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Monday, December 16, 2013

A Special Needs Guide to Homework

From The Friendship Circle Blog

By Karen Wang
December 10, 2013

At the middle school open house, my buddy Sharon and I spent some time talking with the special ed teacher. There are 9 students in the class, but we were the only parents who showed up. During our conversation, Sharon and I both asked the teacher what we could be doing at home to support our children’s classroom goals. The teacher answered that he usually doesn’t assign homework, because the only students who attempt to complete it are my son and Sharon’s son.

The Problem with Homework

There are many other battles to fight at home that are preferable to homework assistance for a student with special needs. The phrases, “pulling teeth” and “torture” immediately come to mind. Homework may be a harrowing experience that ends in tears for all involved.

Last week I wrote on my son’s math homework, “Louie was too distressed to complete this assignment.”

Lack of Instructions

Sometimes a teacher sends home incorrect instructions for an assignment, sometimes no instructions at all: a student with communication difficulties may not be able to express what the assignment is about.

What’s More important: Therapy or Homework?

Then there’s the question of therapy: do we work on the occupational and physical therapy exercises tonight, or tackle the homework?

Does Homework Actually Help?

And finally, does homework actually help anyone anyway? Studies and surveys of high school students have found a direct correlation between homework completion and high academic scores. For middle school students, the correlation is much lower, and for elementary students, there is no correlation.

The national PTA organization and National Education Association recommend 10 minutes of homework per grade level – 10 minutes daily for first grade up to 120 minutes for twelfth grade.

The Benefits of Homework

For my son who has special needs, a small amount of homework helps to reinforce his memory and prevent a loss of skills. Some of the larger assignments, like the poster he recently made for social studies, help him feel like a valued member of his class. He takes pride in his work and in demonstrating his ability.

I’ve come to realize that organizing himself, learning how to focus and monitor himself are important life skills for him, and there has been extensive educational research identifying these and other benefits of homework for students with disabilities.

Nine Tips to Make Homework Manageable

Homework is never easy. However, through trial and error (mostly error), I’ve found some methods over the years to make homework less maddening for me and my son. Here’s how we structure our time on each assignment:

1. Plan for the first break before starting. During that math meltdown last week, I had an epiphany: I could have prevented the whole thing if I had only scheduled a break and set up the break activity ahead of time. A break activity can be as simple as a cup of chamomile tea with honey, or something more vigorous such as 5 to 10 minutes of cross-lateral exercise. My son likes to follow a routine, so he is receptive to anything that is pre-scheduled for him.

2. Make space. Physical and mental space is necessary for homework. My son needs to know that it is the family’s top priority in that moment. We clear off a table, get the necessary supplies and review his school planner before opening any books. We talk about which assignments are due the next day, and which ones can be completed over several days. His parapros at school leave a one-line note for each class in his planner, explaining what was done in school and what needs to be done at home.

3. Model, then step back. My son is very anxious about the possibility of doing something “wrong.” I help him by breaking down an assignment into tiny steps that he can understand. Gradually I offer less and less assistance, and I’ll step away for a few minutes at a time to prepare dinner – but I always return.

4. Offer gentle encouragement. Homework time is especially sensitive, full of little “aha” moments and big frustrations. Gentle words and positive reinforcement such as “You did it!” and “You figured that out all by yourself!” and “Wow! Your hard work is really paying off!” can start a snowball effect in homework completion and positive self-talk. Negative words, even words that are only slightly negative, can lead to meltdown – but don’t ask me how I know that.

5. Switch Gears. My most successful homework trick is to switch gears as soon as my son gets stuck on something. For example, if he is having a difficult time with a set of math problems, I switch him over to language arts and have him do a short assignment. Then we switch back to the math. Bolstered by his success with the language arts, he is ready to tackle the math.

6. Check work. Homework does not have to be perfect, but I do check to make sure that my son is on the right track and checks off the requirements for an assignment. This helps boost his confidence and sense of independence.

7. Take multiple breaks. Homework is draining because it comes after 7 hours at school, where my son works very hard all day to focus, manage his anxiety and control repetitive behaviors. Home is where he lets loose. That means he needs several sensory breaks, indoors and outdoors. He gets time with our pets. He gets a high-protein snack. He drinks some herbal tea to relax. He needs time to talk and time to be alone. Each break rejuvenates him enough to do another section of homework.

8. Quit while you’re ahead. Each student has different limits, and each student’s limits can vary widely from day to day. Before your student reaches the point of no return, close the books and call it a night. Homework is more likely to be successful if a student has positive emotions associated with it. An incomplete assignment may cause short-term anxiety, but it can usually be completed in school the next morning with a teacher’s assistance. In the long-term, the student learns how much is too much.

9. Pack up. The best part of doing homework is packing up the books when it’s finished. Our ritual involves putting all of the materials in his backpack, and placing the backpack next to the door where Louie waits for his school bus. My rewards are the smile on his face and his sense of accomplishment. And we’re ready to do it all over again the very next day.

What are your tips and tricks for homework?


  1. Homework is good - in a mild amount. If it already eats time at home, then that's where the problem lies. - Layce of Homework-desk.com