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Helping Your Child with Learning Difficulties Deal With Homework

How much help with homework should parents of kids with learning disabilities provide? Dr. Betty Osman offers sound advice.

By Betty Osman, Ph.D.

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.