Homeroom: I Can’t Keep Prodding My Son to Do His Work

How do I know that he’ll be able to work independently when he gets to college?

illustration of two hands holding a pencil and writing mathematical equations
Elena Xausa
illustration of a squiggly pencil

Editor’s Note: Every Tuesday, Abby Freireich and Brian Platzer take questions from readers about their kids’ education. Have one? Email them at homeroom@theatlantic.com.

Dear Abby and Brian,

My son, whom I’ll refer to as “Sean,” is heading off to college next fall (if, God willing, colleges are open), and I’m embarrassed to admit that I don’t think he knows how to organize his work or complete assignments on his own. He’s a decent student, but for as long as I can remember, he’s been handing in assignments late, or asking for extensions, or staying up until the early hours of the morning to complete them. And the truth is that, with the possible exception of a term paper or tricky new math concept, his work in high school hasn’t been particularly difficult! I’ve been the one to push and prod him along, and now that he’s likely going to be on his own next year, I’m starting to get scared that he’ll flunk out when he doesn’t have my guidance. For his sake and mine, I don’t want to be involved in the day-to-day of his schoolwork when he’s 19 years old.

Columbus, Ohio

Dear Nancy,

You have nothing to be embarrassed about. Sean is fortunate to have a parent who is present enough to help him through school but who understands the benefits—for you both—of his being autonomous when college starts. A student’s transition from high school to college provokes a variety of emotions in every member of the family: nostalgia, terror, and, hopefully, plenty of excitement. But in this moment of transition, we agree that now is the time for Sean to gain academic independence. The key is to replace your pushing and prodding with a system of routines and checklists that Sean can use to stay on top of his work. Routines and checklists might not be able to parent, but with them, Sean won’t need you anymore—at least, not for completing his schoolwork.

Before we lay out some strategies for short- and long-term assignments, a word about executive function—that is, the suite of skills that help us focus, plan our work, and exert self-control. Repetition and routine are crucial for building these skills. So every time Sean sits down to do his homework, he should try to repeat the same series of steps: figuring out what he needs to do, when it needs to be done by, and then doing it in a deliberate order.

Sean should start his evening by looking over the assignments that he must complete, and then begin with the task he dreads the most. This is counterintuitive, but it will ensure that he completes the hardest work when he has the most energy and focus. That way, he won’t find himself at midnight with most of his reading done, but none of his essay written.

Sean should then try to estimate how long he thinks each assignment will take, and develop a schedule accordingly. Even if his estimates are off, the process of thinking through timing will allow him to make the evening ahead less intimidating, helping him internalize when to take breaks or transition to the next assignment. (Certain supplies will help Sean in this process. We recommend folders and notebooks for organizing his work, and a physical planner or online calendar that he makes a habit of consulting.)

For long-term assignments such as major papers, developing a schedule is even more important. Sean can make sure that he hands them in on time by breaking them down into manageable pieces. Understanding how to split these bigger assignments into small parts is necessary, because if Sean procrastinates on them, his work will pile up and make it more likely that you’ll feel the need to step in. So Sean should note in his calendar not only a due date, but also each step of the assignment that he’ll need to complete. For example, if he has a big English essay due in two weeks, his list of tasks might look something like this:

  1. Start formulating a thesis and gathering quotes from the text.
  2. Write the body paragraphs.
  3. Write the intro and conclusion paragraphs.
  4. Revise.
  5. Check the essay one more time, and hand it in.

He can then put self-set deadlines next to each task, and add them to his calendar. You two can implement the system together over the first few weeks, but after that, Sean should take the lead. Once he gets in the rhythm of planning out assignments, try to remove yourself from the process. We know that this is the hardest part, but Sean probably doesn’t want you to be involved any more than you do.

As luck would have it, these final few months of high school are a great time to put into practice the habits that will get Sean through college and the rest of his life. Spring-semester seniors tend to have more latitude academically, which will help Sean ease into these routines. These skills will be all the more necessary in college, where major assignments are more labor-intensive, and students’ schedules are less structured, so building them now is crucial. And with an organizational framework internalized, Sean will have taken an essential first step toward independence as he sets foot on campus without you by his side.

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