How much help with homework should parents of kids with learning disabilities provide? Teachers generally encourage parents to adopt a “hands-off” policy, wanting students to complete schoolwork independently. On the other hand, when assignments are incomplete or missing, teachers often call parents, giving them the responsibility of overseeing their child’s work. In this article, Betty Osman, Ph.D., describes the extent to which parents should become involved with their children’s school assignments.

Homework has been part of U.S. education system since the beginning of this century, but in recent years the amount of homework expected of young people has increased exponentially. It is not unusual for today’s first graders to have homework that is both challenging and time-consuming. Although many young people need (or want) a parent’s help with homework from time to time, children with learning disabilities (LD), particularly those in “inclusive classrooms,” are likely to require extra time and more assistance to complete assignments. They tend to resist homework, procrastinate on starting assignments, and perceive themselves as less competent than their peers.

Parents frequently express their concern and confusion about how much homework-help they should provide for their children. I think the answer becomes clearer when we think about the purpose of homework.

According to an article in The American School Board Journal (October, 1996), there are three reasons for homework:

  • To provide practice and reinforce previous instruction.
  • To develop student responsibility.
  • To involve parents directly in supporting their children’s learning. (There is evidence that children are more successful in school when parents are involved in their education.)

With regard to the first purpose, that of reinforcing skills taught in school, a parent might ask, “Has my child learned the requisite skill and is he capable of completing the work independently?” (I have seen children with reading and writing disabilities who receive daily remediation in school and then are given lengthy book reports for homework.)

It may also be unrealistic to expect a child to do homework alone as the requirements of the classroom become more challenging. Like it or not, a parent (or surrogate) may have to share the burden of homework if the child is to succeed academically.

Most parents of children with learning disabilities would agree that, although the will to help is strong, the emotional involvement with one’s own child can make helping with homework difficult. As one parent said, “Homework is an activity that involves reading, math, and parent testing.”

If a child is a competent student, it is relatively easy for a parent to edit a composition or quiz her for a test. But when learning is a struggle and material learned one minute is forgotten the next, it is frustrating for the parent, as well as the child. This frustration is exacerbated when an exhausted parent is summoned at nine o’clock at night to help a child with homework he has forgotten or put off until the last minute. A parent’s natural instinct at that point may be a fight-or-flight response.

The most obvious indication of trouble with a subject is when the books don’t come home at all. “I don’t have any homework” or “I must have left it on the bus (or in school)” are two of the common ways children express their dislike of homework or their fear that they can’t do it. As a second grader said through his tears one day, “It’s just not fair! We work hard in school all day and then have homework, and my teacher isn’t even there!”

Then there are some children who actually do their homework but “forget” to hand it in. Translated, this usually means they feel inadequate relative to their classmates, are ashamed of their work, or want to punish themselves, their teachers, or their parents. That’s what psychologists call being “passive-aggressive.” It’s not what the children do that is troubling; it’s what they don’t do that makes us angry.

Here are strategies  parents can use to effectively help with homework, with a minimum of frustration for both parent and child:

  • Make sure assignments come home. A daily planner or sheet signed by the teacher may remind a reluctant student of an assignment. As one child said, “It helps me remember when my mind wants to forget.”
  • Establish where homework should be done. This does not necessarily mean in a child’s room seated at his desk. Some children really dislike being alone in a quiet room, particularly when they have a task to perform that they don’t like – and homework usually fits that description. Help your child find a corner of his own, whether on the kitchen floor or on his bed with a lap desk to lean on.
  • Establish when homework should be done. Right after a long day at school may not be the best time. Most children need “a break,” in the form of a snack, a bicycle ride, or social time with friends. It is important to be clear, though, about the time to return home (an alarm watch or phone call might ensure compliance). For many children, the hours just before or after dinner are best for homework. That way, there are no midnight surprises. Some children can rise early in the morning to complete an unfinished assignment, while others work better with the privilege of staying up a little later at night.
  • Contrary to common belief, listening to music on the radio may actually help the young person focus on a task. As one woman said, “When I have to concentrate, I turn on the radio to screen out my internal noises.” (TV, however, is not included!) In some instances, merely having a parent present in the room may be sufficient, providing the comfort and company the child needs, even if dad is reading his newspaper.
  • Remember that every child eventually reaches his saturation point. There’s an old saying, “The brain can only absorb as much knowledge as the seat can endure.” Parents have to recognize when a child is tired and has reached the point of diminishing returns. That is the time to stop homework, and let the teacher know the child did as much as he could. It is also a good idea to ask your child’s teacher how much time he should be expected to spend on homework and be guided accordingly. For some children with learning disabilities, the challenge is the length of the homework rather than the difficulty of the assignment.
  • Rather than have children attempt an assignment and then ask parents for help when it is not understood or isn’t done, I recommend that a parent start a child on the homework, to ascertain that she understands it. One or two math problems solved together or a composition started is reassuring for a child and should preclude the need to relearn the material and redo the assignment. Once children feel secure, they usually can finish a task independently and gain confidence in the process.
  • Provide assistive tools when possible, such as a calculator or even a parent scribing for a young child for whom written work is challenging. With the teacher’s sanction, you can act as your child’s “secretary” until he becomes more facile with handwriting and/or the computer.
  • And finally, respect your own feelings and ability to work with your child. If working together is contraindicated, with either you or your child angry or in tears, it is better to be your child’s good and supportive parent than a frustrated, ineffective teacher.

In sum, parents can expect that children with learning disabilities will require more guidance, more assistance, and probably more support than their classmates for whom learning is easier. But we should try to keep homework from becoming the focus of family life and the most dreaded word of the day.

References

  • The Truth about Homework: What the Research Says Might Surprise You. By Susan Black
    The American School Board Journal v183, n10, p 48-51 (October, 1996)