Helping Your Kids Tackle Long-Term School Projects

It’s 6 PM. You’re finishing dinner, having a good night, and then it happens: Your kid mentions that they have a major project due tomorrow. Suddenly, your vision for a peaceful evening is wiped away, replaced by visions of a post-dinner run to Staples for supplies and an evening filled with research and glitter glue. Believe it or not, your child’s teacher isn’t trying to drive you insane. There’s a point to these large school projects—and it’s not to prove which parents love their kids enough to stay up until 3 AM practicing their presentation with them. The actual point, in addition to learning the material, is to teach your children how to budget their time. Consider your own life and your own work. How often do you have tasks to do that take more than one evening to complete? The point of school—and childhood—is to prepare your kids for success in the real world. Learning how to tackle long-term projects is an important skill, and it’s one your child will not master if they continue to procrastinate these projects until the day before they’re due. So how can you help?

Step 1: Understand Their Position

The first step to fixing a conflict with your child—any conflict with your child—is to understand where they’re coming from. Long-term school projects can feel overwhelming to children who haven’t developed the skills to tackle them. There’s also a gratification-factor to it: if they postpone a project that’s not due until next week, they get to play today. With an adult perspective, it’s easy to see the flaw in this logic, but to a kid, having more time to play after a busy day at school is hard to give up.

Step 2: Set a Boundary

Once you understand where your kids are coming from, it’s possible to have a conversation with them about long-term school projects without getting fired up. Now you can set a boundary. This needs to be done before they announce yet another school project at the last minute. After all, if they’ve always been able to count on you to drop everything to help them finish a project and one day you just don’t, they’ll feel like you’re being unfair—and in a way, they’ll be right. Instead, pick a time when they don’t have a big project to work on, and let them know that from now on they’re in charge of those projects, and if they choose to leave them until the last minute, they’re responsible for the results, but you’re no longer giving up your evenings or compromising on bedtime to accommodate their procrastinating. However, also let them know that if they tell you when they first get a new project, you’re happy to help them figure out how to plan their time to get the project done on time.

Step 3: Give Them the Tools for Success

After setting your boundary, go to the store with your kid and buy some of the basics they would need for a school project: Poster board, construction paper, markers, etc. By keeping this on hand, they at least have the supplies they need to get their work done. This ensures that the one thing they do need you for—transportation to get the supplies for their project—is taken care of. When your kids use up these supplies, replenish them at your next trip to the store automatically so that they always have the basics on hand.

Step 4: Let Them Fail

Even after setting a boundary, there’s a good chance that your child will “forget” about a project at least once. If that doesn’t happen, great, move on to step five, but don’t be surprised if it does happen. The key here is to stay calm and to stay firm. There’s no need to get upset—failing is part of the learning process—but you can’t give in and help them after you said you wouldn’t. If you do, all you’re teaching them is that they don’t need to learn how to budget their time. Instead, let them do what they can do on their own in the time they gave themselves, send them to bed at their normal bedtime, and let them face the consequences of whatever grade they get on that assignment.

Step 5: Help them Break Down the Project

When your kid finally does let you know that they have a long-term project coming up with advance notice, you can help them figure out how to get the project done on time. Get them a special project notebook. In it, have them write out all the steps to complete their project. Next to each step, have them write the amount of time they think it will take. For example, researching the topic may take several hours, but finding pictures for the poster board may take less time.

Next, look at a calendar together to figure out how many days there are between when they tell you about the project and when it’s due. Then, work together to decide how much time they should spend on the project each day, and make goals for when each section of the project will be done.

Step 6: Check in With Them

Once they’ve made a plan of action to complete their project on time, check in with them regularly to ask how the project is going. If they seem to get stuck at any point or be falling behind, offer to help them re-budget their remaining time to get back on track.

The more often you help your child break their projects down, the better they will become at thinking of their long-term projects in chunks. This will not only help you both keep your sanity in the short term, but it will also help them be better at getting things done and not procrastinating as adults.