The Homework Routine for Students with Executive Functioning Challenges

The homework cycle is the series of events that must occur when a homework assignment is given to a student and the student hands in the assignment the next day. This seemingly simple idea can cause some households to tremble at the very mention of homework. Many students with ADD or NLD have executive functioning issues. Executive functioning includes the ability to plan, prioritize, manage time, organize, sustain attention, persist to goals, and initiate work. These brain skills help students get things done. Three other important areas of executive functioning are controlling emotions, working memory and metacognition. These are possibly the most important because controlling emotions, working memory and metacognition affect all the other areas of executive functioning. Students that are experiencing emotional issues such as anxiety, anger or depression are going exhibit executive functioning challenges. If any emotional issues are present they need to be addressed before or concurrently with executive functioning issues. Working memory issues result in additional routines that deal with limited working memory. Metacognition is thinking about thinking. This requires students to be self aware enough to recognize when they are sustaining attention, persisting toward goals, initiating their work, and planning, organizing or prioritizing their work. As a result, metacognition is a gate opener for dealing with executive functioning issues. Therefore, students need to be explicitly told about the brain skills that help them get things done.

Students need routines to manage homework assignments, materials and projects

Students need routines to manage homework assignments, materials and projects

A discussion about the homework cycle needs to begin at some point in the cycle and then follow a path back to that same point. For this discussion the homework cycle begins with the student using their planner to log the homework assignment. Students need to write the homework assignment down if they are to reliably begin the cycle. Teacher managed blogs are great but they tend to have enough gaps and variation to make most of them too buggy to provide a reliable source for homework assignments. For most school situations the homework needs to be written down. The planner needs to be incorporated into the student’s paper management system. That means the separate planner is not a dependable place to put homework assignments. A separate planner can be in a back pack, at home, in a locker, or roaming around in the back seat of your neighbor’s minivan that is in your carpool. The separate planner becomes so problematic for many students that they must either figure out their own work around (usually not a dependable work around) or they don’t bother with writing down the assignment. For many students with NLD or ADD the separate planner is not an effective start to managing the homework cycle. The most effective planner for students with Executive Functioning issues is one that is incorporated into their paper management system. This paper management system is frequently a single binder. Multiple binders increase the possibility that a binder will be lost, left in a locker or at home. Also, multiple binders that have papers randomly put into them will create breaks in the paper trail for students. These paper breaks are not solvable in class if the binder is located at home or in their locker. Having one binder with the planner incorporated eliminates many of the insurmountable logistical problems that a multiple binder system creates on a daily basis.

HiResThe planner is located in the front of the single binder. Putting the planner and the single binder in the same place means that the student is managing less. The student locates their planner by using their binder tab for planner in their single binder. Each calendar month is located on two pages. When the student is looking at a calendar month the student is looking at the pages on the left and right of their binder. For younger students the two pages can correspond to one week because longer assignments are not frequently given. This gives younger students lots of room to write down their assignments. Customizing the planning/calendar page should incorporate the age of the student and their handwriting abilities. Along with each assignment the student needs to record the due date and the materials needed to complete the assignment. This could be a worksheet or a textbook. If there is no homework the student needs to write no homework. As part of the takeoff routine, the student checks the planner to see if there was homework that needs to be handed in, if they have written down their current homework assignment and if they written down the materials necessary to complete the homework in their planner. In addition, if a worksheet is required, the takeoff routine needs to include a step that checks their binder to be sure it contains the materials necessary to complete the assignment. Finally the student needs to check around their desk and make sure that all materials brought to class, such as the single binder, are in their back pack. The student is now ready to takeoff for their next class. As a side note, parents need to appreciate the number of steps involved in managing daily homework assignments. This appreciation should temper unrealistic expectations for rapid acquisition of executive functioning skills. In other words, being ready to takeoff for their next class is huge step in homework routine and may not be acquired easily.

In their next class students need to check their planner to see if there is homework due. If so, they need to go to the proper location in their single binder to get the assignment and place it on their desk to hand in to their teacher. To prepare for takeoff, the student repeats the homework routine described above for getting an assignment in their planner. If there is no homework the student writes no homework in their planner for that subject. Your child’s ability to repeat this process depends a great deal on the support they receive in the classroom.

Getting homework from each class is problematic if the teacher is so flummoxed that they are giving the assignments verbally as the students walk out the door. This teacher is the antithesis of the teacher needed by a student with executive functioning issues. Hopefully, the teacher writes down the assignment in a visible location in the classroom. It would also be helpful if the teacher wrote the assignment down on the board at the same time each day as part of their routine. Sadly, this is not the case in most classrooms and the student must adapt to multiple methods of delivery and to receiving homework assignment at different times during the class. As a result, your child with executive skills challenges is not always supported by teachers capable or caring enough to adopt a homework assignment routine. As a result, you need to be aware of the classroom environment and offer your child patience, guidance and support in overcoming a chaotic classroom environment. Given these real life classroom challenges, parents and students need to work on backup plans for getting homework assignments. This can be useful but is limited in value if your child does not have the worksheet or textbook required to do the homework. A backup plan would include using the teacher blog (not always updated or accurate) or calling another reliable student in the class. Getting a complete duplicate set of textbooks at home is a great way to eliminate the need to have your child hefting books around and eliminates the problem of leaving books at school or at home. Often you can find used duplicate books on Amazon for a very reasonable price.

Students repeat their takeoff and landing routines for each class throughout the day. The rate of student progress in acquiring takeoff and landing routines can seem glacial at times. It may be helpful to remember that the establishment of routines can take more time than anticipated. Parents tend to underestimate the time it takes to establish routines and as a result they are often disappointed by their child’s progress. The end of the school has its own special takeoff routine.

iStock_000010150047XSmallThe takeoff routine for leaving school campus needs to be rationalized. At the end of each day, the student needs to refer to their planner to accumulate all the materials needed for their homework. To do this the planner in their single binder needs to be opened and reviewed. All the materials required for homework on that day needs to be in their backpack. Once they confirm they have all the materials for their homework, they are able to liftoff from school. As routines become internalized and practiced, students can reliably include other steps in their routine like bringing home jackets or lunch boxes. Students need a landing routine. Their routine would include putting their back pack in the same place every day when they come home. After they do any after school activities and/or get their snack, students are ready to start their homework. Homework time should be as regimented as possible. The family needs to endeavor to make certain times of each day homework time. During homework time the backpack is placed in the location where homework gets done. The planner is opened and all assignments are listed in an abbreviated manner on a small white board or on a piece of paper. Next to each assignment the student places a time estimate to complete each homework assignment. Next, the list of assignments is prioritized. An assignment agenda is completed that uses the student prepared time estimates. Breaks are inserted in the agenda. Typically, students should not work longer than 20 minutes without a break. The time interval between breaks could be shorter or longer depending on their age, and the student’s ability to sustain attention. Now the student is ready to go to work. As they finish their homework assignments they can check off each assignment. Next to each estimated time they can put the actual time. This routine will need significant support from parents in the beginning. For each step listed above the parent needs to model the process for their child. Next, the child and parent work together in performing each step. As your child begins to take on bigger roles in managing this process, they will be working towards independence and acquisition of the routine.

Getting the homework complete is not the final step in the agenda for the evening. Additional steps in your child’s agenda include putting homework into the correct location in their single binder, returning all materials used to complete the homework to the proper place in the binder (if it is a teacher handout) or to the back pack (if it is a book). The final step is putting the backpack in a set location for takeoff the next morning. Homework is not done until the homework is placed in proper locations in the binder, the binder and other materials are returned to the backpack, and the backpack is located in its established takeoff location.

The next morning your child grabs the backpack and leaves for school. When they get to school they put all books in their locker that they will need until their next locker visit. Along with their single binder and their necessary books they are off their first class. In their first class they open their planner to see if there is homework due that day. If there is homework, they remove the homework from their binder and place it on their desk ready to hand in. The homework cycle has now come full circle. The cycle repeats about 180 times a year. Students need support in learning their homework routine. In private schools your child may get more support than in a public school. Parents, tutors, teachers and learning coaches all collaborate on getting a homework routine established. In elementary school the homework routine or process is more important than the outputs of homework. In other words, having a student show progress in managing the homework cycle is more important than any homework assignment. A reward system can help drive the acquisition of a routine for the homework cycle. For young children, playing games on a computer or spending an afternoon at the park with mom or dad can be a reward for demonstrating a skill level with the homework cycle. Goals demonstrating acquisition of homework routines need to be realistic and attainable. Parents need to set goals so that there is incremental progress and not a sudden leap to perfection. A rush to perfection will defeat this process resulting in a negative experience for the child. Tutors, learning coaches and hopefully teachers will participate in giving feedback on your child’s progress toward developing a homework cycle routine.

iStock_000016945832XSmallBy the end of the 8th grade students need to be able to do daily homework assignments for classes like math and foreign language. Other classes like literature, history and science often have assignments due at the end of the week. Assignments longer than one evening need to be partitioned into doable segments and spread out over each day until they are to be handed in. An eighth grade student should be able plan and complete homework assignments that are one week or less in duration. Assignments longer than one week will need support from parents in the planning and partitioning process. If an eighth grade student is not able to plan, partition and complete assignments one week or less in the future, the student will have a most likely have a difficult adjustment in the ninth grade. Ninth grade teachers are typically more content driven than middle school teachers. The push through the curriculum will put more responsibility on the student to manage short term projects of a week or less. This means that ninth grade students will need support on projects or assignments that span a timeframe longer than one week. You and your child need to judge their ability to manage the homework cycle when they enter the ninth grade. For projects or assignments that take longer than a week to complete, students should be operating with support from parents, teachers, tutors or learning coaches. Following the learning process of I do, we do and then you do by yourself, a ninth grader should be doing about half of the planning process for projects.

In the beginning of the ninth grade school year, your child may benefit from having a discussion on a high school homework routine for assignments of one week or less. Your support in setting up the homework cycle routine is hopefully welcomed. On the other hand, the implementation and management of the homework cycle routine should be the ninth graders responsibility. As a result, you should plan to help you ninth grader plan projects that take longer than one week. The planning should be collaborative with the child taking more of the lead in project planning as the ninth grade year progresses. After each project the child and the parent should discuss the planning process and highlight what went well and what could have gone better. Planning for the next project should include repeating portions that worked and potential choices for improvement to the process for the next project. By the junior year in high school, your child should be planning projects independently and striving towards planning mastery. Project planning needs to be an independent process by the time a student is taking advanced placement classes or is in their 2nd semester of their junior year of high school. Unless you are planning on going with your student to college or providing professional planning support in college your child needs to be an independent project planner by the time they graduate from high school. In college students will need to work together (collaborate) on projects. Hopefully, your child has had some exposure to collaborative projects before they go to college.