You already know that I work with kids who have learning disabilities, ADHD, autism, social-emotional and behavioral challenges, but as I move along in my work, I find that strategies that are effective for those with "different-learning" brains also work well for those with "neuro-typical" brains (non-learning impaired).
I saw an article online at Parenting.com and posted it on the Dr. Claudia McCulloch Facebook page and thought, "How timely! I was just creating the post about this very subject!" The article gave some sound, basic information that would serve families well. Thank you, Stephanie Dolgoff, for the goodies!
The suggestions (a.k.a. "goodies") I offer to my families and/or who show up at lectures seem to have passed the test of time apparently, so here goes, but remember, pick and choose and "audition" them until you find the combination that works best for your family. And yes, homework is a family event.
The Warm Up
Before you, as parents, even start thinking about a homework approach, consider the following critical factors that will "make or break" your efforts.
- Your kids have been at school all day and not only are their minds tired (cognitive fatigue...we have a label for everything), but they've run out of emotional resources to deal with the assignments.
- Kids with "issues" that interfere with learning spend 2-3 times more emotional and cognitive energy just trying to survive the day. Studies involving galvanic skin responses (detecting the amount of heat coming off the skin) tells us about the significant toll that a day of school can take on a kid.
- They, like you, have "anticipatory anxiety" about the potential for disaster with tonight's homework and they are likely to be be irritable from the time they get home to the time it is completed.
- They may have escaped humiliation in front of their peers today, but now, they have to face nagging and that disappointing look from Mom or Dad.
- Homework at the elementary level is designed to provide practice. Middle and high school homework is designed to develop conceptual understanding as well as give students the chance to generalize the data by applying it to different situations than those presented in the classroom.
- Homework is characterized as:
- "Practice assignments, designed to review material presented in class.
- Preparation assignments designed to prepare students for topics that will be presented in class in the near future.
- Extension homework which facilitates the generalization of concepts from familiar to unfamiliar contexts.
- Creative assignments which require the integration of knowledge and concepts to create a novel product."*
Determining the purpose of your child's homework will help you to determine the attitude you and your child will have toward it.
- Homework also provides an opportunity to practice organizational and time management skills. Anticipating the needed materials and actually getting them and the finished product to and from school is an essential to academic and work-related success.
*Power, T., et al., Homework Success for Children with ADHD, Guilford Press, 2001.
The American Dental Association came out with research probably a decade ago or more that revealed that we patients could tolerate more stress and discomfort in the dental chair if we had more control over the events that took place. We eagerly agreed with our dentists that we would raise our hand when we just needed a break, were in pain, or wanted the drill to stop grinding away. Even if we didn't raise our hands, it was recommended that dentists stop from time-to-time and ask us how we were doing. Wow! What a difference that made! So, the lesson from the dental folks goes like this, "If you feel as though you have some control or at least a voice, the distasteful task is more tolerable". With that said, consider the following:
- Allow your student to have some "say" in the structure of the homework period. It doesn't feel good to be forced or coerced into someone else's plan. Your child's most effective approach actually may not be yours! Imagine that!?!?
- Make sure they "do it their way". Do they need a break and a snack first or are they the "jump right in" kind of kid? If they need to run around outside first, so be it. Check your pulse. Don't let your anxiety over finishing infect them. If they need to watch a show and let them brain "blob out", so be it. If a snack is involved, it's got to be a balance of proteins and carbs, heavy on the protein. And please, no "sawdust" protein bars...ugh. Don't balk about "what" they want to eat, just consider the nutritional content. Lots of hydration is necessary. The first organ in the body to dehydrate is the brain and it takes only 3% dehydration to impact your thinking. (Adults, consider this when you are struggling to concentrate! Don't get coffee...it will dehydrate you more!). Drink water (preferably) or Gatorade or something other than soda or undiluted fruit juice. Today's teens get 60% of their calories from soda; don't let your kid be one of them.
- A change of clothes or a shower/bath might help your student to "shift gears", rejuvenate their sensory systems, get refreshed or relaxed.
- Do they have the right materials or do they need to text/e-mail/call a classmate or friend for directions, clarification on the assignment? Can they e-mail the teacher for support?
The more daunting the tsunami of homework feels, the more anxiety and avoidance there is...and, let the fighting begin! If you come home from vacation with 6 suitcases of dirty laundry, it looks like a mountain, and it is! But, once you separate the jeans, sweatshirts, the white load, tee-shirts, etc., suddenly, the little piles feel more "do-able". If they start to despair or otherwise "start cooking" their anxiety, express words or encouragement in terms of your confidence in them. Do NOT tell them "It's only a little bit. We'll get it done in no time!". Liar, liar pants on fire! It's a little bit to you compared to all you have to do in life, but to them, it's a doctoral dissertation.
In order to combat that "It's too much" avoidance stuff, consider the following ideas. However, warning! warning! Adjust these suggestions to fit the age of your child, their level of irritability and frustration, the amount of help they need, the kind and severity of learning problems they experience and their level of stamina. Frustration leads to anger and undermines stamina and attention, not to mention increasing the level of stress experienced by everyone as you try to steady your child and keep them engaged.
- Separate the materials associated with the task into piles. Have your child review, if necessary, what needs to be done and together, estimate the amount of time needed to finish the task. Determine the order in which your child wants to take on the task. DON'T TRY TO TALK THEM OUT OF THE ORDER THEY WANT TO DO THE WORK! THAT'S NOT YOUR BUSINESS!!!! Let them learn for themselves as they move through the school year.
- On an index card, write the amount of time that each activity is anticipated to take and put that card on top of the pile. Fold the card in half so that the information is facing your child. In this way, your child can re-arrange the order of the assignments as they move through the assignments.
- On a small whiteboard, chalkboard or piece of paper, have your child list the assignments by subject (spelling, reading, math) and indicate the time they anticipate starting and finishing the task (Spelling: 4:15 - 4:45). Encourage them to give themselves more time than they think they need in order to avoid them being disheartened. It feels so good to finish ahead of schedule!
- Review each of the assignments as you approach them to make certain that your child understands "what" is to be done. Having to "re-do" a task is just overwhelming and will likely trigger a blow-up. Have your child highlight "action" words in the directions. Circle critical words so that your child doesn't overlook them. If your child has learning issues, you may have to review the directions for each task, but tread lightly on this...you could be seen as hovering or nagging. Avoid this at all cost!
- As they move through each worksheet, etc., ask them to do the items they can do independently. Then, stand next to them while they do the items they may have an idea how to complete, but lack the confidence to do them independently. "Spot" them as they work through that level of items. Hang back until they ask for guidance. Finally, sit down next to them and provide "hand over hand" guidance for the remaining "I haven't got a clue" items. This process helps your child to develop judgment about their competence. It's important that they understand their limitations and problem-solve. It's the Clint Eastwood/Dirty Harry approach to homework. Ha!
- As they finish each assignment, they can erase it from the list, giving them a sense of satisfaction. Creating that list helps them to have the perception that the homework is "do-able" by "concretizing" it. What does that mean? It means that the "idea" becomes tangible on the list. The "monster" is reduced to a list. Yiipppeee!
- If they want you to (do not pressure them), proofread and do a "quality control check" on the work. Instead of correcting a problem, put a brightly-colored sticky tab on it and ask them to review it. If they are tired, just fix it. Very little is learned once they are physically and emotionally "done".
- If they get "stuck", offer them 3 answers and see if they can recognize the correct one. The "game-like" atmosphere reduces tension and taps into "recognition" memory instead of "free recall". Free recall is where you have to pull the information out of the air and recognition is the kind of memory needed for multiple-choice and matching tests. You have to recognize the information.
- If reading is involved, have your student "re-read" the materials...boring! You may have to help with this part. Have them talk to you about what they are going to read ("prime) and review their knowledge about the subject from previous experience. Reviewing the headings in the book, pictures, tables, charts and graphs and "insets" in the narrative will help them to begin "painting the pictures" before they begin.
A. Photocopy the materials so your student can highlight areas using various colors for the essential concepts. Green for dates, pink for places, yellow for people, blue for concepts, etc.
B. When it comes to literature, have them predict the outcome. Relate the prediction process to a movie that you have seen with them where you did not know the ending until it happened. How were you "tricked" into thinking something else was going to happen? Distinguishing fact from opinion and evaluating inferences are entertaining if you relate it to a topic that interests them. Encourage them to ask, "Is this author biased in any way? Can you relate the events to your own life or someone you know?"
C. If appropriate, for some tasks, have them take "notes" about the text they read. You may want to create a form for them to record these "notes". Create a column for the page number and paragraph number and a line or two for them to record a phrase or a word. This process may cut down on re-reading.
- If things aren't going well, consider an academically strong high school or college student who will do their own homework side-by-side with your child to serve as a role model, to provide support on an as-needed basis and to help with organization and planning. It's amazing what teenagers can teach kids.
- Purchase a month-long whiteboard to help your student practice envisioning the future. Tests can be noted in blue, projects in green, performances and other activities in red. Special family or social events can be written in purple! This kind of "incidental" learning (every time they walk past the board) is critical to developing time management skills. They start to think about time differently.
Never "spring" a new system on your kid. Introduce the overall plan to them and see what they think. Don't go into too many details. Focus on the part that gives them more control and that you 're starting to hand off the process to them, but that they won't be left on their own. Your goal here is to develop independence that is consistent with their age and appropriate to their skills.
Your reaction to their homework performance should be based mostly on attitude and effort and less on correctness. If you feel a need to comment, focus on the behavior:
"You've done a lot already. Way to crank it out."
"When you're done, you'll have plenty of time to ....." (please, no adrenaline-dumping video games! that stimulate the very part of the brain that loves cocaine...the cingulate gyrus).
If they don't respond or respond in a snarky fashion, ignore it and move on.
The Teacher's Role
Advise the teacher about the homework efforts (the plan, etc.). Ask them to advise you immediately when things "run off the rails". You don't want to hear about your child having 27 missing assignments. If this happens, ask for a "C" in the homework and request homework amnesty. It's the teacher's job to inform you when your child is failing to meet expectations.
If you and your child don't understand a homework assignment, write the teacher a light-hearted note and ask for another "chance" at doing it. Teachers appreciate a sense of humor in their tense jobs. Be generous with your support and encouragement unless, of course, they are abusive or vindictive. Remember, you need them.
When everyone's efforts do not achieve reasonable results, employ an educational therapist. Go to aetonline.org to locate one near you.
Just a few things you are likely to know if you've been following along with the past posts. Some of these are "common sense" (duh!) ideas:
- After each session, have them rate their effort and attitude (you can separate out these dimensions) on a 5-point scale. You rate them, too, and come to a mid-point agreement. Parents, keep a chart out of view of siblings and at the end of the week, negotiate for a treat or allow them to carry their points over to the next week for a more substantial "paycheck". The prize doesn't have to be "stuff". It can be a movie outing with their friends, paintball, a special play date, a favorite meal with their choice of dessert, whatever. Be creative. Be prepared by making a list of options in advance to help guide their judgment.
- Make sure the environment is quiet and as distraction-free as possible. Your child should have all of the necessary clerical supplies organized in labeled containers to avoid the inevitable "getting ready to get ready" behaviors and "excuses/reasons" for not doing the work. From time-to-time, to go Staples or Office Depot on "stock up" outings. This overtly demonstrates to your child your time and commitment to supporting them.
- Carefully consider if your child is involved in too many activities. Don't delude yourself into thinking, "My son is not a good student and he really struggles in school. He has to stay on the football team in order to give him a place to shine". The logic is sound, but the reality is very different. If you are in this position, get serious, professional help. Employ an educational therapist to make the most of homework time. An ET will use your son's homework to help him truly benefit from the assignments as well as develop learning skills along the way. Accommodations or access to the school's Learning Center for support on problem topics or projects will keep him on pace with instruction. The chances of your son being drafted into the NFL are slim (I've had 1 in 20 years!), but he will always need his education. Even if he is drafted, he's "one blown out knee from Plan B". Life after the NFL will require him to use his educational skills, so yeah, it's important. Do your best to help your child "have it all", but understand that sacrifices are certain.
- If your child has an important and long-term commitment such as catechism, first communion preparations, bar/bat mitzvah or a performance of some kind, tell the teacher! Explain that your family is committed to keeping up with her requirements, but there may be times when her understanding will be necessary. Emphasize that you will not abuse the privilege.
And yes, homework is important. Students who devote time to a quality homework product perform at a higher level than those who don't. Homework is positively correlated with academic achievement. Homework gives parents a "peek" as to how well the student is mastering the concepts. It is an opportunity to see the ideas, concepts and facts that are being taught.
Have reasonable expectations. If the captain could have taken a sharp turn, the Titanic would have missed the iceberg. Don't aim for the sharp turn. Slowly make progress toward the goals. You are teaching life-long lessons here. Be patient.
Join me on Facebook at Dr. Claudia McCulloch
At drclaudia.net, click on the "Ask Me" button and submit a question!