A New Approach to Homework for Children With ADHD

A New Approach to Homework for Children With ADHD

Takeaway: ADHD makes it harder for children to focus on homework assignments. But there’s a solution: Develop the right study routine. This means (1) Identifying your child’s unique challenges, (2) Helping her settle down to work, (3) Identifying fun study strategies to explore, (4) Working with – not against – her ADHD traits, and (5) Using the right organisation tools.  

Homework can be tough to fit in after a long day at school.

Although homework might seem like a great way to spread out your child’s academic workload, it’s often quite a challenge. After a long day of school, many children don’t have the mental endurance to power through more work. And since concentrating on a task requires massive reserves of a brain’s executive functions, tired children will struggle to focus on their homework, remember what they’re learning, and manage their frustration. (This is in addition to finding time for their other at-home commitments.)

Unfortunately, ADHD makes this already-tough challenge even tougher.

Attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) is a brain difference that affects how children manage their energy and focusing power. Specifically, it makes it harder for them to sit still, pay attention, suppress impulses, and stay organised – i.e., all the must-haves to tackle homework. For instance, a child with ADHD will often find excuses not to start her homework. If she does manage to start, she’ll likely get restless and distracted soon. And even if she powers through the restlessness, she’ll likely make mistakes frequently as she struggles to focus. Further, as these struggles layer on each other, she’ll also find it hard to not get upset and annoyed. Learn more about ADHD.

But it doesn’t have to be like this if we help children with ADHD develop the right study routine.

When we stop fixating on ADHD’s drawbacks, we remind ourselves that it’s a ‘difference,’ not a ‘problem.’ It’s just a matter of developing the right study routine to support your child’s weaknesses and harness her strengths. So, here’s what you can do.

1. Identify your child’s biggest challenges.

Each child with ADHD struggles more with some challenges than others. So, your first step will be to identify your child’s unique needs, making it easier to create the right support plan. For instance, which is more problematic –  getting started or sticking with tasks? Or perhaps staying organised is most challenging (e.g., tracking assignments and deadlines)? Maybe it’s deciding what to prioritise or in which sequence to finish each subtask? Or is it the actual writing – i.e., getting her thoughts down on paper? Remember, these challenges aren’t always obvious. For instance, boys are usually easier to assess because they act out more – running around, misbehaving, etc., when they’ve reached their limit. But girls tend to withdraw and internalise their thoughts by daydreaming and letting their minds wander. And this makes it harder to decide when and how to help.

2. Use a pre-homework ritual to get her in the right mind space.

Half the difficulty with ADHD is in getting your child in the right mind space. So, your next task is to help her design a pre-homework ritual. For instance, she can start by unwinding properly – perhaps chatting with you for a bit, munching on yummy snacks, and listening to calming music. (Importantly, she’ll want to stay away from TV/iPads/mobiles. ADHD makes it harder to transition from one activity to another, so you don’t want to add distractions to this already-challenging puzzle.) You’ll also want her to choose a study nook – somewhere quiet, out of the way, and distraction-free. If you can’t find the ideal place, consider setting up a small desktop cubicle using cardboard dividers. Finally, add a bit of structure to the routine by using a countdown timer to set realistic study windows (e.g., 20 minutes for older children). That way, she’ll see a reachable endpoint to her efforts, making it easier to pace herself and deal with restlessness or impatience.

3. Make homework more like a fun exploration than a chore.

Often, even the most tiresome chores become fun with a mindset switch, so consider pitching homework as an exploration rather than an obligation. For instance, say your child learns that elephants are the only animal that can’t jump. What if, instead of stopping there, she fuels her curiosity by asking more questions? ‘How do we know they can’t jump? Why can’t they jump? And are there other simple things they can’t do?’ Spontaneous questions like these add meaning and life to homework, putting her (not her school) in charge of learning. Moreover, her ADHD mind is an advantage here because it loves flitting from topic to topic. With formal education, that’s a problem and a distraction. But on a learning adventure, it can help your child connect ideas from seemingly-unrelated subjects – creating new concepts and approaching old problems from novel angles.

4. Work with her ADHD traits, not against them.

Rather than forcing her to sit still and focus, encourage your child to embrace her impulsivity and restlessness. For instance, let her walk around while reading her textbooks or use a fidget toy to work off any excess energy. She might also try alternating between reading silently and summarising (out loud) what she’s just read. Additionally, if she gets bored with a subject, let her switch to another one when her 20-minute study block (covered in point 2 above) is up. This will help control any building frustration, keeping the learning fresh and interesting. Most importantly, let her pack up when you see her tiring or becoming irritable. If she’s not going to produce any meaningful work, it’s not worth risking a meltdown that makes the next study session seem even less appealing. And if meltdowns become a daily habit, consider contacting her teacher to negotiate her at-home workload.

5. Introduce her to simple organisation tools.

Children with ADHD find it hard to track their commitments, so your child will likely struggle to remember what’s due and when. Here’s where a simple productivity system can help. For instance, she could use colour-coded folders to organise her homework, with a red folder for unfinished assignments and a green one for the completed ones. Similarly, she could use a calendar or organiser to record deadlines/to-do’s, and her teacher can do a daily check to confirm it’s accurate and up-to-date. Calendars, in particular, will hone her long-term planning skills – giving her a clear visual endpoint to work backwards from when breaking down larger projects into smaller subtasks.

As parents, our biggest challenge is knowing when to push harder and when to step back. And we might need help with this.

We parents have to walk a fine line when our children act out. Too much discipline can be counterproductive, but too little is just as harmful. So, if you need guidance and feedback about helping your child manage her ADHD, consider reaching out to us for support. The Ed Psych Practice offers face-to-face and online assessments, consultation, advice, and problem-solving strategies for parents, nurseries, schools, and universities in London. We have psychologists, paediatricians, and therapists who can help assess your child and offer guidance and support. To consult with us or set up an appointment:

Want to see how else you can help your child? You might enjoy some of our other posts.

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