Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Homework Hell

There are a lot of challenges that come with parenting a special needs child. There are the Big Worries about The Future as well as social problems, independence issues, and a plethora of other concerns. But day to day in the trenches, the struggle to get Jack to do homework often ranks highest on my list of Practical Difficulties with an Autistic Kid.

I have tried everything. I have tried sweet talk, praise, bribery, threats, ignoring, rewards, incentives, nonchalance, peer pressure, finger pointing, mini-trampoline jumping breaks, passing the buck to my husband, turning his math into a game, and making his reading questions tie into his obsessive scripting. Once I even constructed a homework coach out of Legos. There are times when these strategies work and there are times when they don't, but even when they do work, they only work for a few days and then I have to find something new.

Every afternoon after school I open Jack's backpack and take out his homework. On the occasional Monday when there is no weekly reading packet, I do a mental happy dance. When the math teacher doesn't send home a worksheet I send her a silent thank you. And when Jack didn't do all his work at school so it gets sent home for him to do on top of his every day math and reading? I cry a little inside.

Did I mention that he's in first grade? I can't even imagine what my and Jack's after-school lives will be like in middle school.

Jack's homework should take a half hour at most. It almost always takes us between one and two hours to finish. Some days—today for instance—the homework battle stretched to more than three hours.

The really frustrating thing for me, I think, is that Jack could do his homework standing on his head. The kid is so smart. This afternoon when I was quizzing him on his spelling words, which is the only part of his homework he seems to like, he made each of the words plural, including "penny," which he correctly changed to "P-E-N-N-I-E-S."

I have tried so many times to tell him that if he just sat down and did his work then he could play at whatever he wants for the rest of the day. But he either just doesn't get it or is incapable of making himself sit down and do the work.

Instead he hems and haws. He gets distracted by his brothers. He wants to draw a picture of whatever story he is obsessed with at the time. He squirms around on his seat until he falls off of his chair. He complains. He makes his angry face. He growls at me. And, often, in his sad little voice, he will say, "I'm tired of homework."

Me too, Jack. Me too.

Cross-posted at Stimey's Washington Times Communities column, Autism Unexpected.


  1. You could easily be describing our own afterschool experience. It's so bad here, that I am considering putting my son in his school's aftercare program next year so that THEY will have to do his homework with him and not me.

    And yes, this could be so painless and over in 20-30 minutes if he would just sit down and do the work.

    Maybe after holding it together at school all day, they simply can't sit and work anymore?

    I don't know, it's just really really hard. And it makes our time together afterschool very very sucky.

  2. I am a former teacher and yet I wonder about the rationale behind giving so much homework (I consider even a half hour a pretty hefty amount) to a first grader. I see my neighbors' kids get on the bus for school before 8 and then get home after 4. Even without any after-school activities, there just isn't much non-school time in kids' lives these days. I can't imagine how much more frustrating the situation must be for you - and for Jack.

  3. I totally agree with you about homework. It frustrates me to no end that parents have to have these nightly battles with their kids over what is essentially busywork. And my kids don't even get that much! (I kind of think the teachers agree with me, but have to assign some because it's district policy or some such nonsense.)

    Fortunately, Georgia, my kindergartener, is the type of kid who will just face an unpleasant task, do it, and be done. So she is done with the week's homework on Mondays after about ten minutes.

    But Audrey, my 3rd grader, likes to whine and complain about how she doesn't want to do it (no kidding), or it's too boring (yep), or it's too hard (not a chance). Yesterday we had her biggest meltdown of her LIFE and she was alphabetizing 15 spelling words for 90 minutes. And she knows how to alphabetize.

    But then, when she was done, she went up to her room and fell asleep. (It was 5:15.) She slept until 7:15 this morning...

    These kids. Why don't they just do it already? Grrrr...what's going to happen when the work actually IS hard?

    I guess I should write a post about this. Maybe I'll just cut and paste this comment.

  4. Ugh. I see this in my future. Right now my 2 1/2 year old takes about 10 seconds to do his puzzles when he wants to. But if he's not in the mood when we want him to do them, it can take 10 minutes.

    Here's hoping the logic of "let's just get this over with" kicks in soon!

  5. I don't understand...don't your kids know what happens if they get "left behind"?

    Maybe you should get them some gyroscopes to stimulate their interest in math...

  6. Ah, Papa Echo. I happen to have already heard from your wife on Facebook that your kids shed tears with homework too. So I guess gyroscopes don't solve everything, eh? :)

  7. Some thoughts:
    1. Put it in his IEP that he needs to be taught how to sit and focus on worksheets or whatever format they are sending home, as he clearly does not have this skill set. Make it clear that you are happy to work on those skills at home, but until they are mastered, he cannot be expected to complete these types of assignments at home.

    In other words, make it clear that instead of focusing on a math concept he has already mastered, you intend to be using these assignments to work on the functional skills of focus, attention, organization, etc. Therefore, he may not always complete the assignments sent home, or may complete them in a way the teacher may not expect, because these assignments are inappropriate formats for assessing his understandings of the academic skills. You have a lt of other things you are reinforcing at home. Because of his special needs, his evaluations (report card grades) should not be based on these assignments, but on more appropriate evaluations.

    2. Some strategies our speech therapist is using for Joey when he gets off-task:
    Divide the room into zones. One zone is for Jack to do whatever he is obsessing on. The other part is for being Jack. Set a Time Timer for two minutes. He can go obsess for two minutes. Make it clear that when his two minutes is over, it is time to come to the other part of the room and be Jack. Set it again for two minutes, to be Jack Doing His Homework. Then two minutes again... fade forward the time to be Jack (next week, he has to be Jack for three minutes...)
    Cut the worksheets up, so that each question or exercise is separated. Paste them each onto a separate sheet of paper. He completes them one at a time. (This is supposed to help him break up what may seem overwhelming, and focus on what he needs to be working on, not the whole sheet).

    3. I hope that half-hour includes the reading packets. Expecting a first-grader to complete more than two worksheets would be ridiculous.

    4. The problems you are having may reflect some other issues that need to be addressed. For example, Joey has a lot of difficulty with social studies assignments. He can read it, but has trouble because he can't focus on the meaning of the words. The problem? He has difficulty grasping the concept of past time. Clocks, calendars, etc., no problem. But getting his head around what "George Washington lived two hundred years ago" means, even on a second-grader level? Ackaroonies. So the whole idea of history is something he just doesn't get, and that gets very frustrating for him.

    Frustration leads to three-hour marathon homework sessions. :P

  8. My daughter's hw would take 10 min if she did it. It is such a nightmare. Yesterday we had a screaming match. Quite fun. I think I'm getting payback for making my 10th grade students do h.w. over the summer back in the day.

  9. Pick your battles. If no one is getting anything out of homework other than forced compliance, get rid of it or at least modify it (in his IEP). 5 spelling words instead of 20, 5 math problems at school instead of 15 (no incomplete at home), etc. I also scribed everything or took it upon myself to modify like this:
    And boy did I get pissy when work came home like this: (you'd like that he made up his own spelling word "clon[e] trooper")

    And he wasn't getting sensory to help him cope either.

    I gave up. So now we homeschool. I was tired of resenting my kids and someone else running our lives.

    [[Can you tell I am still suffering from PTSD homeowrk hell???]]

  10. Boy, I feel your pain. We had a lot of trouble with this too. My son is very smart but has a tremendous amount of trouble staying on task when the task is something he doesn't feel like doing. The littlest things become distractions. While the other little boys in the neighborhood blew through their work and went out to play, mine was stuck at his desk forever. Between homework and instrument practice, he had almost zero "down time." It sucked, for both of us.

    I know this is not the solution for everyone, but this year, after much agonizing and discussions with his neurologist and pediatrician and case manager, we started him on a low dose of medication to help him focus. While I don't love the idea of meds, I have to admit it has made a huge difference for him. Huge.

    Just something to keep in the back of your mind, possibly, for the future.

  11. There is such a huge difference in kids, aside from the autism component. I have A who dives in and was done in minutes, and C who spent the first hour complaining, etc. In first grade, C's teacher assigned homework but A's didn't - A would do C's packets for fun. I think the rigidity of the school day is bad enough at 6, let alone homework. Minor consolation: this seems to have resolved in college!

  12. Oh I feel your pain!

    My son, Sam, is also in first grade and comes home somedays with 3 or 4 pages of homework to complete.

    His autism has caused a number of issues with his motor skills which have prevented him from learning how to orient his body and his hands for writing so he uses a keyboard at school, which is great, but at home I write the answers for him and you would think that would make things go faster...not so much.

    Its still like pulling teeth to get him to focus for more than a minute on any one subject.

    I think by 2nd grade I will be bald from pulling all my hair out.

  13. My husband's school is spending a lot of time this year exploring the question, "Is homework discriminatory?" The reality is that there are only a select few children for who homework *works.* For others there's autism, or working parents who don't get home until after bedtime, or a house full of children and family members with no quiet space to work. It's a small step, but the discussion should be happening everywhere. Teachers are trained to address multiple learning styles in their classroom, yet homework is the same for all students. If it's not working for all kids, it's not working.

    And I still think you're supermom.

  14. TC got a homework sheet on Tuesday. We have not done it yet. UGH.

  15. Ooh - I love Joeymom's comments. I think I may have commented before that the research on homework is pretty clear. It doesn't teach anything - just develops speed and fluidity. It's not until 7th grade that it makes a difference. Not sure what you can do with this little nugget, but I'm hoping it might ease some of the pressure you feel.

  16. I'm following this is homework necessary-useful /is there another way thread with some interest. I's (age 6) school does not have any worksheets either in school or for homework. There is some common work but most is tailored individually for him- e.g. he is very interested in animals and did a lot of reading on lizards and then a big report and got to care for the class gecko for a long time. On things he couldn't read but needed for his work- he was paired with a bigger kid who could read to him. They all learned reading but it was great fun. He is now studying the titanic and WWII. For homework the school has literature discussion groups- the teachers pick books that are above the kids reading level and then their parents read it to them and then the students discuss it in a college style format. They also have a weekly homework project around the book- so one week he was supposed to write a new chapter of Pippi Longstocking (he came up with this hilarious piece about a hot air balloon) and one week he was supposed to make an art piece from a scene in Bunnicula (he made clay figures and then made a stop animation movie!). He loves this stuff- we are reading almost an hour a night to him- his required book and other things because he loves it so much. Why does homework have to be awful? -DM

  17. Anonymous,

    I may be wrong, but it doesn't sound to me like your child is in public school. If not, the public school situation is simply not comparable.

  18. Oh god, I hate homework. Hate it, hate it, hate it. Jack sounds exactly like Joseph when it comes to homework. Age has helped a little (as it has with most things) but it's still a huge struggle.

    Right now we struggle through it* but I have no doubt there will come a day when I put my foot down and say either "No more homework!" or "We need some serious changes in homework expectations for this kid because there's no way a autistic child can do neurotypical homework." When that day does come I think it will be as much a relief for me as it is for Joseph.

    *A bit part of why we're able to muddle through now is that Joseph has an hour long after school program three days a week where the participating kids do their homework together with a teacher's help. Without this program I would have lost my damned mind a long time ago.

  19. Oh, and I meant to say that I'm sending you and Jack virtual hugs because I know how tough this is and you have my sympathy. Although maybe that would freak Jack out. So how about I send you a virtual hug and Jack a virtual ... I don't know ... Lego?

  20. Jack is like The Borg; mortal weapons will only work for a few shots then he adapts and you have to dream up something new. You're doing a great job - creative and supportive.

    Resistance is Futile...

  21. I second Mama Bub.

    You are supermom. And a super mom.

  22. I'm sorry it's rough-going, I struggle just with the 1x week homework of kindergarten for Sam and have to physically do hand-over-hand with John's...Joeymom has some really great suggestions.

  23. We used to go through this all the time. Finally we had it written into my guy's IEP that he would not have homework.

    We found that after a whole day at school, he was simply too exhausted to do more work. The school ended up giving him some time during the day to complete any needed assignments and it literally saved our home life.

    There have actually been studies published that homework at the lower grade levels is not only ineffective, but harmful to some kids.

    Good luck.

  24. i seriously do not understand why they insist on homework for kids this age. isn't the long day at school enough already? even my preschooler has homework. it is insanity.

    as far as i know, my daughter is not autistic but we have a lot of the same problems. her homework sometimes takes up all of her time until supper. since we have an early bedtime, this gives her hardly any free time.

    i know you have already gotten a lot of advice, but our teacher said that if the homework takes longer than the 40 minutes the district determines for second graders, we should just send the teacher a note and my daughter doesn't have to finish. this seems like a nice out if we ever need it...

  25. I'm guessing you've tried most things, and I do not have a child with Autism, but I do have a child who has trouble doing an activity so that we can move onto the next. One thing that helps us is picture boards. Like if she can see that following the picture where she does something she is resisting, comes the picture of something she likes, then it helps. Just a thought.

  26. For us, it peaked in second grade. There was much crying and gnashing of teeth let me tell you (and I'm not talking about just the little guy here). Spending two and even three hours on homework (including meltdown breaks for everyone) was not uncommon. It got better. In fact, by around grade four or five, we probably had an easier time than NT parents.

  27. Two of mine are like this. IFYP, sista.

  28. I go through this every day too... not with Little Bear, but with Rafael! Little Bear will sit and begrudgingly do her homework, but poor Rafael is all over the place! He is falling behind in school because he also has troubles sitting still there! It can take him an hour to do one math worksheet, just because he can't focus! And I, too, have trieda million things, including lettign them chew gum during homework time for sensory input (they take their gum from their mouths and throw it at each other) putting up cardboard dividers between them (they stand on the chairs to see each other) having them do jumping jacks before starting homework (they enjoy it, but it doesn't seem to make a difference in his focusing) and finding educational computer games to help them practice math (Rafael just randomly pushes keys and buttons until he gets answers right!) I'm going to try taping his worksheets to a wall and letting him do them standing up, to see if that helps at all... but I doubt it!


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