I’m writing this in March of 2022. Students are three quarters of the way through the current school year, yet I get calls and emails every day from parents who describe their child as struggling with completing and turning in their homework. My most viewed blogs are about homework issues (ADHD And Refusal To Complete Assignments and Refusal To Do Schoolwork). The most common ADHD and homework issues I hear about include:
- can’t get started on homework
- has difficulty finding homework in the backpack or online
- needs a lot of help or prompting to stay with it until it’s complete
- does it but fails to remember to turn it in
If one or more of these sounds like a familiar problem in your home, please read on!
In my practice of working with kids and adolescents, I approach homework issues with a problem-solving model. We look at four different areas, identify which are the ones that are causing the issues, then brainstorm and implement solutions. Those areas are routines, systems, content and accountability.
Ideally, we would like to develop habits around homework, but habits need to begin with solid routines. Many homework issues arise because the child does not have a consistent time or place to complete homework. Kids with ADHD thrive on routines and certainty. For elementary age children, I recommend having a regular after school routine that may look something like this: come home, snack and relax or active play for no more than 30 minutes, begin homework and continue until completed. For middle and high school age students who may have more work in various subjects, I recommend a similar start, but they may need to take short breaks in between subjects to maintain focus. Choose the place for homework carefully. A busy kitchen table with sibling and dinner preparation chaos may not be ideal, nor will a closed bedroom door with computers, phones, and tablets nearby. Find the balance and set an expectation that your child can meet.
Of course, this is going to depend on many other factors including extracurricular activities, grade level and amount of homework, and availability of help if needed.
Even with a good routine in place, there may be days when it is difficult for your child to adhere to it. You have two choices: pick your battles or insist they do it. In my experience, the latter never ends well. (Or, the parent eventually “wins” but not without threats, tears, and possibly hours spent going in circles.) We all have challenging days and I encourage you to recognize that your child is no different. If homework is turning into a battle, wait until the morning, or the next day, or let their teacher know that your relationship is not worth the fighting. The purpose of homework is to understand and practice the material learned. If your child can demonstrate mastery with less, that may be an option in their plan.
I like the concept of the “homework window”, meaning that you set aside a chunk of time, or window, when homework must be done. The child has a clear understanding of an ending point, and must focus and work hard to complete it within that frame. The length of the time frame depends on the child’s grade level and how much homework is typically assigned. For elementary age, that is usually 30 – 40 minutes maximum. If a packet of homework comes home, remove the staple and break it into small bits. The window concept works well for younger students who struggle to get started and don’t have a grasp on how long things take yet. In their minds, homework is going to take forever, but one or two packet pages might only be 10 minutes! Knowing the window “closes” in 30 minutes means that they know they can get back to playing very soon.
Having good routines strengthens the executive functioning skills of task initiation, time management, goal-directed persistence, and self-awareness. The more you can practice these routines, the more skills your child will develop. Eventually, homework battles will decrease as a natural result.
Students need systems around knowing what the homework is, organizing it in their backpacks or electronically, and a system for turning it in reliably. Some children are resistant to developing systems that can impact their success. Why? Because they must put some work into them, and doing what they are currently doing is easier, even if the outcome is not desirable. Helping children with homework issues like these understand what the result can be is a good way to get them “on board” with changes. Another way is to fully involve your child in developing their new systems. Only they know what could work best for them! Let’s look at various systems that might need to be developed.
- Knowing what the homework is – Whether it comes home in a packet, written on a sheet of paper, or is posted online in a program like Canvas or Schoology, your child must first understand exactly what is expected of them before they can tackle it. In older grades, some teachers post it on the board, some post it online, some tell students verbally; this is a recipe to cause sure confusion in a student who has ADHD. For middle school and up, an agenda or other place to write homework is a great way to keep track of it. Our brains are not designed to remember that information throughout the day. Younger students often have homework folders or one packet coming home each week.
- Organization – Is your child’s backpack full of “floating papers”? Are they supposed to use a certain system of 3-ring binders or composition notebooks or accordion files but cannot seem to do this? The goal is for students to learn how to keep track of their papers and items, and I encourage them to find the system that works for them if the current one does not. Forcing a child to hole punch and file six classes worth of papers into the appropriate tab in one binder when it doesn’t make sense to them will only cause the student and their teacher unnecessary frustration. Work with your student’s teacher and enlist the help of the 504 or IEP team if necessary.
Organizational success does not only look one way. If this remains a struggle three quarters into the school year, the system they are currently using is not one that works. You may have to trial and error others or use a problem-solving approach to ask your child to help figure out what may work better. If a lot of assignments are done online, be sure that they are saved and stored in folders by subject and your student knows where to get back to them if necessary.
- Turning assignments in – This must be the most frustrating homework issue for children and parents alike. They did it, but somehow it didn’t make it into the bin on time. Most of my clients who have ADHD tell me that turning assignments in electronically is easier, because there is a button that reminds them to do it. For paper assignments, they often do not have a solid routine of doing it at the same time, whether it’s the start of class or the end of class. It simply slips their mind, and they walk out without remembering.
There are a few ways to remedy this homework issue. I teach my clients mindfulness techniques so they are aware of what they need to do without being told. I help them figure out what kind of reminders they can use – visual, electronic, or otherwise. I also work with them to follow through the assignment to completion, meaning that it is not truly complete until it leaves their hands or computer. I help them come up with a check off system to remember what has been turned in.
Working on these systems helps strengthen the executive functioning skills of organization, impulse control, planning and prioritizing, problem solving and self-awareness.
I covered this homework issue in my previous blog, encouraging parents to “find the why” of homework refusal. Often, it is due to difficulty with or disinterest in the content. I have a young client who has math homework 3 out of 4 nights of the week. He greatly dislikes his math homework. Guess which night he comes to the table and does homework without a fuss? I have another client who struggles with the mechanics of writing and has difficulty remembering to capitalize, punctuate, and check spelling. He will actively avoid the sentence writing page, even though once he gets started, it only takes 15 minutes to complete.
If the content of homework is the issue itself, your child may need extra support and presence from an adult who can keep moving them forward. It is difficult to do independent work on subjects that they struggle in or that are perceived as boring.
Some parents like to hire a tutor to assist their child in difficult subjects. Many children will work well with a tutor and not have the same resistance they would have with parents. An older sibling, grandparent, other family members or peers may be helpful in this regard as well.
The last piece of the homework issue equation is accountability. Once you have your routine in place, your systems figured out, and a plan to get past difficult content, your child needs some level of accountability to be able to keep it up consistently. Some things that work for younger children is to show their parent when they have completed homework. This puts the responsibility into their hands, rather than the parent having to dig through the backpack to double check. In order to gain access to a gaming device or be able to go play, they need to initiate this last step as sort of an “exit ticket”.
For middle and high school students, I encourage parents to ask their student two questions:
- What do you need to do today?
- When are you going to do it?
This gets your adolescent thinking about their plan and how to execute it. When completed, they can let their parents know. Middle and high school age students desire fewer parent checkups, and this is one way to accomplish that. The parent lets the teen use their working memory and planning, prioritizing and time management skills to decide for themselves their homework plan.
Some of my clients with ADHD struggle consistently with turning in homework at school. For this, you may need to enlist a teacher’s help or a reminder in the form of a note or text message for older kids to keep them focused and accountable. Some of my clients have had a teacher initial their planner as a “check and balance” that they turned it in. Some of them utilize a notecard or clip on their backpack as a reminder to turn it in. Some purchase a separate folder in a bright color or design that will hold that day’s homework to turn in.
Whatever system that works for you and your child for accountability can have the added benefit of reducing battles over homework issues and improve your child’s skills toward greater independence, critical thinking, and self-awareness.
Whether the specific homework issue is routines, systems, content and/or accountability, discovering and overcoming the problem with the provided tips will help turn the last few months into the school year to one with fewer battles and more success!