Kids with ADHD often struggle with homework, but each one struggles in a unique way. Is your child a Disorganized Danny? Procrastinating Penny? Distractible David? Whatever his specific homework challenges, here are equally specific solutions that really work for kids with ADHD.
If your child with ADHD hates doing homework, you’re not alone. Executive function deficits, inattention, and learning challenges can make after-school assignments torture for our kids — and us parents, too! Here, Ann Dolin, M.Ed, offers specific strategies that address the most common homework-related frustrations, like disorganization or procrastination. Does your child fit any of these common profiles?
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Many children with ADHD have difficulty with paper flow, meaning they have trouble keeping track of the assignments coming in and out. Let’s call this child “Disorganized Danny.” Dealing with a messy binder can be frustrating for parent and child alike — particularly when the homework is completed and then lost before being turned in!
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Solutions for Disorganized Danny
The key is to treat organization like a subject. Instead of kicking off homework time with a math assignment or a vocabulary list, start by dedicating a few minutes to organization. Go through your child’s binder with him, sorting through papers and working together on some organizational strategies. If your child struggles to file papers in a 3-ring binder, for example, ask her if she’d like to try an accordion folder instead — and teach her how to use it properly.
Use a launching pad to help Danny handle chaotic mornings. Each night, you have your child place everything for school — backpack, library books, sports equipment, etc. — in a box placed by the front door. The next morning, he has everything he needs — and can “launch” into the day in an organized fashion.
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The "Clean Sweep"
Organization won’t work unless it’s practiced consistently. That means Danny should conduct a clean sweep once a week. Every Sunday evening for 20 minutes, your child sits and organizes her binder — while you sort through your purse or the junk drawer. Everybody does something to maintain organization, and your kid gets in the habit of keeping her school things tidy.
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We often see a child’s tendency to put off homework assignments as a character flaw; we assume she “just doesn’t want to.” But in many cases the child wants to start — she just feels overwhelmed or underprepared. This child is Procrastinating Penny.
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Solutions for Procrastinating Penny
To help children who procrastinate, first lower the barrier to entry. Make starting homework so easy anyone can do it. Here are two main strategies:
1. By task: Pick one small task that your child can do to get started. If he’s been assigned an essay, have him start by writing the title page. If she’s been assigned a math worksheet with 20 problems, get her to complete the first two — then follow up with a short break.
2.By time: Some children need a timer. I find it’s best to use 10 minutes — I call it the “Tolerable 10.” Just tell your child, “Okay just focus as hard as you can, as best as you can, for just 10 minutes.” Once time is up, allow him to walk a lap around the living room or do a quick stretch.
Whether motivated by task or by time, your child will see that once the barrier to entry has been lowered, the job isn’t really that hard.
Procrastinating Penny often doesn’t know how much time to dedicate to a long-term assignment — and ends up doing the whole thing in a mad rush the night before it's due. As a parent, you need to help Penny understand time in a more concrete way. Try using a simple reward system to motivate your child to complete small parts of the project. For example, take a large Tootsie Roll and break it into four parts, and say to your child, “What are four things you need to do to get this project done?” Once she’s identified four reasonable steps, explain that you’ll reward her with one piece of the Tootsie Roll each time a step is completed. Remember, we’re not trying to bribe our kids. We just want to help them think in steps, which is super valuable for long-term projects.
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Distractibility comes in two forms: We have our fidgeters, and we have our daydreamers. Fidgety kids are always moving — rocking back and forth in their chair, or repeatedly clicking their pen, or twisting their hair while doing homework. For parents or tutors helping them, this constant movement can become annoying and distracting. On the other end of the spectrum are the daydreamers, who tend to take a 15-minute assignment and drag it out to an hour or longer — simply because they’re unable to stay focused. They may start looking out the window, or doodling on the corner of the paper, instead of paying attention to the task at hand.
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Helping a Fidgeter
Research shows that distractible kids need to fidget in order to focus; in other words, telling them to “sit still” is actually counterproductive. Instead, give them a fidget toy, which is a small handheld object that can be fidgeted with in a non-disruptive way. I like the Tangle Junior, but you can also use a stress ball, unfilled balloons, or a small strip of Velcro taped to the bottom of the desk — your child can rub his fingers on it while he works, without anyone else being any the wiser!
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Helping a Daydreamer
Use a reminder system. Ask your child how many reminders he thinks he’ll need to finish an assignment — if he’s unsure, start with three. Then, it’s your job to stick to that number — no matter what. The first time, gently call his attention to his distraction and say, “You’re working on number 5 of your math worksheet right now.” David will start again, and the next time you see him drifting, try again: “This is your second reminder; I’m only going to give you one more.” If you see him drifting off again, “You just have two more problems! This is the last reminder I’m going to give you, so finish up as best you can.” This strategy takes the “nagging” element out of the equation, and makes your child aware of his own distractibility.
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Setting a Stop Time
You can also help daydreamers by setting a stop time. This allows the child to see an end in sight, and structure her own time accordingly. Tell your child, “It’s 4:15. This assignment needs to be done by 4:45. I’ll give you three reminders like we discussed.” Then — and this is the key part — at 4:45, you need to make sure your child puts away the assignment — completed or not. Most kids really, really hate to go to school without their work done, and this strategy helps them manage their time and see that, even if the assignment is difficult, it’s not endless.
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Then there are the kids who speed wildly through their homework, just to get it done as fast as they can. Rushing Ryan does his homework very quickly, without regard for whether it’s right or if he's showcasing his best work. He just wants it done as quickly as possible.
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Solutions for Rushing Ryan
With Ryan, use a designated homework time, which is based on the premise that children of each grade level should spend a certain amount of time on homework. A good rule of thumb is that children should be spending 10 minutes per grade level each night. So a 3rd grader should have about 30 minutes of homework, while a 6th grader can have up to 60. If your 3rd grader is miraculously completing all her homework in 3 minutes, she may be a whiz — or she may be rushing through it. Parents can say, “No matter how much homework you say you have, you have to sit and do homework for 30 minutes every night. If you really run out of things to do, you can read a book or practice your math facts.” In most cases, this set period of time really reduces rushing, because your child will know that no matter what, they won’t be able to get up and play Xbox after 3 minutes.
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Sometimes, homework upsets our children. Executive function deficits, learning disabilities, or difficult subjects can make children cry or lash out during homework time. When Frustrated Frank gets upset, his amygdala (the emotion center of the brain) is on fire, and it overrides his prefrontal cortex — making him less able to focus on homework or reason his way through problems.
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Helping Frustrated Frank
When Frank gets frustrated, the best strategy is to disengage. Trying to reason with a child during a meltdown often doesn’t work; they’re too upset to listen to logic, and being told to “calm down” can be invalidating. If your child gets upset, say something like, “I can tell this is difficult for you. Come and get me when you’re ready to start again.” In many cases, your child will calm down on his own terms, and start again when he’s ready.
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If disengaging doesn’t work for your child, another strategy is to name the feeling. This is a way of practicing empathy that helps kids feel like they’re being heard. Say something like, “I can tell you’re frustrated. You know what? I completely understand why you’re angry.” Or, “You’re right, Ms. Smith gave you a lot of homework tonight. I can see why you feel that this is unfair.” Naming the feeling is really powerful for kids — it helps them understand their often-overwhelming emotions, and lets them know that their feelings and frustrations matter to you.
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Moving Past Meltdowns
When it comes to helping Frank move forward after a setback, parents have three options to help: do the difficult problem for him (not good!), refuse to help entirely (also not good!), or ask him to show you how to do the problem (best choice!). Ask your child to search for similar examples in her textbook or notes, or talk through how she can proceed. By asking your child to work through the problem on her own — but in your presence — it gives her the independent skills to solve her own problems, without cutting her off completely.
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Asking for Accommodations
If your child is still struggling to complete her homework even after trying these strategies for a month, consider asking for an accommodation for less homework.
P.S. A great tool for homework is the Time Timer, which helps kids that don’t quite understand clock time see how much time has elapsed and how much time they have left.