Every child with ADHD experiences his or her own unique set of super powers and challenges. But one common thread unites all families living with attention deficit and learning disabilities: a hatred of homework.
The fact is, most parents in your shoes are exhausted from the repetitive fights, the missing assignments, and the hours and hours of wasted time. You know your child is smart and capable — which makes it extra frustrating when he delays starting a straightforward assignment, turns in work that’s incomplete, or forgets assignments altogether. Homework becomes a daily reminder of struggles and setbacks.
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When your child’s work doesn’t match up with his skills and intelligence, you might fall into the unrelenting role of “homework police.” As your child’s daily taskmaster, you’re nagging, poking, prodding, and cajoling on a nearly constant basis — which is awful for everyone. Micromanaging your child’s nightly workload won’t teach him any necessary life skills or help him learn. In fact, it’s likely to lead to resentment — and more homework fights in the long run!
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A Better Role for Parents
“Strict supervisor” is not your only option. What you can (and should) do instead is set up routines and external structures that will help your child develop her executive functions and find the confidence to get her work done herself — without constant nagging. How can you do this? By providing guidance, offering support, and asking the right questions. Follow these scripts to get started on your healthier homework trajectory.
Did your child struggle with organization last year? Many parents adopt a “wait and see” strategy each fall, hoping their child “learned his lesson” from past slip-ups. This is wishful thinking — but not particularly helpful or productive. Instead, set up structure before the school year starts — and tweak it as the year progresses, and your child’s needs and skills shift.
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Start with Transparency
What not to do: Walk into your child’s room and say, “Listen, buddy, there’s a new sheriff in town!”
Every good organization intervention begins with an open and honest conversation that’s positive and blame-free. Start by setting up a specific time to talk. Begin the dialogue calmly by saying something like, “Last year, we struggled with organization. I didn’t like nagging you all the time, and I’m sure you didn’t like it either. Let’s talk about some changes we can make this year to make it easier on both of us.”
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Organization Strategies We Love
By actively soliciting your child’s input, you’re showing him that you understand his challenges and respect his autonomy. But you also need to suggest concrete changes that will actually help him get more organized. Following are a few of my favorites:
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1. The Clean Sweep
Set up a recurring time — say every Sunday at 7 PM — when everyone in the family cleans up together. Your child can organize his backpack, while Mom goes through the mail, and Dad organizes the mud room. Getting everyone in on the routine makes organization feel like less of a punishment for your child, and the external structure of the recurring appointment will help him build his executive functions and develop stronger organization habits.
The homework folders that help younger children remember to turn in assignments are often phased out in middle school. But a homework folder is a great tool for kids of any age — particularly those with ADHD who lose assignments constantly. It works like this: every incoming assignment goes in the left side of the folder, and upon completion it’s immediately placed in the right side. There, it’s easy to find once it’s time to turn it in — no more crumpled math worksheets or frantic phone calls home!
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3. The Launch Pad
A launch pad is an area where your child can put everything she needs for school. This could be a box by the door or a set of hooks in the hallway or a special spot on the counter. Every night, before your child goes to sleep, help her get in the habit of putting everything she’ll need for school — backpack, shoes, jacket — on the launch pad. The next morning, there’s no scrambling; she simply picks up her stuff from its designated spot, and she’s ready for the school day!
Try setting up multiple designated homework places — the dining room table, a home office, or the local library — that your child can move between as she pleases. If your child struggles to stay focused while doing homework in her bedroom, open up your discussion by suggesting some personal exploration. “Let’s try some other homework stations this year and see where you feel most productive,” you might say. Encourage your child to be a “detective” and make a game out of finding where she works best — you’ll teach her the skill of self-examination, and show that you trust her judgment of what she needs to be successful.
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Helping Restless Kids
If your child squirms in his seat or can’t stop getting up during homework time, do not admonish him. Instead, help him redirect that energy by allowing him to work standing up, lying down, or while holding a small fidget toy. Children with ADHD tend to fidget as a way to relieve an internal pressure; by releasing that pressure through small constructive movements, they can actually focus better and be more productive. In other words, don’t fight the fidget!
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Script 3: Getting Started
Getting started is often the hardest part of homework. If your child dillies and dallies after school — maybe struggling to disengage from a video game, or getting up to sharpen her pencil over and over again — help her understand her priorities and give her the push she needs to get started. But instead of demanding, “Why haven’t you started your homework?” try asking, “What are your priorities today?” This question will help a child figure out what she has to do first — instead of getting overwhelmed and shutting down.
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Setting Up Structure
Instead of asking, “Did you study for your science test?” — which often elicits a one-word answer — try asking this: “What’s the first thing you can do to get ready for your test on Thursday?” You’ll help your child think critically about what can and should be done, without letting him off the hook from studying altogether. Another good question is, “What could get in your way?” This way, if your child has an upcoming soccer game, or knows he left his textbook at school, he can anticipate problems ahead of time — and figure out strategies for working around them.
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Script 4: Estimating Time
Your child insists that her diorama will only take 30 minutes to build; it ends up taking more than three hours. Children with ADHD don’t procrastinate and underestimate time on purpose. Their internal clocks are quiet or easily stalled, making it difficult to estimate time. If this sounds familiar, try asking your child at the outset, “How long do you think this will take?” Once he’s done with the assignment, discuss how long it actually took — and help him identify which steps slowed him down the most or caused him to exceed his estimate. Next time, ask him to factor in those trouble spots before he starts and, as time goes on, he’ll get better at estimating how much time he actually needs.
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Planning for Long-Term Assignments
Daily work is one thing; long-term projects are daunting and confusing in their own special way. If your child struggles to break down big assignments, try creating external rewards to be doled out when he reaches small, pre-determined milestones. If your child likes baseball or Pokémon cards, for instance, try breaking a new pack of cards into four parts. Tell him, “When you finish the research for your paper, you can have one pile. When you finish your first draft, you can have the second” — and so on. Physical rewards help kids with ADHD turn the abstract concepts of time and prioritization into something concrete — and motivate them to get their work done.
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Script 5: Solving Procrastination Problems
Kids with ADHD have a very short “time horizon” — that is, they don’t look far into the future. And the shorter your time horizon, the harder it is to plan ahead and set up long-term goals. If your child has a big project due on Friday, but insists, “Don’t worry — I don’t need to start until Thursday,” that’s a red flag. But starting on Monday will never work because that doesn’t sync up with her time horizon. So start small by asking, “How about you start on Wednesday instead?” and set up structures to help make that happen. Ask her what would help the most — guidance with the first step, a friendly reminder, and/or time carved out on the family calendar — to start that assignment on time.
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Verbalizing your child’s experiences and empathizing with his struggles goes a long way toward helping him manage procrastination. If your child is delaying homework time more than usual, try saying, “I can tell getting started is hard for you today. What can I do to help?” Instead of blaming and shaming — “You’re still on the first problem?! But you have violin practice in 20 minutes!” — this approach shows you understand that his brain is facing ADHD barriers. By identifying his feelings and brainstorming ways to help, he’ll be better equipped to set up his own systems.