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Siblings and homework: how to survive

Dad doing homework with child and toddler
Does your pre-schooler play havoc during his older sibling’s homework time? Is getting the reading, writing and spelling done a military operation every evening? Lucy Dimbylow asked experts and mums for their coping strategies.

You know that old saying about two being company? Well, it doesn’t always apply at homework time, especially if you’re juggling the needs of a pre-schooler and a school-age child.

One minute the big one is moaning about the injustice of having to work when his smaller sibling doesn’t; the next, the littlest has defaced her big brother’s worksheet with her crayons.

Balancing homework needs: the expert's view

If you’re run ragged looking after a baby or toddler, it can be difficult to find time to support your older child’s home learning. ‘Different children require different amounts and kinds of attention,’ agrees teacher and parent coach Jean Ramsey. ‘The key to meeting their needs is to focus on their individual needs rather than worrying about giving each equal time.’

There’s no single tried-and-tested strategy for getting homework done without it turning into a battle of wills between older and younger sibling. ‘There’s no “right way,” but there will be a way that works for your family,’ says Jean. ‘Depending on your children’s ages, you could, for instance, use a timer to time the homework slot so your younger child can see how long you’ll be, or celebrate afterwards by playing a fun family game.’

Parent tactics for dealing with homework-time challenges

  • ‘I encourage my son to read his school books to his little sister. It makes him feel grown-up, she enjoys the story and doesn’t feel left out, and I listen in to help with any tricky words.’ Laura, mum to Evan, five, and Scarlett, two
  • ‘If you have an older toddler or pre-schooler, give them an activity to do, like a sticker book or colouring sheet, while their sibling is doing homework, so they feel involved.’ Fiona, mum to Kirstie, six, and Brooke, three
  • ‘We have “homework hour” where my school-age children sit around the table with mugs of hot chocolate and get lots of attention. The younger ones can see that it’s a special time, and usually want to join in rather than distracting us.’ Emma, mum to Chloe, 11, Annabelle, nine, Harvey, four, and Maia, two
  • ‘We don’t even attempt Harry’s homework or reading until my husband gets home from work. One of us sits with Harry, while the other entertains Josh; it’s the only way for us.’ Mags, mum to Harry, six, and Joshua, two
  • ‘Olivia struggles to concentrate with her sister bustling around, so we bought a new desk for her bedroom and now she works in there, with me popping in and out to make sure she’s getting on okay.’ Helen, mum to Olivia, nine, and Maisie, four
  • ‘My son only gets homework once a week, so we save it for the weekend and do it when his little sister is having a nap. He reads me his school books at bedtime, while my husband puts the baby to bed, and then I read to him afterwards as a reward.’ Joanne, mum to Rhys, six, and Rosie, 14 months
  • ‘If my eldest moans that it’s not fair that she has to do homework when her sister doesn’t, I remind her that being older means she has rights as well as responsibilities, like staying up later and getting pocket money.’ Sarah, mum to Carrie, seven, and Amelie, five
  • ‘iPads and DSs are a great distraction for my younger two when the big ones are doing their homework.’ Jac, mum to Hannah, 10, Zoe, nine, Laura, six, and Joseph, four
  • ‘On the last day of term, I send the little ones to their grandma’s house so I can take Jack for a special one-to-one treat as a reward for working hard all term.’ Hayley, mum to Jack, seven, and twins Leo and Katy, three
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