine.” In addition, no parents wanted children to do homework after 8:30 P.M. which seemed to be the designated bedtime. Despite these commonalties, some families were observed to do homework earlier and on a more regular basis than others. This related to children’s scheduled after-school programs as well as the availability of parents to help. Most of the children had after-school programs two or three days a week. In one family, on the days when the child had after-school programs, the mother usually let her relax for a while, not asking her to start homework until 7:30 P.M. However, when she did not have after-school programs, she was expected to start homework around 4:00 P.M., if her mother was home. In another family, the mother tried to get her son to start his homework around 7:00 P.M., even on the days he didn’t have after-school programs. Otherwise, “it’s not the [same] routine every night.“

Once a schedule was established for the children to do homework, all six parents tried to make sure that they began on time. Three parents found this relatively easy to do. One parent indicated:

We have established a routine. She does not have to say, “Should I start my homework?” Or I usually do not have to say to her, “Start your homework.” . . . She knows that it is her responsibility, and she gets it going. She gets it started on her own.

However, three other parents found they had to remind-their children repeatedly to begin their homework on time. One mother felt it was not easy to get her son’s homework started because

he never, ever says, “Now I’m ready to do my homework,” He usually goes off and plays with Gameboy, plays with toys, looks at books and magazines. I have to call him to come, sit down, and he usually says, “Oh, no, no!”

Often she called him “three times,” reminding him that “it is time to come to do your homework.” When he was very reluctant, she told him, “You have to do this [homework] just like I have to pay my bills, or do things that I don’t always enjoy.” She also told him that “it is the law in the United States [that] all children have to go to school, and they have to do what the teacher says.”

Once the children got ready to do their homework, however, each family involved stepped back and encouraged their children to decide in which order to complete their assignments. Four out of the six parents discussed why they allowed their children to decide what to do first: “It is his homework;” “She should be able to make those decisions;” “She is intelligent and I do not care in what order she does it;” “The more she realizes it is her responsibility, not mine, the better it will be for her.”

All the parents tried to make sure that their children completed their homework on time. They helped their children plan, kept track of what remained to be done, and reminded them of the available time. Parents also pulled children back when they lagged or became distracted. One mother asked her daughter to make a list of the assignments she had to do and to check off each assignment when she completed it, in order to keep track of what she had done and still had to do. During one homework session, this mother asked her daughter what else she had to do. As the mother looked through a sheet listing all of the assignments, she reminded her daughter of a long-term project coming due and urged her to get on it right away:

P: Work on your animal research. Are you finished with your animal research?

C: Yeah. I only have one sentence left, and it’s due on Monday.

P: Get the sentence then. You have one sentence, so get it done, get it done.

Another mother saw her son frequently fiddling with his pencil, throwing it up and catching it, so she stepped in to get him to concentrate on what he needed to do by setting a time limit:

P: OK, you are not doing it when I am sitting here. So, I really give you five minutes, and want you to finish this sentence, and I want you to say what really was the first way people tell time. Let me know about that.

C: Egypt.

P: OK, so you write that down.

C: Five minutes, only five minutes?

P: Well, you are not concentrating; you are not working hard, and you have to go bed in about twenty minutes (checks her watch) [it was 7:59 P.M.].

C: Ummm.

P: O.K., If you’re not done in five minutes . . . then what happens?

C: Mom [whining], I cannot write fast.

P: You have to write fast in five minutes. That’s all I ask, O.K.?

C: That’s not right!

P: You can try. You are not doing it when I’m sitting next to you, so . . .

C: But I want you to sit next to me.

P: No, you are not, you are not. [After a pause] Do you want me to give you one more chance?

C: Yeah.

P: But that’s it. No more chances. O.K., put this down [a string that the child is playing with].

In the stimulated recall interview, this mother said:

I see he’s getting very distracted, and he wasn’t focusing on what he needs to do, which was how to jot down the main themes of the article. So I thought . . . I gave him . . . five minutes to do this.

Children ‘s Efforts

Four of the six children had their own ideas about the best time for doing homework. One girl thought it was after dinner because, "I don’t have to eat while I’m doing something [about homework]. I can just keep something moving, and I don’t have to stop to do anything else.” One boy thought that the best time to do homework was before dinner because he felt “kind of tired” after dinner. For the rest of children, the best time to do homework was framed differently. One bay thought it was right after he got home, “so you can get it over with, and then you have more time for playing a game,” without haying to “stop right in the middle of it.” A girl said the best time was after dinner because, otherwise, “you don’t have any time to play.”

All the children, to varying degrees, experienced frustration with starting their homework; it prevented them from doing other things they would rather do, or it meant ending more enjoyable activities in which they were engaged. This was especially the case when homework was perceived as difficult or lengthy. One girl felt “O.K.” if her homework was easy; but if she thought it was going to be hard, she was reluctant. She also did not like to do it when she wanted to watch a favorite TV show. Despite such frustration, however, three of the six children managed to begin their homework on time for the majority of their assignments. Even if it was homework that she “really did not want to do,” one girl managed to get going by telling herself that there are a lot of things “you feel you can’t do . . . but you have to work at them.”

All the children determined the order of their assignments and tried to make sure they completed their homework. Three children were observed looking through their assignments to see what remained to be done. One girl did what her mother suggested, listing her assignments on one sheet then checking off the assignments as she completed them. In addition, this child said she told herself to complete her homework by 6:30 P.M. at “the latest,” before her father arrived home. She did not take a break if she had a lot of homework to do.

One stylistic difference was observed. The three children with a weekly homework package all made sure that they did a certain amount of homework each day. For example, one boy said he knew that he needed to complete about two pages each night so he could finish all the assignments by Friday. Clearly, these children had more flexibility with their work than those with nightly homework. Weekly homework allows children to vary their own work loads to accommodate schedule changes and other unforeseen circumstances (e.g., not feeling good). Because decisions about which homework to do and when were generally left to the child, this procedure also gave children more of a sense of control. In reality, however, weekly homework often created some tensions for all three children at this age, as they tended to save difficult assignments until the last moment. One girl who had no trouble starting her homework on her own on other nights said that she did not like starting it on Thursday nights because she put off all the hard assignments, which took her much longer to finish.

It appeared that the ways teachers and parents helped their children manage time influenced the ways that some children thought about and managed time for themselves. Although the best time to do homework was perceived differently by many families, in each of these cases, the best time for the children corresponded to the ideas expressed by their parents. Among five children who had learned to monitor the homework process themselves to meet deadlines, our data strongly suggested that four of them had learned some strategies directly from their parents over time.


How the parents monitored the children’s attentional states and how the children monitored their own attentional states are discussed in this section.

Parental Efforts

All six parents were observed protecting their children’s attention by preventing them from engaging in distracting activities. One mother, when her son held a cup to his mouth, asked him to stop playing with the cup (e.g., “O.K., put the cup down”). Later, noticing that he continued to play with the cup while reading, the mother took the cup away, saying it was “becoming a distraction.” Another mother, noticing that her son was watching his sister do her homework, quickly patted his shoulder and prompted him to do his own homework. In another instance, when her son was attempting to initiate an unrelated conversation (“You know what? Hey, Mom . . . “), she quickly stopped the conversation from going any further, drawing his attention back to his work (“Come on”).

All the parents tried to enhance, direct, or sustain their children’s attention to the central aspects of their homework. As one mother read and discussed an article with her son, she posed questions that had the effect of enhancing his attentiveness to an important part of the article (e.g., “Isn’t that amazing?” “ Did you know that?“). In another family, the mother and daughter watched television together to find some news for the daughter to use in her current events assignment. As soon as the eight o’clock CNN news began, the mother gently touched her daughter’s hand and reminded her it was time to pay attention (“Listen, listen to this”). In addition, three of the six parents were observed instructing their children in how to focus their attention efficiently and economically by not becoming overly involved with nonessential elements of a task. For example, in following instructions for a math problem, one father asked his daughter to draw several piles of newspapers. When he noticed his daughter trying hard to draw very polished piles of newspapers, he intervened immediately (“What are you doing? No, honey, . . . just make some little piles. YOU don’t have to be that elaborate”). He later commented in the stimulated recall interview: “She was drawing very detailed piles of newspapers. . . . She is good at drawing, so she could turn this into her art lesson. But it’s not about drawing pictures right now.”

One girl liked her paper to look neat. When she carried a digit, she either wrote a carry-over sign very small, or quickly erased it before adding. As a result, she often forgot to add. The father told his daughter to write any carry-over number legibly and not to erase it afterward, because her pursuit of neatness not only wasted time that could be used to solve problems more quickly but also became a mental burden that demanded extra attention, and often interfered with her getting the right answer.

Children’s Efforts

All six children were observed trying to protect their intentions to do homework by reminding themselves not to be distracted by things going on around the, and not to do things that distracted them from homework. One boy tried to ignore all the things around him, including his little sister’s coming and going. In one homework session, when he was distracted by conversations between his mother and his sister, the boy turned his head in their direction several times, but then he either turned himself back quickly to his worksheet or attempted to refocus his attention and that of his mother by saying, “Now, where did it happen?” Besides protecting their attention from external distractions, some children also managed to protect their attention from their own internal distractions. One girl declared that she often told herself not to get up from her seat, “Even if I know I have to do something very badly, but if it’s not urgent . . . I will just sit there and say to myself, ‘I will concentrate. Do not get up.’ “

Four children seemed to adjust their attentiveness to the demands of the specific assignment they were working on. To aid her concentration, one girl would remind herself to think about just what she was doing: “I would keep that paper next to me, I would keep looking back as I do my homework. I would say, ‘what am I doing?”‘ In one instance, this girl instructed herself to be more attentive as she worked on what she thought was a hard part in her scriptwriting assignment (e.g., “O.K., write this. This is really hard.” “L, the hard part”). When one boy had difficulty sustaining his attentiveness (e.g., felt tired or had trouble concentrating), he said he often told himself “not to do the harder things”: “If I’m doing a hard sheet, I will [turn to] do an easy sheet. If it’s an easy sheet, I will go to an easier sheet.” Thus, he creatively reduced the difficulty level of the task to match to his current level of attentiveness. The result was that he was at least able to get some work done.

Students in Leone and Richards’ study (1989) reported that they were more attentive to homework when completing it with a parent rather than when working with a peer or alone. Although their data provided no explanation for this result, our observation-based study suggests that such increased attentiveness may be attributed to parental aid: Parents monitor and refocus their children’s attention when necessary. This is an important hypothesis for further investigation.

The present study also suggested similar patterns between parents’ and children’s own ways of helping: Both tried to protect attention by avoiding distracting activities and ignoring potential distractions, and both tried to match attentional states to demands of assignments. One mother we know (not involved in the study) allows her son to have the stereo on during “busywork” assignments as a way of motivating him to stay with the harder stuff. This child knows to turn off the stereo once the busywork is done. or “Mom will tell me to.” Just as children learn to arrange’ their homework environments, so it appears they also learn how to monitor their own progress. It seems likely from our evidence that this learning relates to previous experiences doing homework in the safe environment of home. When parents arrange and reinforce a work-inducing environment, they reduce the likelihood of potential distractions and difficulties. When parents allow children a few hours of rest before starting homework, then direct and redirect their attention to what needs to be done, they not only model a general structure for children, but also make it more manageable for them ultimately to protect their own intentions from distractions and to develop ways to keep themselves attentive when necessary.


How the parents monitored the children’s motivational states and how the children monitored their own motivational states are discussed in this section.

Parental Efforts

All parents complimented their children on good work, although some parents used compliments or praise more frequently and in more diverse ways than others. One mother praised conditionally, complimenting her son only when he did something exceptionally well. In contrast, one father complimented his daughter “every time” she did something well. He also sometimes said out loud to her mother, in the daughter’s presence, “She did a great job with homework today.” Sometimes, he gave his daughter an imaginary medal: “We just pretend to put something around her neck, and she likes that.” Also, this father praised his daughter if she completed her homework earlier than he expected. Although we did not examine differences between mother and father interaction styles systematically, this is an area ripe for further investigation.

All six parents said they warned their children when they did a poor job or were not buckling down to homework. The threats varied in nature. Three of the six parents warned children that if they did not complete their homework, they would have to hand it in unfinished and take whatever comments the teacher might dispense. Three other parents got more personally involved, even using harsh words (e.g., “That’s really garbage!“) or speaking in what one mother called “a sort of angry voice” when the child failed to meet standards or to stay on task.

To enhance or sustain a child’s motivation to follow through on homework, five parents reassured their children. They told the children they knew they were able to do their homework, thereby helping to build efficacy for the task (e.g., ‘You can handle that”) (Schunk, 1991). This tended to occur when the children said that a problem was “hard,” or expressed fears they were “not going to make it.” In one instance, a father reassured his daughter saying, “Hey! We are into this now.” In contrast to this kind of attributional encouragement, some parents tried to enhance their children’s motivation by challenging them. Noticing her son’s growing interest in an article for his current events assignment, one mother challenged him to read it on his own by telling him, “I have read it already.”

Four parents tried to motivate by making the homework more interesting for their children. In one family, when the mother spotted a mistake, she told her son that she saw a mistake, then gave him a hint and asked, “Can you spot it?” She found that this became “a game, and he likes that.” Seeing that her son had difficulty concentrating on reading an article, another mother tried to enhance his motivation by making the reading more interesting:

P: You know what I object to in this article? Something that I don’t like?

C: What? All those hard words?

P: No, those, those don’t bother me.

C:  (Laughs).

P: Something they said like, like three times: Men find ways of measuring time; . . . the rising and setting of the sun is men’s first measuring of time; men noticed that. You noticed that too?

C: Um (Laughs).

P: (Laughs) Sometimes some writers decide to use “men” instead of “women,” but it’s nice to say “people.”

C: I know.

P: That’s what I’d have written if I were the writer.

C: (Sits there for a while quietly).

P: Come on: keep reading, Sweetie. Come on, [I’ll] give you five minutes.

C: O.K., O.K. I cannot read fast.

P: O.K., just keep reading sentences.

C: (Reads) . . . . So there was the first time-piece developed by men (pause, then raised his voice), people!

P: Thank you!

In the stimulated-recall interview, this mother explained her thoughts on the interchange:

I saw that he was just getting lost, he needed something to get himself focused and, I thought, if I played that game with him, I figured if I mentioned things about the word “men” instead of “people,” or “men” and “women,” it will give him something to focus on for the rest of the article.

Children ‘s Efforts

There was evidence that five of the six children self-monitored their motivational states to help themselves follow through on homework. One of the most frequently noted strategies to enhance motivation was the thought of getting homework over with so there would be more time for play. One boy commented, “If I want to call my friends, then I may rush, try to rush through.” In another family, the mother also noticed that her daughter liked to complete her homework quickly and then “put it away” so she had “more free time” to do other things. These interview data are consistent with data from observations as well. In some instances, children could hardly hide their excitement at the moment they completed their homework (e.g., “Good! Now I can play. ” “Done with this homework! Done with this homework!“).

Three children praised themselves for good work (e.g., “Yes [smiles and raises her right hand]!” “Perfect!“). Two children reassured themselves as they worked through their homework (e.g., “That should do it.” “Next time, something like that, I’ll do better”). In addition, one girl said she tried to make homework interesting by using her “imagination” whenever she “feels like it.” For example, she said she often imagined she was playing a game with herself and pretended that other people in the room were watching the game. In contrast, when faced with “boring” homework or when he simply did not want to do homework, one boy claimed he tried to enhance his motivation by thinking that he would “get punished” if he did not finish it.

In summary, our data suggest that parents made deliberate efforts to monitor their children’s motivational states and then help them follow through on homework. As in Chandler et al. (1986), parents motivated their children in various ways—with compliments, reassurances, even threats. In addition, most of these parents tried to motivate their children by attempting to make the homework somehow more interesting or more streamlined. One father made solving math problems more interesting as he tried to help his daughter understand a certain solution strategy (“It works out that way. Let’s say Kevin has sixteen dollars”). Seeing that his daughter was not staying with him (she said, “Wow, I wish I was Kevin!” “Last year I had twenty-four dollars”), he quickly said, “O.K., let’s say Kevin has twenty-four dollars.” Changing the dollar amount not only quickly and smoothly drew his daughter’s attention to the strategy in question, but also made the problem more personal and interesting to her, keeping her motivated.

Although the motivational procedures used by our sample children as a group reflected those used by their parents as a group, there seemed to be more variance among the children. Our data cannot explain why some children displayed rather sophisticated strategy use while others did not. It may be that learning to monitor one’s motivational state is more subject to developmental influences than learning to arrange a homework environment, manage time, or monitor attention (Kuhl & Kraska, 1989).

The parents as a group generally tried to monitor their children’s motivation, placing equal emphasis on intrinsic strategies (such as making homework interesting and reassuring children) and extrinsic strategies (such as complimenting and threatening). Looking at the children as a group suggests they controlled motivation primarily through escalating playtime and adult approval as incentives. Consistent with developmental theory, extrinsic incentives still play a dominant role for the majority of these third-grade children (Steinberg, 1996).


Doing homework was an emotionally charged process for the families we studied. Interviews with the parents and children indicated that all of the children, from time to time, became upset and frustrated over homework. Observations of twelve homework sessions yielded a total of thirteen emotionally charged incidents in four of the six families studied. These incidents ranged from children’s being upset with repeated mistakes to cases where children became so frustrated that their parents had to ask them to take a break or stop for the night. In addition, data from both interviews and observations showed that at least four parents became clearly upset or frustrated with their children, as well.

Parental Efforts

All the parents appeared to monitor their children’s emotional states to varying degrees to help them follow through on homework. At one end of the spectrum, two parents appeared only marginally involved with the child’s emotions. One mother said she did not intervene because her son had “only very mild frustration,” and, after a while, he would “move on” to resume doing homework on his own. One father encouraged his daughter to look on “the bright side” when she had negative feelings toward herself (e.g., told herself: “I cannot do this or that”). However, he removed himself when his daughter became emotional because he said he easily lost control when his daughter made similar mistakes over and over again. As a result, he had to ask his wife to take over and work with the child.

On the other end of the spectrum, one mother became quite involved. When she saw her daughter evidence frustration over two consecutive mistakes on a spelling test (pushed a sheet with spelling words away, saying “I’m not ready for this”), this mother tried immediately to calm her daughter down: “All right, we’re just practicing. Let’s see how many [words] you know and how many [words] you don’t know. We’ll work on the ones you don’t know.” In another incident, when her daughter was upset with mistakes (e.g., “Oh, man! Now I have to change all these!“), the mother redirected her daughter’s attention to what still had to be done (e.g., “Excuse me, finish writing the sentence”). But this same mother also found that there were times when, as she said, they went to “the battlefield.” This occurred when her daughter did not understand the changes she wanted her to make, or when the work hit a rare roadblock:

It is frustrating for her. She will pull her hair: She will get very angry at me. She will tell me things she should not say, like I’m not a very good mother; I don’t care about her; and I’m-not comforting her.

Although she said she worked out such incidents with her daughter, this mother said in her interview that, at times, the process “may be not peaceful and amicable.” Sometimes,

[When] I see her reaching a point of frustration, she is no longer functional. No matter what are you trying to help her with, she cannot get it. She is hysterical, and I’m hysterical. . . . So I tell her, “Why don’t you stop everything and go to do whatever else you want to do, and we’ll come back to it later on.”

Between these two approaches were three parents who used some strategies similar to the mother quoted above. For example, two parents also asked a child to take a break when the child became frustrated. It was felt that taking a break helped “break up the frustration” so that the child could “come back with more energy.” When their children became frustrated over homework (e.g., “Oh, no! What’s wrong with it!“), two parents in the group quickly channeled attention to what needed to be done (e.g., “Come on, come on”; “Just do it; concentrate and do it”). One parent combined other strategies to help his daughter calm down and refocus: He reassured her that she was able to do it on her own (e.g., “It’s wrong. Honey, come on, come on; you can fix it. You can do better than that”; and he monitored the remaining available time and enforced a time limit (e.g., “I give you two minutes.” “ Honey, honey, it’s late; come on; just do it”).

Children’s Efforts

Four children apparently monitored their own emotional states to follow through on homework. Two were observed using positive self-talk (e.g., “It is easy.” “That should be easy. ” “Simple.“) during homework sessions. Three children were able to calm themselves after frustration or disappointment over their work. When one boy became frustrated with his homework, he said he sat in his chair quietly for a while, then tried to “think of something else to do or just go to another homework assignment.” Instead of thinking, “This is not going to work because this is too hard,” another girl said she tried to look on “the bright side,” as her father had urged her. She cheered herself up by telling herself, “I know I can do it.” This overt statement of self-efficacy helped her, she said, to see that it could become easier for her.

Even more than in the case of motivation control, our data show that the degree of involvement in monitoring children’s emotions varied among parents observed. This may have to do with the clear evidence that (1) some children tended to get more emotional over homework than others, and (2) some parents were more willing to or capable of dealing with emotions than others. Like managing time, it also appeared that some children had developed various strategies to monitor their own emotional states successfully. When one girl became frustrated, she instructed herself not to worry, to channel her attention to what had to be done, a strategy similar to what her father used in a homework session five weeks earlier. In addition, it seemed likely that some children learned from their own unique experiences in judging what worked best for them. For example, when one girl found herself continuing to get the same questions wrong, she asked her mother for help instead of her father, because, she said, she knew her dad would get upset in such a circumstance. In so doing, she helped reduce the likelihood of potential friction and frustration.


Our data suggest that adults (i.e., parents and teachers) share similar views about the complex purposes of doing homework: It is used either for extrinsic reinforcement of school learning or for the development of intrinsically productive personal attributes and skills. Third-grade children, in contrast, seem to do homework for a more basic extrinsic reason—to get approval from the (parent/teacher) adults in their lives. Even these relatively high achieving children were largely unaware of the intrinsic aspects of personal development used as justification for homework and only minimally aware of homework’s utility for the work they did in school.

The study further showed that doing homework presented a challenge for both the parents and the children in these professional homes. These families were well off and intact. Their mentoring and their academic focus were probably well above those of many other families, and yet, in most cases observed, third-grade homework became a commitment that limited family participation in other activities. It was also at times an emotionally draining event.

All the parents in this study were observed using various strategies, establishing routines, and following procedures to help their children cope with difficulties inherent in following through on homework. They provided guidance in arranging the homework environment and managing time; they monitored their children’s attention, motivation, and emotional states. They helped keep their children on track, and used various means for handling their children’s expressed emotions.

Although all the parents in this study helped their children follow through on homework, often it was not a single strategy but a coordination of related strategies that proved most effective. For example, arranging a favorable homework environment and allowing the child to choose the order of completion seemed to enhance the children’s attentiveness and sustain motivation better than either strategy alone. Our videotapes suggested the importance of combining related strategies for follow-through, and parents noted it in their interviews, but this is a hypothesis for further study.

Our data are clear on one point at least: Everyday experiences with homework, as mediated by parents, provided clear opportunities for children to learn to cope with various difficulties and distractions associated with doing homework. Indeed, this study revealed that children used a variety of strategies to help themselves follow through on homework, including arranging the environment, managing time, and monitoring their attention, motivation, and emotions. Some of these strategies were so close to those modeled by parents that it was hard to conclude that they had any other origins. These strategies seemed to be internalized as a result of adult modeling. At the same time, some of the other efforts children made appeared more related to their own personal experiences and reflections. These children were aided by parents, but they also judged what worked best for them as they did homework. Learning from personal experience may not be the best teacher, but experience was one teacher nonetheless.

Another hypothesis derived from our data is that the ways in which these children monitored motivation and emotion appeared less sophisticated and more variable than the ways in which they arranged the environment, managed time, and monitored attention. Perhaps, as other work has suggested (Corno, 1986; Kuhl & Kraska, 1989; Trawick, 1990), learning to monitor and control one’s own motivational and emotional states is a meta-conative function, where conation refers to purposive striving (Snow, 1996), more subject to individual differences and later-developing than environmental control.


Although our findings are intriguing, they are also limited in at least three ways. First, data drawn from only six cases at one grade level are suggestive rather than conclusive. The parents in this study were all volunteers, well educated, and dedicated to working on homework with their children. We have no basis for generalizations about other parents. Second, our study lasted only five months. Hearing more stories from parents, children, and teachers, and sampling more homework sessions over a longer period of time, would certainly increase understanding about how homework interactions function and evolve over time. The children we studied were also all relatively high achievers, just starting to receive homework. They were beginners who had to learn to develop ways of doing homework for themselves if they were to continue to do well in school. Studying teaching-learning transactions between these children and their parents over homework was a novel problem, but inferences could not be made about other types of children. Neither do we know how beginners move from novice to expert as they modify and incorporate new homework strategies as they mature.

Although our families varied little in income, and socioeconomic status was equivalent, these six families reflected different cultural backgrounds (see Table 1). We did not examine interaction patterns by cultural subgroups, but a study that did would broaden the perspective for interpretation of results. There may be variation that is systematic in the homework interactions of diverse American families. The same can be said for observations of father- versus mother-child interactions. Our sample was too small to shed light on what might be interesting interactions by gender.

We cannot determine what exact effects our videotaped observations may have had on parent-child interactions. Overall, triangulation from different data sources suggests that parents in these families were comfortable with videotaping and did homework in the ways they typically did. The first author’s status as a doctoral student who needed parents’ help and would provide feedback as part of the study on ways that parents might better assist their children with homework may have encouraged parents.

Unlike previous studies on homework, the present conclusions were based on multiple sources of data, representing different perspectives, and focused on children’s self-regulatory attributes and skills related to homework in their own homes. Moreover, the amount of emotion recorded, despite the intrusion of a video camera, suggests we may have underestimated this aspect of parent-child interaction, not the other way around.


Certain implications for theory, research, and practice can be drawn cautiously from this study.

Theory and Research

Children apparently can acquire self-regulatory strategies and organizational skills while doing homework with parents. Like many other developmentally linked phenomena, self-regulation comes about in a supportive environment with affording opportunities and adult modeling and guidance (Corno, 1995; Greeno, Collins, & Resnick, 1996). But future research should connect affording situations with particular children’s aptitudinal or developmental profiles (Snow, 1996). Considering the fact that doing homework was a challenge for our beginners and parents alike, this is probably true more generally, as well. Indeed, establishment of a successful routine for homework that stays with children through the years may be one of the biggest parenting challenges.

It certainly seems profitable to view homework as a reference task for future exploration of several important research questions. First, to what extent do the homework interaction patterns noted exist in other families (e.g., families with parents who are less well educated, or do not work as professionals; families whose children reflect different ability/achievement/ethnicity profiles)? For example, Melvin Kohn’s work (1977) indicated that parental values and behavior are influenced by occupations that demand a greater degree of either self-direction or conformity. Further studies might look comparatively at different samples in which parents’ occupations vary according to the extent to which they encourage or discourage self-direction.

Second, how can teachers assign more interesting and challenging homework, especially with children for whom homework is just beginning to play a significant role in their lives? Homework was not a preferred activity for the beginners studied here; extrinsic motivators played a dominant role in establishing a mindset to do the work. Making homework more inherently interesting and challenging for beginners should help them become more intrinsically involved and motivated, thereby increasing their willingness to learn to cope with distractions and difficulties associated with following through. Also, the satisfaction that comes from follow-through (expressed by all of our students) should be emphasized as an intrinsic reward.

Third, how does the nature of homework interaction between children and parents change over time as children grow older, and how should homework routines be adapted to maximize the eventual acquisition of self-regulatory strategies and organizational skills? In our own experiences with homework, we have found that parents may be pushed by their children to withdraw rather quickly. Within one year of doing homework, some children may be well “on their own”; others might not. Appropriate interventions also need testing.

Finally, how does teachers’ handling of homework influence the ways parents and children interact over homework (e.g., weekly folders vs. nightly assignments)? What teachers assign initially, their expectations for how parents and children should follow through on tasks, how they eventually evaluate homework as a product, all have an impact on the ways children approach homework and how parents assist them. Studies that examine teacher-parent and teacher child interactions for the same students can complement our understandings of the broader contexts in which homework transactions take place.


From this study, we see that children as young as eight begin to learn how to manage homework themselves through the combined influences of interaction with parents and their own homework experiences. There are benefits for both parents and children if parents can capitalize on this opportunity. To start with, parents can provide a general structure. To reduce the likelihood of potential distractions and difficulties, parents can arrange a work-inducing environment, allow children to relax before starting homework, and then encourage the child to choose the order in which assignments are completed. Parents can also enhance the child’s motivational states by emphasizing appropriate extrinsic (e.g., more time to play) and intrinsic (e.g., satisfaction with follow-through) incentives. Beginners, in particular, should benefit if parents direct and redirect attention to aspects of tasks that most need to be done. Because it is more economical and less stressful to circumvent potential distractions than it is merely to react to them once they occur, such parent structuring can help maintain the flow of homework, getting homework done with less struggle and lost time.

In addition to providing a general structure, parents can profitably model effective follow-through strategies for children. These strategies include self-monitoring and ways to control attention, motivation, and emotions. Keeping a sense of humor about homework seems to go a long way. Similarly, time and resources must be managed in ways that avoid escalation of emotional events (e.g., taking a short beverage break when homework time draws out). These are the kinds of organizational routines that better students ultimately adapt and make their own.

This study also offers a modest message for teachers and educational policymakers. Teachers ought to benefit from a better understanding of the inherent difficulties and tensions that accompany doing homework for beginners (see Corno, 1996). They also ought to be persuaded by our data that the acquisition of self-regulation strategies and organizational skills through homework is more of a possibility than a promise. Self-responsibility needs cultivation and supportive conditions if it is to occur. Some students seem to need more support, and take longer to develop comfortable homework routines, than others. Although time and resource management may be aspects of self-regulation that teachers already address in school, the more subtle aspects of self-regulation—those involving motivation and emotion control in particular—may not be part of the school agenda. Coordinated efforts by parents, teachers, schools of education, and school district administrators seem to offer the strongest circumstances for supporting children’s capacities to regulate their work environment, manage their time, and monitor their psychological states during homework.

In addition, teachers should benefit from this realistic picture we paint of the emotional and time demands homework places on even the most committed families. Perhaps more purposeful homework assignments will be forthcoming for elementary students in particular as a result (see Corno, 1996; Nathan, 1996; Shelton, 1996).

When Vygostky (1986) discussed the reciprocal dependence between learning a foreign language and understanding one’s native language, he borrowed Goethe’s argument—he who knows no foreign language does not truly know his own. A similar argument could be made here: A teacher who knows no teaching and learning outside the classroom does not truly know teaching and learning inside. Understanding how students learn at home may provide a springboard for new ideas about classroom learning environments.


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Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 100 Number 2, 1998, p. 402-436
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 10316, Date Accessed: 5/28/2022 9:21:58 AM

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About the Author
  • Jianzhong Xu

    E-mail Author

  • Lyn Corno
    Teachers College, Columbia University
    Lyn Corno is adjunct professor of education and psychology, Teachers College, Columbia University, and Board Chair of the National Society for the Study of Education. She is co-author, with Judi Randi, of "Teachers as Innovators," International Handbook of Teachers and Teaching, Vol. II (Kluwer, 1997).
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