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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.

Comments from readers

"This is me. I am supposed to be doing my homework now, but reading articles about how people get to much homework/don't do their homework is better! The biggest problem for high schoolers: FACEBOOK."
"I am delighted to have found this article. Just today I brought my report card home with disgusting grades on it. I am very mad with myself for the amount on disorganized procrastination I have been letting myself get away with, but my parents gave me a nice big reality slap to bring the water to my eyes. till the next report card (three months) I am banned from all artistic and creative activities that are not directly school related. I am no longer allowed to do anything other than school, girl scouts, homework, extra curricular work, chores, eat, sleep... The next series will be something along the lines of living in the basement, no extracurricular activities, just homework and staring at the wall, twiddling thumbs... which is just great and definitely enough stick, but for three months, Crazy! I love school and teachers but ths is a bit much."
"I liked this topic and I can relate. I have a seven year old. He told me just this evening, 'I'm not going to college.' Wow!! That was my instant reaction (in my brain). I simply responded, 'As you get older you will realize the importance of school. Learning and making friendships are part of life. Be positive.' I feel guilty when my son struggles with assignments. I will put into practice what I read in this article. Thank you. "
"My daughter had the same problem. I started taking her to the library to homework help center. She usually would take 6 hours to complete her homework. Now, she only takes about 1-2hrs to complete her work with the help of a tutor in the homework center. The best part of it, it's free!"
"this is a common problem today....the parents now need to know who and what the obstacles are...the computer, TV, electronic devices...when not supervised....really distracts the child and it makes the kids very difficult to concentrate.... I would suggest to the parents to take control over these devices and stick to the family rules ...and make sure to involve the dads...who has more authority with the children.... we all need knowledge, wisdom, and the grace to educate our children.... change the environment around the home, like take the computer out of the children's room, make plans to do something outdoor or sports on the week ends...together as a family..... there is no one answer and no one phychiatrist can do magic to your children.... the parents and loving and caring family has to work together..... "
"This article was very helpful! I think my son has this problem, but I am going to use some of these tips when it comes to homework time. Thank you!"
"I like how you wrote about a person who stuggled. It makes it a lot more meaningful."
"With my son, his teacher let him bring home his entry task and he does that in the am before school. We found also that doing homework and studying in the am is refreshing, because everyone is refreshed from a good sleep. If he is tired, hungry, upset about something that happened at school, or has basketball to go to. It is overwhelming in the evenings sometimes."
"There is no organization in school system. Even teachers do not know what is to be organized. Kids should have a lot of homework through elementary school, middle school and high school. They should be busy after school. If they don’t have something to occupy them they are going to go on wrong track. If they have enough homework to occupy them after school they will not have time to think about other bad things to do. In schools there is no respect between teachers and students. Nobody knows who is teacher and who is student. Disaster! Kids are not to blame it is adults, teachers mostly. I went to school in Europe my mother did not know that I went to school. She helped me sometimes with harder stuff but in general I did everything on my own and with teachers. If child has difficulty doing some things in school teachers as fast as they can they label child with disability. System made so easy for teachers to put blame on children. Children spend 8 hours in school every day! with teachers not with parents. So who is to blame for all this educational mess are TEACHERS!!!!"
"Puh-LEEZ! When are we going to stop making excuses and mollycoddling America's kids? An 11 year old should have enough discipline to come home from school and start doing homework if they need to. As a nation, we continue to wonder why we're behind other countries, and the gap is growing larger. Perhaps, it's because culturally folks in other countries teach their kids discipline and responsibility."
"It sounds like she may overwhelmed with so much homework. Try helping organizing her subjects by color coding them red for science blue for English and so on. Have her prioritize what she should do first. Try having her exercise. Exercise calms the body in a positive way. What about rewards for getting her homework done? Children need motivation and rewards for their efforts. School should be fun and not a struggle. Find ways that you can make doing homework fun. Let her do one subject for fifteen minutes and then try again. You may try having a tutor or homework helper assist her until she feel confident in doing her homework independently."
"My daughter (4th grader) attends a school that has no “Homework policy�. The school started this policy after parents complaining about their kids spending too much time doing homework! It’s true the kids are more relaxed, too much to my opinion! I still make my kids do homework: I ask the teacher to give me special package or browse the net and print some! This does not mean that my daughter is not distracted or disorganized! All the opposite and it is worst with assignments and projects! But someone has to teach her how to manage her time, and that someone is me, because I can not count all the time on the school. I’m a full time working mom, and don’t make home till six but my kids know what I’m expecting them to do while at the after school program: have their reading completed, and a specified portion of their homework done, we have an agreement to leave out all the difficult part till we get home so my husband or I can help! Parents complain a lot! No wonder education here is at the bottom! I come from a third word country where children attend school from 8:00 to 17:00, 5 ½ days a week and we always come home with ton of homework, we had homework even for the weekend and the holiday! If a kid is able to sit on a computer game for hours without complaining or loosing concentration, sure he can sit for an hour or so to do his homework! The kid behaves that way because of the parent’s attitude, not because he is not able to! "
"I don't see a real solution here. If the parents don't help, who will? I don't work at home and try to help my son, but it's like he's never learned it before! I feel that the teacher is going to fast for him and several others in his class. She admits going fast to try and get through a couple of months early in order to teach the test. I've talked to the principal and she's more interested in this teachers high test scores from last year. It's too fast for my son and he's really not learning anything and is getting F's for the first in his school years. He's in the 5th grade. I've thought of Homeschooling him but I don't feel like I'm up to it. What can I do? What are my rights here? Aren't they obligated to actually TEACH my son? I don't think Failing him is the answer, he's a smart guy but immature. He likes school and can't explain what's going on in school."
"This is all good advice but it touched only briefly on a real issue: mother-daughter power struggles. I have two great girls but I found that I simply could not work with them, particularly my tween daughter, on homework without getting into arguments. Another person, either a tutor or another relative, might be able to help in this situation."
"I read this article and was surprised that nowhere did I see anything about what this child experiences in her classroom every day. Has she ever been taught how to study? Is her classroom filled with distractions that make it difficult for her to concentrate on her work? Instead of always looking for a learning disability or looking at her home environment, let's look at what kind of training she has received. Today's classrooms are filled with distractions. To her parents, I would say go and spend some time sitting in her classroom. I met a mother who did just that. She spent two months sitting in her child's classroom and discovered that her child didn't have a learning disability at all. The so called 'professionals' never look inwardly at themselves or their teaching methods. It is much easier and convenient to blame the child or her family life."
"It does seem as if this is somewhat more than ordinary homework pain but this 'scattershot syndrome' is increasingly common. Every source points out the same reality - homework has been on the rise. At what point is more homework being assigned than some children can get done? If a doctor gives out the same pill in the same dose to 25 different children - even for the same illness - it's the wrong thing to do. Some children might be allergic to that medication. Other children will have a history that demonstrates they don't respond to the medication. The same dose to many different children ignores their differing body weights. In short, doctors don't work that way. But teachers do. They give out the same assignment to an entire class but that single assignment won't be the right one for every student in their room. For some, it will be too much. And for others, they might have forgotten the assignment by the time they reach home. Just as every child has their own medical profile and their own medical needs, children have their own learning profile but too often we ignore the very real learning needs their learning profile would suggest to us. The child in this article now has several subjects. To be successful in modern middle school requires significant organization. Not every middle schooler is developmentally ready to juggle folders, binders and textbooks for many different subjects and to sit down every evening - and sometimes for hours - to patiently wend their way through homework. Indeed, rarely do teachers coordinate with each other on their daily assignments. Students can have several projects going on at once on top of nightly homework and upcoming tests. Some parents who try to help find themselves overwhelmed with the homework and wonder how any child or teenager can do it. The article suggests it's a bit of a mystery as to why this child struggles with homework. Being home alone doesn't help though it can't always be avoided. Children at home alone may not have the self-discipline to engage the lonely and frustrating task of homework. In the better world, this parent should be able to share with her child's team of teachers that indeed her daughter is home alone and is struggling with homework. In the better school, the team of teachers would respond with an individualized plan for Abriana that takes into account that she is not well-organized or supervised when she does her homework. Indeed, a 'homework free' school track is worthy of thought for those children who can do school but who can't do homework."
"This is another example of psychiatry simply trying to make a 'syndrome' out of everything and take responsibility away from the person. ('It's not their fault' mentality.) How about removing the stimulants in the environment that create this short attention span mentality. Try turning off the T.V. entirely. How about eliminating the electronic games that create short attention span. Try eliminating the excessive amounts of sugar that the bulk of children receive. Try some parenting principles and enforcement of disciplinary procedures. "
"I have the same struggle,but it also happens at school.she does not complete the classwork. While we do get the homework done, there is no time to study for Science."
"All of that talk and it comes down to the last paragraph. Kids and parents shouldn't do homework together. some of my biggest Fights when i was growing up was over homework. Homework in my opinion is pretty much a nuisance. A person goes to school all day and then has to take work back home with them. this causes burnout. If your job was a stock clerk in a dept. store when you get off in the evening you don't go home and start stocking shelves. You rest. "
"I understand what the parent and child are going through, my son, now 15 has the same problem. He is ESE, did not do well in 6th grade and half of 7th grade, I decided to homeschool him, he is doing way better, taking classes online with FLVS, but still sometimes, it is still difficult to work with him. He plans on going to high School, I just hope it works for him, if not back to homeschooling, for I want the best for my child, and I know high school is not easy, a lot of distractions."