From standing desks to visual reminders, Tunbridge Wells parent and neurodiversity coach, Liz Hawker, suggests some strategies that can help parents of all children make homework time easier…
Nothing beats autumn for bitter-sweet. As we shiver into the month of October, parents find that the warm back-to-school glow has faded as the clutches of homework take hold. We’ve got our homes back, only to find them turn into an evening warzone.
“At the end of a long working day it can quickly turn into a battle,” admits parent of three, Julie McPherson. “On the one hand, you want your child to be independent, but on the other, you want to ensure they do it well, so you end up getting embroiled.”
The problem? Children are set homework before their organisational abilities have developed. So, it doesn’t just require literacy and numeracy skills – managing that homework schedule demands a full range of mental skills that are still evolving in children. Skills such as attention, working memory, prioritisation, task initiation and inhibition. And these skills vary enormously between children of different ages, whether they are neurotypical or have additional needs.
So, what can you do to make homework go more smoothly?
Often the battle isn’t the homework itself, but the conditions we set in a bid to get homework done. For some children, the demand of being told to work at a specific time triggers overload and conflict.
Give your child a break and a clear choice for when they start – in twenty minutes with a snack or right after dinner? This creates a sense of control and bypasses the tension of not knowing if or when the homework is going to happen. If they are better in the morning, try then. If this fails, let them choose when they will do it with a time cut-off and consequence – if it’s not done, they lose the right to choose. If it works, reward their follow-through to show you value their commitment.
Agree a homework zone away from family traffic and noise (but close enough for light-touch monitoring). Use a desk or table, ideally against a blank wall (and away from windows). Banish pencil cases to reduce distraction and fill a pot with one pencil, pen, ruler, eraser and maths equipment. Put just what they need that night in an upright magazine file, alongside a dictionary, thesaurus and post-it notes.
If your child struggles to focus when sitting, clear part of a taller structure, like a sideboard or counter, or remove a shelf from a bookcase to create a standing desk. And if your child uses a laptop, always keep a spare charger there.
Set the sat nav
Without a clear direction of travel, unstructured homework tasks for English or History cause the greatest battles, particularly for a dyslexic or inattentive child.
Take five minutes to discuss the homework ‘route’ before starting. Read instructions out loud and take turns to write on a separate post-it each thing they need to remember. If it’s vocabulary, agree five target words to use – if it’s opinions, write three different phrases and stick these to the wall. When they’ve included each one in their text, your child gets the satisfaction of removing the post-it and seeing their task load reduce.
With screentime on the rise, children’s attention spans are getting ever shorter. Many children with ADHD and autism are also ‘time blind’ and need to develop a sense of duration so they can manage pace in future exams.
The answer is a tool that helps your child visualise time spans – the ‘Time Timer Twist’. This silent countdown tool mirrors a clockface and shows time elapsing without distracting or panicking the child, only bleeping at the end if they want it to.
Check how long the school says pupils should spend on homework and set it to the minute – this reduces overload and means your child’s teacher knows where they need support (or greater challenge). With the Educational Endowment Foundation’s finding that the impact of homework diminishes the more time pupils spend on it, this approach is a win-win to reduce conflict.
Build in breaks
Short learning breaks turn on the ignition for cognition – without them, our brains are more sluggish and less effective. Let your child choose a fun activity between each task or chunks of a bigger task – a game of musical statues, collecting pebbles outside until your phone alarm rings or doing arm push-ups against a wall until a song ends. Other brain breaks promote regulation – if your child feels overloaded, encourage them to roll up tight in a blanket, press their palms together with calming music or give themselves full-body bear hugs.
Get tech to help
If your child types, everyday technology now enables them to listen back to their work and hear missed punctuation, omitted words or sudden lapses in register. Microsoft’s Immersive Reader is a free feature built into Windows 10 that makes proof-reading easy, particularly helping users with dyslexia, dyspraxia, visual stress and attention difficulties. Your child can even change settings for background colour, font size and line spacing, and colour code adjectives and adverbs to uplevel their descriptive language.
Liz Hawker is the founder of One in Five, which helps parents and children navigate neurodiversity through coaching and learning strategies. Visit www.oneinfive.org.uk or email firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.