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How to Help a Teen Out of a Homework Hole

As you talk with a teenager about where things have gone off the rails, be kind, curious and collaborative. “This isn’t about you being in trouble or getting off the hook,” you might say. “It’s simply about figuring out what’s going wrong so we can solve the right problem.”

Students who are struggling to keep track of what’s expected of them may need to reach out to their teachers, either for clarification about specific assignments or for general guidance on where and when they should be looking for information about homework. As a parent or caregiver, you can coach them on how to approach their instructors. Start by pointing out that teachers are almost always eager to lend support to students who seek it. You can also offer to give feedback on a draft email to an instructor explaining where the student got lost and what they have already tried.

“For many students, the ability to ask for help is not fully formed,” said Ms. Katz, “or it can feel like an admission that they’ve done something wrong. Normalizing and praising self-advocacy is so important.”

For students who know what they’re supposed to do but aren’t doing it, other approaches make sense. They may be having a hard time sustaining motivation and need support on that front, or they may be swamped with commitments, such as caring for younger siblings, that make it impossible to complete their schoolwork. Here, parents and students will want to work together to make a realistic plan for addressing the biggest priorities in light of these circumstances. This might mean coming to an agreement about where the teen’s energies should be directed or exploring what additional support might be put in place.

In some cases, academic problems may be linked to issues with mental health. If there’s a question of whether a student is suffering from depression or anxiety; using drugs; or exhibiting any other significant emotional or behavioral concern, check in with the school counselor or family doctor for a proper assessment. Treatment should always take precedence over schoolwork. “If you’re depressed,” Dr. Braaten said, “no amount of executive function coaching is going to help, because that’s not the issue.”

Some students have subtle learning or attention disorders that became an issue only when school went online. Under regular conditions, said Mr. Johnson, instructors can notice when a student is tuning out and bring back his or her attention in a gentle way. Unfortunately, “Teachers really can’t do that effectively on Zoom.” If this is a concern, parents should consider checking in with teachers or their school’s learning support staff to get their read on the problem and advice for how to move forward.

“We all need to be easier on ourselves,” Dr. Braaten said, “and to sort through what students really need to do and what they don’t.” Well-meaning parents might hope to motivate students by emphasizing the importance of high grades, but that can make it harder for kids to recover from a substantial setback.

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