Homework case study #3: Scattershot syndrome

Distraction, disorder, disarray: Is this more than ordinary homework pain?

By Chris Colin

For some students, it's procrastination that keeps them from doing their homework. With others it's a major learning disability. But for plenty of kids, there isn't a single roadblock or even a consistent one. Take Abriana Scales, an 11-year-old sixth-grader at a public charter in Washington, D.C.

Like many kids, Abriana is a good student, but she still struggles with her homework. What's a parent to do with a hodgepodge of small and sporadic schoolwork problems rather than one glaring one?

From middle school to emotional meltdowns

Abriana's homework struggles run the gamut, according to her mother, Ayris Scales. Sometimes she gets distracted; other times she lacks motivation. Organization and time-management monsters also rear their heads. Things got particularly challenging when Abriana was transitioning to junior high school. Abriana lost track of her assignments and sometimes said she did not understand them. When her mother would try to help, the tension would bubble over.

"In the absolute worst case, it would end up with crying," Scales says. "Or she'd freeze up completely. Partly this is her reacting to me saying how I would go through the process."

Between a rock and an empty house

Complicating the situation are the realities of daily life. Scales often has to work late, so her daughter ends up doing her homework unsupervised.

"I'd like for her to have more guidance after school, more focus. She loves the computer, loves music, loves her Disney and her Animal Planet on TV," Scales says. "I've tried to cut those back, but it's hard when I'm not there."

The diagnosis? Her own structure

Craig Pohlman, Ph.D., is the director of Mind Matters at Southeast Psychological Services in North Carolina and the author of How Can My Kid Succeed in School? Given this swirl of issues, he says one of the first things he'd investigate is whether some kinds of homework assignments are more problematic than others. From there, he would drill down to which aspects of those assignments are troublesome, and so on. But he also acknowledges that broader approaches are sometimes just as important. When a parent can't always be around during homework hours, for instance, certain steps can be taken.

"I think a schedule should be developed — with Abriana, not for her. You can't just impose a routine," Pohlman says. "You could say, 'When you come home, what's the first thing you want to do? Get right into the homework, or do you need some downtime?' And then, 'What are some reasonable stretches of time to work?' Maybe Abriana feels she can work for half an hour straight and then take a break. Or maybe 15-minute blocks. Whatever they come up with, they need to look at it as an experiment. They'll try it and reassess in two weeks."

Pohlman says it often helps to rotate difficult subjects within such a schedule: Maybe take a stab at math early, but just for 15 minutes. Then move on to other subjects and come back to math later. Kids, like adults, don't always have the attention span to stay on one topic for long stretches.

On the subject of distractions, Pohlman advises a compromise.

"A TV is too distracting for homework. There's just too much of a pull," he says. "But maybe music is OK. Music can actually help with focus. What Abriana will have to decide — with Mom's help — is what kind of music is best to help her concentrate. It's different for different people."

The parent's piece of the problem 

Meanwhile, the stress of moving to a new school shouldn't be discounted, says Pohlman. Junior high means multiple teachers and classes and a tougher task when it comes to managing homework.

On top of all these generic homework struggles, Pohlman says there may be something else leading to emotional blowouts. The stress of wanting to please a parent can make everything harder. Here it falls on the mom or dad to be as understanding as possible.

"It's important for parents to understand that their kid's brain might be wired differently from their own. Your way of approaching a problem might not be the best way for your kid, and a connection that's crystal clear for you might not be easy for your kid to make," he says. "I might tell a parent, 'Write your name with your dominant hand.' That's easy. But now write it with your non-dominant hand. Not easy. That's what a [learning] weakness is like. It's not a choice."

Appreciating the fact that our kids don’t learn the same way we do is the often the first big step for parents struggling to help their children with homework. The next step — pinpointing a child’s weakness — is often much easier. Sometimes the right strategy is to relate homework to the kid's personal experiences or passions. Pohlman says he came to understand percentages only through his understanding of batting averages, for example.

Still, helping with homework can sometimes be a recipe for conflict. As he puts it, kids don't like to fail, especially in front of their parents.

"In some cases, I say parents and kids shouldn't work together on homework. It's just too much," he says. "Just be mother and daughter, not tutor and student."

Chris Colin is the author of What Really Happened to the Class of '93 and writes the "On the Job" column for the San Francisco Chronicle as well as stories for the New York Times, Mother Jones, McSweeney’s Quarterly, and GOOD magazine. He lives in San Francisco with his wife and daughter.