Homework! (Dec. 2011)

The Behavior Corner
Presented by Deborah Whitman BCBA

Column 1- December 2011
Homework Issues

One of the most frequent issues I am asked about when working with families is homework. Students today are facing a very demanding and rigorous curriculum and homework has become an ever increasing part of that. Students with special needs can have a particularly difficult time meeting the demands of homework completion on a daily basis. There can be a variety of reasons for the difficulties that these students face when attempting homework. Many students who have difficulty with focus and attention at school, may face an even more challenging environment at home. Children can be bombarded with everything from television, computers, video games, siblings, scheduling conflicts and a host of other possible distractions. Students who have a challenging time managing frustrations or who require significant support at school may also need significant support at home if asked to do similar work. Parents for the most part also face many competing demands and may not be equipped to give the specific supports their children need. These are just a few of the reasons that homework time can really try the patience of both children and their parents.

Although no two students are the same the issues around homework for parents are often similar and include: Homework taking hours to complete, homework ending in fights, tears or other behavior outbursts, and children needing a parent to help them continuously or to reteach them the material covered in class. In an effort to help I will give a few homework strategies to address each of these common issues. I am certain that I will not cover everything and I am also certain that there will be several follow up columns on the subject of homework so this one will just be a introduction. Give them a try, but keep in mind that what works for one family may not work for another. If you have other successful strategies you’d like to share please email and I will share them with other parents.

“My child’s homework is taking hours to complete on a daily basis. What can we do?”

Talk to the Teacher
The first thing I always ask when faced with this particular homework issue is whether the parents have informed the teacher about how long the homework is taking. Many times the teacher has no idea how the child works at home and may not be aware of the issue. Students work differently in school and sometimes the supports that the teacher naturally or programmatically give the student in school make it easier for them to do the work. The teacher may be assuming an assignment is taking 20 minutes because a similar assignment took that long at school, when in reality it is taking an hour or more at home. Many teachers are willing to work with a family to adjust assignments for students who are struggling with homework. They may also be willing to shorten the length of reading time or give fewer problems or sentences. You may be able to get assignments modified while you try to figure out more effective strategies to handle homework in general. The teacher might also offer some insights as to what supports you might be able to provide at home such as location, lighting, limiting distractions, types of prompts, and language to use.

Limit Distractions
The second strategy is to limit distractions. Set up a specific space for homework that is away from the television, internet or other activities that can distract a child from focusing. This can also include distractions created by other members of the family who are just engaging in typical home activities. For some students a quiet environment works best, but for others if it is too quiet they are not able to filter out the background noises of a typical house. For these students try playing quiet music, usually without words. Make sure all of the school supplies are in the homework area such as sharpened pencils, paper and erasures so that valuable time is not wasted trying to locate these things.

Although it may seem from the previous paragraph that the perfect place for your child to work in at their desk in their room this might actually be a more distracting place to work depending on your child. Their rooms may be filled with things that can take their attention away or make it difficult for them to stay focused. Sometimes a common table in the dining room or study can work better for them.

Another reason to consider an area such as a dining room table is that you can supervise their homework more directly; either by checking on them regularly or having more visual contact. Many parents have told me that their children don’t necessarily need their help with the material but do need them to supervise getting it done. To help balance your competing responsibilities, such as preparing dinner, you may want to set your child up at a table near where you’ll be so you can supervise them without having to stop your own tasks.

Do Work Together
If you have your own “homework” such as for school, business or paying bills, you can do your work while your child does theirs. This allows you to both supervise and also model for your child. Also many times doing homework at a table with other people who are also working can make it easier to stay on task. Depending on how your children get along with each other you might consider having a common table for everyone to do their homework allowing you to supervise several children at once. It can also help by showing your child that everyone has work to do and it isn’t just them.

Start With a Plan
Look over the assignments with your child before they begin and help them organize what to do first. It may seem to make sense to do the most challenging subject first to get it over with it, but that can backfire with a child getting so worn down or frustrated that they are unable to do the others. If you start with the items that can be done more easily, you build confidence and self-satisfaction. When organizing their assignments, consider your time and schedule. If you know they will need your help with certain subjects and not with others, arrange their schedules to accommodate yours.

Set the Pace
Consider using a timer or clock to help your child learn to pace their work. You can say “Let’s see if you can finish this math sheet in the next 15 minutes” and then set a timer. You can also break the assignment into parts and give them time suggestions for each part. A visual timer can be very helpful for most students. You can also use a visual timer such as the Time Timer which shows analog numbers in red that get smaller as the time counts down. Visual timers can be bought from any educational store but are also available as an app on most smart phones or iPads.

Constructive Breaks
Rather than adding to homework time sometimes scheduled breaks can actually make homework go faster by giving needed diversions. If a child is working too long without a break they can easily slow their pace or become more distracted. Consider at least a few minutes of break in between assignments or even during assignments if they are lengthy.

“My child and I get into arguments daily about doing their homework. They burst into tears or have more serious outbursts whenever homework needs to be done. It a daily battle and it wears everyone down. What can we do?”

Talk to the Teacher
Many families struggle with their child’s frustrations about doing homework or with stopping a more preferred activity to do homework and often times these can turn into significant behavioral issues or fights. My first recommendation here is identical to the time issue. Talk to your child’s teacher and let them know it is a struggle. Many times the teacher can alter homework while you work to manage your child’s frustration in other ways. This may include modified or shorter assignments or involve the teacher going over the assignment again with your child to help reinforce the skill. Even if the teacher is not able to alter the assignment letting them know that there is an issue may allow them to support your child before they get home or reinforce them the next day if the homework was done without drama. Teachers who have token economies in their rooms or give points for homework completed can work with parents to increase or decrease these reinforcements based on your reports about your child’s behavior.

Keep Your Cool
Don’t add to the escalation. It is easy for us as parents to get involved or try to reason with our children when they are angry or frustrated. Most of us have also realized that frustrated or angry children are no more reasonable than frustrated and angry grown ups. If your child struggles with low frustration around homework or has behavioral challenges as part of their disability than homework is going to trigger these issues and you will need to find ways to help de-escalate them. Perhaps this means not raising your own voice, walking away for a few minutes, switching assignments or offering a one or two minute break.

Don’t Go Overboard
Another way to avoid confrontation or behavioral outbursts from your child is to remain the parent and not become the teacher. Don’t do the work for them or insist that they go over it again and again to correct errors. Although it is a good practice to check their work, don’t go overboard. It is important for teachers to see what errors your child makes when working independently on a skill. Going over their homework shows them that it is important to you and that they have followed the directions, but let the teacher do corrections, especially if your corrections lead to regular conflict.

Reinforce Appropriate Homework Behavior
I would not be the behavior consultant if I didn’t put in a pitch for reinforcing your child when managing homework. Doing homework is in general not something your child wants to do and they would rather be doing just about anything else. A powerful reinforcement system for completing homework can be very effective. This can be special privileges such as computer time, video games or tokens (if you already use some type of token system in your house). It can also be tied to allowance. The biggest job your child has at home usually is homework so tying tangible reinforcement such as allowance to doing their homework is definitely an appropriate strategy. When reinforcing your child for doing their homework, be clear what your expectation is for them to earn the reward. Make sure it is tied directly to not only completing the homework but doing it without inappropriate behavior.

Some examples of reinforcement goals include:

  • I will sit at the table and finish my assignment without crying or yelling at Mom.
  • I will start my homework even if Dad is not sitting at the table with me.
  • I will try to finish at least _______ problems before asking for a break.
  • I will finish all of my spelling sentences before dinner and I will use at least five words in each sentence.
  • I will stay calm while doing my homework.
  • I will accept help or corrections from Dad without getting angry or running out of the room when he is helping me.
  • I will follow my homework schedule and check off each assignment as I complete it.
  • I will finish my homework before leaving the table.
  • I will finish my homework within ________ minutes or hours.

The reinforcement should also go beyond just the next scheduled activity. For example it may not be enough to say “Finish your homework and then you can watch TV or play on the computer.” If they know that they are going to get this preferred activity no matter when they finish or how they behave, you are undercutting the effectiveness of the reinforcement. Your child might need more frequent reinforcement such as finishing one assignment and getting 15 minutes of TV, computer time or Legos and then completing another assignment.

Make Completing More Difficult Homework More Valuable
If you are tying homework to allowance you might consider making difficult subjects more valuable than subjects that come easier to them. For example, if they love math but hate writing and science then you could have them earn one token for completing their math and two tokens for completing a science assignment, making it doubly rewarding. You can also consider assigning specific amounts of preferred activities to the homework such as 10 minutes of video games for completing math without argument and 20 minutes of video games for finishing the writing exercise.

“My child needs my constant help with his homework every night. I need to re-teach everything he brings home. He doesn’t seem to understand any of the material or claims not to understand”

Let Your Child’s Teacher Know
Most teachers will tell you that the roll of homework is to reinforce skills that have already been taught in the classroom. It is not, in general, expected that students learn novel material as part of their homework. This doesn’t mean that children always understand concepts that are taught in the class and at times they may need assistance in strengthening their understanding of materials at home which is appropriate. However if you find that you are spending a significant amount of time in actual instruction with your child then you should definitely let your child’s teacher know and get clarification. Sometimes your child really doesn’t understand or sometimes they are just frustrated and unable to remember what was taught. If this is the case try to calm them down and re-read the directions before starting again. Many times parents can make the problem worse by attempting to re-teach the material in a different way then the teacher, which can be confusing. If you find that your child is often saying “I don’t get this” then take a look at the assignment and reread the directions with him or her and see if you might be able to clarify. If it is clear to you that your child is often unable to do assignments without extensive instruction, talk to the teacher about modifications. Sometimes this is your child’s way of getting you to do their homework with them. However it can really just overwhelming for them. I have had several instances where the teacher agreed to send home a homework assignment that was identical to an assignment that was already done in class so that the child had to focus solely on generalizing that skill in the home environment. Remember doing homework at home is a different skill entirely than doing work at school. Your child will have to develop this skill as well.

Consider Other School or Community Resources
Consider homework clubs or homework help. Many of our schools have homework help available after school or in the library. If your child is a middle school or high school student have them attend the extra help sessions for those subjects on a weekly basis. Often times they can get specific help with their skills and can become more independent with their skills at home. Making the extra help sessions part of their weekly expectation is good practice to strengthen their skills. It can also make up for missed instruction due to distractibility the first time around. If your school does not offer these homework helps then contact the New Rochelle public library or the Boys and Girls clubs which do offer these services.

A couple of other things to remember

DEAR Time at Home
Most of the time a portion of your child’s homework requires they read either a book of their choice or an assigned novel or book. Consider developing DEAR time (Drop Everything and READ) in your house to help them with this. If they have to do 20-30 minutes of reading, you can pick your own book and sit with them, making it reading time together. This can both model the appropriate behavior for your child and allow you to spend quality time with them while also forcing yourself to relax with a good book. It takes a bit of discipline to sit down and read and leave the household chores for a while but making it a habit can be a nice part of your home time.

Read What they Are Reading
If you have older children who have books assigned for English consider reading that book too. This was a great experience for me with my son and enabled me to finally read some classics that I had never gotten around to reading. It gave me something new to talk about with him and helped me be more sympathetic to his complaints about certain books we both didn’t like. We would commiserate rather than me just getting angry at him for complaining. This experience can be fun for both of you and allows you to model appropriate reading behavior.

Remember That Homework Is Not Usually A Preferred Activity Don’t Make It the Only Activity
I think it is important to remember that homework is not fun for kids. Especially if your child has special needs, school work may be really difficult for them. Coming home after a day of keeping it together all day and having to face more school work can be legitimately frustrating or upsetting. Keeping this in mind can help you be compassionate to their frustration. I know that if I have had a frustrating or busy work day, I can get very cranky if I have work to do at home. So I cannot necessarily expect that my child won’t also be cranky. It is also important to balance your time with your child so that all of your quality time isn’t spent doing homework. Even if you just spend a few minutes goofing off together or watching television, you can be seen by your child as reinforcing and fun, not just the homework police.

I want to repeat what I said at the beginning of this column, this is just an introduction or overview to homework behavior help. It is a very large subject and I am sure that there will be many questions about managing behavior around homework so please forward me your questions on this topic. We will have several follow up columns on specific homework concerns. Pleases send me any questions on any additional areas of behavior with your child and I will answer your questions in upcoming columns. That is all from the Behavior Corner this month. I look forward to hearing from you.

Deborah Whitman BCBA
District Behavior Consultant
City School District of New Rochelle NY
dwhitman@nred.org