Have you ever sat down with a child to do homework after school? This can be an excruciating endeavor for parents or caregivers. Children sit through school six to eight hours per day and usually one of the last things they want to do when they get home is to sit down and do more schoolwork. But now, imagine this same child sitting down to do homework after school when this child, in particular, has difficulty sitting still and/or concentrating. The task of helping them complete homework in the after-school hours can become significantly overwhelming and spiral out of control quickly.
Children with ADHD - Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder - have difficulties with attention-span, focus, self-control, self-regulation, and impulsivity. They can become overstimulated and overwhelmed very quickly, especially when bombarded with work they either do not want to do or have difficulties completing. Homework sent home is often an extension of work in the classroom to further give the child practice on a new subject or on one that can be particularly difficult to master. Thus, homework may have a very overwhelming and overbearing effect on a child with ADHD.
An individual helping a child with ADHD complete homework needs to have a plethora of patience! They will likely have to redirect the child back to the task many times and encourage them to continue working even when the material is difficult. When faced with a difficult situation, children with ADHD often activate their “fight or flight” instinct and they may quit the task or try to run from the table when they’ve set their mind to the thought that they cannot do what is asked of them. It can be very tricky to do homework with a child with ADHD but there are plenty of great tips for a successful homework session!
Keeping a Child with ADHD on a Homework Routine
Kids with ADHD crave structure and routine, it helps to calm anxiety and keeps them from becoming overwhelmed with the unknown. Planning a time each day to do homework is something expected so even if they hate the material and homework itself, they know it is expected of them and this may lessen some of the anxiety of doing it. Some children may thrive when doing homework immediately after school when the material is still fresh in their minds, while others may benefit from taking an academic mental break for a few hours and revisiting the material in their homework closer to bedtime or after dinner. No two children are the same and there is no right or wrong answer to how children and parents set up a routine to get homework done - do what works best for your child!
Intentional Design for the Homework Area
Children with ADHD or Autism may also have SPD - Sensory Processing Disorder - and this may be prevalent during times of stress, such as when a child sits down to do homework. They may be extra sensitive and become frazzled - the bright lights, the feel of a certain pen/pencil in their hand, the itch of a sock. If possible, do whatever is possible to make the area the child works in to complete homework “sensory-friendly.” This means removing those items that are known to cause agitation. Suggestions might include:
- Dim or brighten the lights
- Turn on or off (or change) the type of music playing in the background
- Remove distractions such as books, electronics or toys
- If possible, have a room with a door that can be closed to prevent distractions
Keep a Sensory Box
Within the designated homework area, it would likely be beneficial to keep what is known as a “sensory box.” This box includes items that might calm a frustrated child down, help them regain their composure and/or focus and give them a break. Items that may be of use in this box could be:
Gum or hard candy - children with ADHD are often orally-fixated so having something to chew or suck on may help to slow down their brain and allow them to regain focus or control.
Fidgets for their hands - children with ADHD often work well with gadgets or fidgets in their hands. The thought behind these objects is that children essentially put their minds to the task of playing with the gadget so their brain works at a slower pace, allowing them to also focus on another task, such as homework or listening to a classroom lecture. Items such as fidget spinners, stress balls or other similar objects may be helpful to have on hand.
- Weighted Lap Pad or Blanket - numerous studies suggest weighted lap pads or blankets successfully allow a child with ADHD, Autism and/or SPD to feel surrounded and comforted by the weight of these items. Weighted items are known to aid in soothing overwhelmed and/or anxious minds and allowing children to focus or regain control of their bodies and the situation.
Address the Stressors of Homework
Much like making a routine of homework after school, discussing what stressors might come up while working on homework may lessen the anxiety of sitting down to the task at hand with a child with ADHD. Stressors may come up particularly when working on material with subjects such as:
These subjects, in particular, have been shown to cause frustration and feelings of being overwhelmed in children. Emotions are especially complex for a special needs child. Talking out the emotions surrounding work on these subjects helps prepare their minds for the difficult challenges to come.
Rewards are Gold for Homework Time
Children with ADHD are often very reward-motivated and thus, rewarding in small steps throughout the session may keep them on track and focused. Rewards can come in the form of:
TV or screen time.
A small allowance such as a dime or a quarter per subject of homework completed.
An activity to be done later that day or the following day - just be careful with this type of reward as sometimes if children do not receive the instant gratification they crave, they may give up on the assignment because the reward isn’t instantaneous. However, if this keeps your child on track and motivated to finish, go for it!
- Small treats - a Hershey’s Kiss or Lifesaver Gummy per subject completed can be great motivators! Be sure to keep these sugary-rewards small and sparse, though, as they can “wind up” the mind of a child with ADHD and take their focus away from completing their homework.
Doing homework with a child who has ADHD, Autism and/or Sensory Processing Disorder does not have to be overwhelming and stressful. As with nearly anything, understanding the child and their unique needs is imperative to creating a successful endeavor. Once a parent, caregiver or educator understands what their child needs to be successful, doing tasks such as homework becomes far easier.
Ashley Lavoie is a mom of 3 and manages both child and adult ADHD and Neonatal Diabetes. She is advocating for awareness and loves writing and connecting with other families like hers.
Editor's note: This information is not meant to diagnose or treat and should not take the place of personal consultation, as needed, with a qualified healthcare provider and/or BCBA.