A friend and I were talking about our kids recently, as we often do. We were talking about how they manage homework. Because its that time of year again.
The first few weeks of school fly by in the chaos of new schedules and optimism. Excitement. Nerves. Logistics.
But as we settle into the Fall season, kids who are old enough start to have regular, daily homework. Minutes of required reading. But more, they have projects. Writing assignments. Things that need multiple steps and tasks. And things that require the allocation of time, and planning in advance.
My friend, we’ll call her Alma, has 3 kids. But her oldest, we’ll call Ben, was diagnosed with ADHD years ago. When he was first diagnosed, the primary issue they had was his behavior. Impulse control, some physical expressions of frustration. It was typical stuff. But they were very proactive. He has his moments. But years later he has a good toolbox to help him figure out how to manage his own behavior in trying situations.
But things have started to shift. Ben is now in middle school. His behavior is well under control. But he has a lot more homework. And instead of having small, concrete tasks to finish over the course of a week. He is now given longer term assignments. And he is accountable to figure out what to do and when to do it, on his own.
Alma and Ben are starting to fight about homework. He puts off doing it. Or does half of it then gives up. Or, he waits until the last minute and then it is a 4 alarm fire trying to get a big project done in time. He also has a teacher at school that he is supposed to go to. When he needs help. But he needs to initiate the meetings with her. And he doesn’t do it. And that frustrates Alma.
Here’s the thing: their son is smart. He understands the work, the lessons. Sometimes he aces tests, even if he doesn’t study. That’s not the problem. So what is going on?
He needs support for his Executive Function. He needs help figuring out the process of homework.
What Is Executive Function?
Executive Function is something we all have. In short, it helps us get stuff done. Executive Function helps us make a plan, it helps us keep track of time. It also helps with the ability to start a task. Or, to slow down and not rush through something. With or without ADHD, we all exist on a spectrum of Executive Functioning. Some of us are great at it; others of us struggle.
Here are some examples of kids who are struggling with Executive Function. A kid that rushes through his homework and does some of it incorrectly. Even though he understands the material. Or, a kid that fights starting his homework. Because he feels completely overwhelmed by all the tasks and activities required. Or, a kid who thinks he can finish an entire week long project in one night.
None of the kids in these examples are doing anything on purpose. When you stop to think about it, no kid wants to fail. Or disappoint the adults around them. But they might not know how to do these things. And not even know how to ask for help. Even with a teacher assigned to Ben to help him figure out his homework. He doesn’t realize that he needs her help. Or is embarassed to ask. So he doesn’t.
So, without the tools to help with any of these functions, smart kids can struggle with homework.
What do we do about it?
Help Them Find A System That Works
Alma was talking to me about hiring a tutor. Someone to help Ben understand his writing assignments.
But I don’t think a traditional tutor is what kids need when they struggle with Executive Function.
What they need is a system.
The system that works for each kid can be different.
But its the same idea as what many adults need to organize and plan their tasks. A system is broken up into 4 main steps.
- What Do I Have To Do? Once kids hit middle school, they see many different teachers. That each assign homework and tasks that are due on different days. There is no longer a universal place or one sheet of paper that keeps track of it all. So, we need to teach our kids how to create their own list to keep track of it. Figure out all the different assignments. Write it all down. Project, deadline. A list for the week.
- Bite.Sized.Chunks. Each project often has lots of smaller tasks. What are they? A writing assignment might need to be a certain length. It might need research in advance. Maybe an outline before that. Help your kid get into the nitty gritty to break down every single thing.
- How long for each task? Here is another area that does not come naturally to many people, whether they have ADHD or not. The sense of time. This piece of the puzzle is ever-evolving. But it requires a clock in your child’s homework space. Maybe they need to start with an estimate. Maybe that estimate will be way off. But they can write down how long something actually takes. And learn the difference between expectation and reality. That will help them get better and better with their sense of time.
- When will I do each thing? Help them look at their week. Say something is due on Friday. But they have 2 hours of soccer practice on Thursday night. Will they find enough time on Thursday to finish the assignment? Or do they need to find time elsewhere in the week? Block out each time increment that they have to do homework. And help them slot all the tasks into realistic places in the calendar.
Building a system like this can have many benefits. Kids learn to keep track of all their assignments. And once they break things down into smaller pieces. And see that they have enough time in the day or week to do their homework. They stop feeling quite so overwhelmed. Which makes it easier to get started. It also can help with the all-important understanding of time.
Alma told me she is going to help Ben plan out his week this afternoon. They will take about 30 minutes today. And work out a plan. And then Alma will let him execute it this week. And then see which pieces of the system trip him up the most in the coming days.
This way, Alma can still be hands off on his homework. But she has set him up for success. And will help him continue to hone the process. To make it exactly right for him. And once they optimize it, they will do it every week. Because consistency is as important.
Many people are not born with the ability and know-how to do this. Our kids are included. So we have to teach them. Its not handholding. Its scaffolding. It’s teaching them tools that they can use and apply throughout their life. We don’t need to do their homework for them. We need to teach them how to do their homework. In the way that is most effective for them.