Homework Tips and Tricks

*Let me just say this.  I am not a big fan of lots of homework.  I think it is redundant and unnecessary for many students, and for others can completely strangle their love of learning.  I think there is a time and place for completing an assignment that couldn’t be completed during the day, or working extra on a long-term project.  But I think our education system in general has gone the wrong way with homework.  Struggling students can spend three hours a day in early elementary school tackling their homework, and their systems are already fatigued from a full day of school.  It is not unusual for the middle school students I work with to spend five hours in the evening completing homework.

That being said, I encourage parents to help their children find a balance. Encourage  quality over quantity, and keep in close communication with teachers to determine what is necessary for your child.  Good teachers understand this balance, and while they can’t change what’s required on state testing, they are usually very willing to work with a student on a bit of balance.

 

After a long school day, it can be difficult for children to sit down and tackle their homework.  Make sure they have eaten a snack and exercised outside, and then use an analogue clock or a Time Timer to allow for short bursts of homework activity.  For early elementary students, try 10-20 minute work sessions; for older students, try 20-30 minute work sessions.  (I always recommend analogue clocks rather than digital clocks to help your student understand the passing of time, rather than just a single moment in time.) The Time Timer is helpful because it shows a countdown of time in bold red, so even preschool students are aware of time passing.

time timer

 

Is your child having trouble sitting in one place for homework?  Make sure they have exercised after coming home.  Then, try a wiggle cushion on their seat, let them stand at the kitchen counter, or sit on an exercise ball.  After holding it together all day at school, their little systems may be fatigued, and sitting still in one place too challenging. 

 

 wiggle cushion

 

Decide what the goal of the assignment is.  Posture and core strength are necessary for good handwriting.  If the focus of the assignment is good handwriting, make sure both feet are solidly on the floor, they are sitting upright, and using their non-dominant hand to hold their paper in place.

 Learning Letters Chart

 

If the focus of the assignment is language, ideas, creativity, allow for some body wiggling and poorer handwriting.  Many of my students stand, rock back and forth, and use a wiggle cushion for tactile and vestibular feedback.  I can tell they are focused and attentive when their body is moving and they are helping to regulate their engagement. As we analyze the task, brainstorm and organize ideas, and get a preliminary essay completed, the focus is on their language and the ideas they are generating.  We can go back later and clean up the handwriting during the editing phase of the writing process.

 IMG_0472

Homework taps into the executive function skills your child is developing.  For a child who has worked hard holding it together all day at school, this can be a very challenging process.  Focus on completing a few tasks well and enjoy the time you spend with your child.  Allow them to share their work with pride, and encourage them as they progress.

What are some homework tips that have worked with your child? Please share.

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Tips to Quit

Convinced of the negative cognitive impact (see: attention difficulties, underdeveloped language systems, social communication difficulties, behavior challenges, limited abstract thinking…) of too much screen time? Where’s a parent to start?

I thought I’d follow up on my last post about Screen Time with a few practical tips for decreasing your child’s screen time. I’ll focus here on children up to 5th grade, with a follow-up for older students later.

(As my friend Kathleen and I joked the other day, you have a pass if you have a newborn in the house and are desperately trying to sink into a new family routine with siblings. You also have a pass if your child is sick. While nothing is better than being cuddled and read to all day, I understand you have other things to attend to! A favorite movie or show can do wonders to soothe feverish kiddos.)

As parents, we have to teach our children how to down-regulate to soothe themselves and get relaxation time. We want to end up with adults who are comfortable with their own thoughts and energy. Here are a few helpful ideas that have worked in my practice and in my own home:

If your child is 0-2 years old:

1. No screen time. Just turn it off. Put the remote controls out of sight, hide the iPad, and keep your phone in your purse. During this age range, it comes down to parent discipline. They don’t need it, and they won’t want it later if you start the good habits now.

If your child is 2-5:

2. Remember the power of distraction. Again, just turn it off. Keep the devices out of sight, and use the power of distraction (“Hey, let’s read this good book!”) to redirect attention when they start requesting (whining *cough*) for it.

3. Have other options for “down time” available. Books, books, books. The families that are most successful at this step have books, magazines, newspapers, postcards and letters available for their children in every room of the house. Also place out dolls, trains, play dishes ~ whatever their fancy for imaginative and pretend play.

4. Put on music to fill their auditory space. You can also start introducing books on tape or podcasts if they are having difficulty leaving the technology behind. This step works well for parents who need the time for themselves to accomplish something.

5. Ask them to help. I know, believe me, how much faster chores go when you can do them yourself. But a child who is helping around the house is not getting in trouble, is not complaining about being bored, and is getting positive quality time from their parents. And during this age, they like to help! Take advantage of it.

This is an important age for screen time structure. They won’t complain for it very often if they aren’t used to it. Go cold turkey if you can!

If your child is school-age:

6. Try the tips mentioned above. Set the structure in place, grit your teeth, and repeat the mantra that you are doing what’s best for their little minds.

7. Transfer screen time to a task-specific reward, rather than a “down time” activity. After homework completion or chores, say, the reward is 20 minutes (timed on a Time Timer or analogue clock) of iPad time. “Down time” on the weekends or afternoons is time for books, free play, sports, family games, etc., that foster communication and learning. Focus on rewarding a specific task (or positive effort -timed- on homework), rather than good behavior, or the screen time becomes a bribe rather than a reward.

8. Use screen time for research time. Spend some time with your child showing them how to look things up in Wikipedia, Google, or find supporting documentation for a book report. Help them use media as a tool.

9. Model other “down time” activities (like book reading, shooting hoops, etc.) Watch your grownup shows after they go to bed. I love a good Downton Abbey episode, but even that subject matter is too adult for most kids. And the ads on t.v… don’t get me started.

10. Go to the game. As one mom put it, if your child doesn’t have the attention span to attend a football game, they don’t have the attention span to watch it on t.v. Take them with you to the game. Or, if that’s not an option, organize a gathering and let the kids play in the garage or outside with their friends while you watch.

It can be done. One family I work with has six children, some with learning challenges, and all with varying temperaments and energy levels. Screen time is just not an option in their house. The computer and iPad are used on occasion for schoolwork, but the calm and steady demeanor of their parents keep these kids learning, creating, and interacting with each other throughout the day. Oh, and did I mention that this mom homeschools? It can be done.

(One last note: Lest you think I blame screen time for all our society’s woes, think again. I have two fabulous brother-in-laws who make a living in the video game industry. Their “technology” genius? Being able to communicate ideas clearly and effectively, energize and manage teams of people, and use social and pragmatic language skills to introduce new products. Those skills are acquired through hands-on learning, book reading, and interactions with people. Screen time can serve its place if used effectively, which I will delve into in a future post focused on our middle school and high school students.)

Homework Helpers

I am a big fan of analogue clocks because they show the passage of time, rather than a single point in time like a digital clock.  I encourage my students to wear analogue watches, and I utilize analogue clocks and timers during therapy sessions.  Even my toddler has responded well to a timer to understand how many minutes are left to play before dinner, like the Time Timer shown above (http://www.timetimer.com/).  I just found out there’s an app for the iPhone with a Time Timer on it!  I’ll have to check it out…

For kids struggling with transitions, like finishing playtime before bathtime, completing piano practice, or working on homework assignments, the clock can give them a visual countdown of how much time is left.

*One more note, the homework chart above has a “To Do” side and a “Done!” side.  The pictures help a child who needs visual reinforcement to stay on task.  The pictures have velcro on the back, so the child can manipulate their own list.  Once they complete their homework tasks (or chores, etc.) they can have free time or toy time.  I usually let the kids decide the order of tasks and create their own “To Do” list.  Here’s another example: