I’m just going to say it: Homework is a thorn in the side of most parents raising children with disabilities. In case you haven’t experience it, let me explain:
You wake up in the morning ready to implement your well-crafted morning routine that includes the most efficient way to get your child clothed, fed, packed up, and in the car with the fewest moments of frustration, tears, and conflict with siblings. Because school is hard for your child, making it through the morning routine and into the school building is your child’s first triumph of the day. During that school day, your child is faced with challenging tasks. There will be spoken language to process, pencils to grip, a body to keep still, transitions to initiate, social interactions to understand, and non-preferred academic work to complete.
Your child will be exhausted when they get to you at pick-up. This is understandable. They have just “left it all on the field” in the classroom. They need time to recover, to engage in preferred play, and to rest and reconnect with you. But before they can rest, some days your child will have a therapy appointment to work on emotional regulation, language skills, motor skills, or sensory needs.
What happens when they get home? There is more to do. There is homework. Your child does not yet work independently so you are now their teacher, except you don’t have a degree in special education. Not only are you trying to help your exhausted child, you are also trying to cook dinner, pick up a sibling from dance, and return a work call because you left work early to be home with your child after school. You are exhausted, too. Does this sound familiar?
So, why are we giving homework to our students with disabilities? There are many costs, but are there any benefits? I think there can be, if we first determine a student’s readiness for homework and we then plan to support them. Here’s how.
The Need For Play
Some schools in America have begun doing away with assigning homework before fifth grade due to the developmental need for play and movement. Elementary-aged children are still learning through play and need time for unstructured play or structured arts, music, or sports time after school. A school days-worth of academic learning is enough at this age and young children need time outside to move their bodies, free time to recover from the demands placed on them, and quiet time to be alone with their thoughts or to connect with their family.
Prior to being developmentally ready for independent work, I believe the only homework that should be assigned is nightly reading with a parent, adult family member, or older sibling. Reading with someone builds connection, imagination, and social comprehension skills that create feelings of security and confidence, which both lead to a love of learning.
Why Children With Disabilities May Not Be Homework-Ready Alongside Their Same-age Peers
For children with anxiety surrounding academic work due to a learning disability, attention difficulties, or sensory overload, they are often exhausted from the school day. Talk to any parent of a child with autism and they will tell you that their child’s optimal time for focusing and learning is not 4:00-6:00 pm, much less 7:00-9:00 pm. If a child is fighting or refusing doing homework, there is a reason. As parents and educators, we must pay attention to these patterns of emotional distress, figure out the cost and benefit of homework, and collaborate with teachers on a plan for the most supportive learning experience, either in the classroom or at home.
When Are Students Ready For Homework? Focus First On Executive Functioning Skills
The benefit of homework is in the extra practice that leads to the mastery of a concept, either academic or organizational, and higher confidence of that skill when the student returns to school the following day. While the benefit of homework in the elementary years is often to master reading, writing, and math skills, homework for fifth graders and beyond should focus on executive functioning. In order to complete homework independently, students must have solid executive functioning skills.
Our executive functioning encompasses our planning, organizing, initiating, attending, shifting focus, and execution of tasks. We need these skills to turn our ideas into plans and our plans into actions. Our executive functioning, located in the frontal lobe of our brain, does not fully develop until our mid-twenties. When we assign homework to pre-teens and teenagers without also teaching them how to organize and execute the work, we are doing them a huge disservice.
A Warning About Middle School
Most children shift from needing a parent to sit down with them to complete homework to completing it on their own sometime between third and fifth grades. However, children with learning disabilities, ADHD, anxiety, and/or autism spectrum disorders may not be able to work independently for several more years, which can lead into their middle school years.
When the load of middle school homework increases before a child’s ability to work independently, we are met with frustration from the child and their parents. Many parents have found it helpful to ask your child’s IEP team for modified homework where teachers can assign the amount of homework they know the student is capable of completing independently. More challenging tasks that could help the student grow, such as long-term projects and reports, can be assigned with the student’s need for support in mind, such as shorter deadlines on smaller portions of a project to teach time management.
Teach a Work/Life Balance
After graduate school, I remember the relief I felt when I didn’t have homework anymore. Now, I go out of my way to plan healthy boundaries in my own life so that I don’t bring work home. Shouldn’t we be teaching children how to have healthy boundaries around work and play? Shouldn’t we be teaching them how to balance work completion and time with family and friends? All children would benefit from these lessons; however, our differently-wired children are our most vulnerable to this work/life balance and their discomfort is demanding we change the system for them.
When homework is assigned in the same way for everyone, we ignore the fact that each student has a different amount of gas in their tank. Some have fuel for homework at the end of the day and some just do not. When we ask students to keep working afterschool when their tank is on empty, we likely damage their love of learning and fill them with dread for tomorrow.
Stay Connected! ~Dr. Emily
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