Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Establish the Homework Ritual: Handle Homework Hassles, Part II

by Jim Karustis, PhD

Many years ago I discovered that homework problems can truly rip families apart, and that is no exaggeration. Common complaints include:
  • “My kid will argue for six hours about doing homework that would take her fifteen minutes!”
  • “He says he does his homework at school, then I get hit with surprises at teacher conference time.”
  • “My child really does try, but homework seems to take up all of her time every night.”

Homework can be a silent problem. Many students struggle while doing their homework at home, but as long as they finally complete the work and submit it, the teacher may not even realize that there is a problem. Many well-meaning parents gradually find themselves taking over the lion’s share of homework responsibilities, out of fear that their children will be penalized for incomplete work.

If your child is experiencing significant homework problems, review the basics of what we call the homework ritual. Get clear on the rules yourself, then review them with your child and post them prominently in your home.

As much as possible, homework should begin at the same time each day. There should be a designated, distraction-minimized location. Don’t believe it when your child says he can pay attention better when the television is on — turn it off. Some children do fare better, however, when there is some subdued music in the background — mainly for rote tasks. The homework location should be virtually a sacred spot, set aside only for homework, so that your child can keep materials there and not confuse the location with other activities.

If these elements of the homework ritual have been problematic, then I suggest that you implement an incentive system that targets the troublesome homework-related behaviors — for example, fifteen minutes earned for her favorite video game for beginning homework with one reminder.

The next issue is to keep separate and distinct your roles as homework manager and homework tutor. Managerial duties include the structure of homework time and making sure you know what your child has to do for homework. Once you are confident your child understands the directions, then leave the homework station. Inform your child that you will check back later, but that you expect that he will have completed X number of problems. The assistance with the actual instructional material can come later.

All students should use homework assignment books. Most schools now have websites where teachers can post assignments. While these may greatly reduce the importance of pen-and-paper assignment books, they have variable reliability for some students. If compliance with consistently using an assignment book has been a problem for your child, you may wish to ask the teachers to sign the book on a daily basis. On days when there is no assignment, teachers would write "no homework" and sign off on it. If your child is one of those who says she has completed her homework at school, then make it clear that privileges at home are contingent upon her bringing the work home for you to compare against what is in the assignment book.

If you have these elements in place and still experience significant problems, it may be time to request a meeting of the school’s Instructional Support Team (private schools have equivalent teams with varying names). The IST can assist with basic interventions regarding homework and related issues, and can also begin the process of exploring the possibility of whether your child is receiving instruction consistent with her current level of functioning. For students with ADHD, requesting reduced homework demands is a common and reasonable intervention.

Homework can be put in its place for what it is meant to be, which is a reinforcement of classroom instruction. If it is dominating home life, then try the modifications outlined above, and consider seeking assistance from the IST or a qualified psychologist with expertise in school issues.

An earlier version of this post appeared in Attention magazine. Join CHADD and receive every issue!

A psychologist in private practice, James Lorenzo Karustis, PhD, is a member of the professional advisory board for Chester County/Main Line CHADD. He coauthored Homework Success for Children with ADHD: A Family-School Intervention Program (Guilford Press, 2001).

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