A short note about homework


“All we do after school is struggle with homework and projects.  The year has just started and already I feel overwhelmed.  I can just imagine how my child feels!”


     Mom, does this sound like you?  If it does, you are making the cardinal error of the parent of a special needs child.  You are enabling the school to avoid providing a Free and Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) by masking the nature and extent of your child’s disability.    Step one in addressing this problem is to stop helping your child!

      Have a family meeting and explain to your child that they have two types of teachers:  their parents whose job it is to teach them how to be responsible human being who contribute to society, and their school teachers whose job it is to teach them things like math and reading.  Tell them your job is by far the more important one, so you can’t waste your valuable time with them teaching math or reading.  Let them know that you will do the following to help equip them to handle homework and school projects:

·         Give each child their own unique place to work

·         Provide them one colored bin for each subject with a duplicate copy of their text book, and any supplies they need for that subject all color coded.  For instance, the math bin might be blue and in that bin you would have the textbook, the workbook, graph paper, pencils, erasures, rulers, calculator, compass and anything else they will need. 

·         Provide each child with a special shelf to store their subject bins.

·         After they have changed into play clothes, you will give them a snack and one hour to run around and play OUTSIDE.

·         When it is homework time, you will help them read the assignment directions.  Make certain they know what they need to do. Do one example, and watch them do one example. Then, you and they will estimate how long the paper should take.  Let’s say 30 minutes (shorter periods of time would be appropriate for children under 10).  You’ll set the timer for 70% of that time – about 20 minutes, and when the timer goes off they know they should be near done.  If they are, they can just hurry to finish up.  If not, they can continue working at the pace they have been working.

·         If they don’t finish the assignment, you will write a letter to the teacher stating:  “Joey worked diligently on this assignment for 30 minutes, but lacked the skills to complete it.  Please re-teach this in class tomorrow.” 

·         After one subject is done, you will your child 10 minutes to do something physical. Then repeat the process for the next subject.

 Special Situations

     If your child has ADHD, you might also want to tell the child that you will provide an IPOD with noise cancelling headset and they can listen to fast paced music of their choice while working.  You may also want to consider providing a caffeinated drink to help them sustain focus during homework time, and perhaps a fitball chair, so they can gently bounce and self stimulate while working.

     If your child has Bipolar Disorder, Depression, chronic fatigue or lethargy, you may also want to mount a full spectrum light over their study area.  This is the closest replication of natural sunlight available and is reported to improve overall mood and feeling of well-being.  It is claimed that while doing visually demanding tasks such as reading and writing it helps reduce eye fatigue.  It has also been reported to improve sleep quality at night and level of alertness during the day; with positive impact on the scholastic performance of students. The effects are probably greatest for those living in the northern hemisphere or areas where there are frequent gray skies and children are indoors rather than being outdoors and exposed to natural sunlight. 

 Learning Disabilities

     If your child has dysgraphia, consider what assistive technology will facilitate homework. Perhaps you can scan dittoes or worksheets into your computer to a PDF conversion and permit your child just to type answers. If they have to write spelling words ten times, maybe you can permit them to type the words instead.    For children with dyscalculia who have been unable to learn math facts and multiplication tables, permit use of reference tables for homework.    For those with deficits in organization and planning, consider making a simple PDF template for book reports and research projects that your child can use.  Remember, homework is suppose to be about practicing skills already fully comprehended in school, so anyway you can make the practice more manageable is a positive move.

 Making learning easier

     If your child has a specific learning disability in the area of reading that is impacting their mastery of science, history and math, consider renting or purchasing educational videos that can be used as a review of or introduction to material they will be learning in school.  For instance, if they were studying Renaissance artists, you may want to get some videos on Monet, Manet, Renoir, Cassett and so forth. One good source for this type of DVD  Devine Entertainment - http://www.devine-ent.com/.  They have a series on famous artists, famous composers, and famous inventors, as well as a music series, and are currently working on a series on famous writers.    For DVD’s on famous historical characters check out http://www.NestFamily.com where you will find a superb animated educational series on historical characters.  One way to utilize these is to select videos that support whatever your child is learning in school and have your child view enjoy them while eating breakfast. That way it feels unrelated to school, but, they are processing vital information.  Another excellent source for educational DVD is Early Advantage at http://early-advantage.com.

 Document instead of correcting

    DO NOT correct homework!  Sign the papers so teacher’s know you reviewed them, but leave the errors there so the teacher’s see what your child is struggling with. You may even want to circle these with colored highlighter so the teacher doesn’t  miss them.  Invest in a copier, and Xerox each piece of homework before you permit your child to turn it in, this will be valuable documentation if you later end up in a due process hearing.

 What to tell your child

     Let your child know that if they have done their best and can’t complete the work the fault lies with the teacher for not teaching it well enough, not with your child. Praise your child for effort and patience.   Let them, know that you will be in constant communication with the school to improve the instruction they receive and they have no need to worry.  Then, set up a reward system for staying on task gradually increasing the agreed upon time for each subject.  The reward might be 10 minutes to jump rope, hoopla    hoop, ride their scooter or skate board, ride their bike, and jump on the trampoline.    

    Always try to make the reward a physical activity as this increases endorphin levels and improves your child’s frustration tolerance while simultaneously, circulating oxygenated blood to the brain and improving their ability to learn.

 Boosting Self-esteem

     Many children who have trouble with school develop poor self-esteem and tend to clam up and not communicate about their feelings.  To help reduce this,  I suggest that parents take twenty minutes each day that they would have spend on homework and go for a walk with their child (or some other free physical activity that both enjoy).  First, the exercise increases the endorphin level and helps both you and your child calm down.  Second, it provides a time for some fun.  As you go along you can play search games, have scavenger hunts, or play word games.  You can joke and tease or just be quiet. This special time is a bonding time that will benefit both you and your child especially if you don’t mention school and don’t give directions.  Make the one and only rule for this time clear before you leave “Walk side by side with mom, so you are safe.”  The rest of the time, just enjoy your child’s company.  Keep in mind that when you do things with your child that they do well, it helps them see themselves as competent. So, this quality time functions well to boost their self-concept and provides them a time to share concerns and frustrations with you if they want to. But, if they do, just listen. Be a sounding board without offering any advice unless your child specifically asks you for advice.   For instance, if your child says: “I hate math, the work is too hard”.  Don’t begin asking questions regarding what they find hard or if they asked the teacher for help.   Just say:  “Yeh, math can be really tough”. Sympathize, but don’t direct.  This provides support in a way that doesn’t feel critical.

 Follow Up with the school

     If your child has problems with homework for six consecutive weeks, then it is time, to take all your copies, and Xerox them. Attach these to a letter to teacher indicating that clearly your child is not learning from the classroom instruction, and you want a conference with her to discuss more effective methodologies.  Bring your spouse and if possible the child’s grandparents to this meeting so everyone will be on the same page.  Be sure you leave there with an agreed upon plan that will include some standardized pre-testing and a repeat of that testing in six weeks to monitor progress.  Generally, I like to see one of the interventions be that the child will complete homework  after school with their teacher. This way the teacher is working one on one with the child and witnesses the problems for themselves.

     If your child continues to have homework problems for an additional six weeks (now three months into school) write  the IEP team stating that you need to have the team meet to brainstorm changes to the IEP that will empower your child to make meaningful progress as the current IEP is not doing so.  Whatever they agree to needs to end up in the IEP and needs to be initiated by baseline testing and followed up with repeat testing in six additional weeks to insure that the intervention they have selected is actually appropriate.

 Presented as a community service,

Susan L. Crum, Ph.D.

Special Needs Coach