Homework Horrors – Improving Homework Performance for Students with ADHD

How to Make Homework and ADHD Less Horrifying

With Halloween coming up (on a Monday!), I figured we could talk about something scary.

Homework! Homework is the most common barrier to education for students with ADHD and is often a horrifying nightly battle for caregivers.

You know those suspenseful types of scary movies when you know something terrifying is about to happen, and you can’t really look, and while covering half your eyes, your yelling at the screen,

“No! Don’t do it. Don’t open that door!!”

That’s what the horror of homework feels like in about 5.1 million US households most weeknights. The after-school hours are spent dreading that impending homework battle. I am not exaggerating.

It is a recurring nightmare that very often continues to haunt the child well into the next school day. Very often these are the students who return to school unprepared and receive daily criticism and consequences for not doing their homework. Consequences that do not address the root of the problem leave students, teachers, and caregivers in a spiral of consistent negativity.

This post aims to provide therapists and teachers with an evidence-based explanation of why it is such a common and consistent struggle for students with ADHD and what can be done to facilitate meaningful performance besides feeding it to the dog. 

The Evidence Base of Homework 

Did you know that homework is not considered evidence-based practice?

The evidence base on the effectiveness of homework, especially for elementary students, is unclear at best. Harris Cooper, professor of psychology and neuroscience at Duke University, has actively researched the effectiveness of homework since 1986. Cooper describes ‘the debate around the utility of homework as one of the oldest and most controversial educational debates’ (Cooper, 2015).

In the third edition of his book, The Battle Over Homework: Common Ground for Administrators, Teachers, and Parents, Cooper asserts that the correlation between homework and achievement in elementary school continues to be almost non-existent

Despite the scary lack of evidence, this practice is alive and well in most elementary classrooms. What’s the purpose?

The Purpose of Homework

Cooper explains that homework is intended to serve one of three instructional functions. “Practice, Prepare or Extend.” 

  • Practice homework is assigned to practice or review material to reinforce learning of the lesson presented in class.
  • Preparatory homework is assigned to expose the learner to the background of material that will be covered in class. 
  • Extension homework is assigned so the learner can extend previously learned material to new situations.

Clearly, the instructional intentions behind homework are supported by ample evidence. We need to practice things to automate them. Pre-teaching and exposure to background knowledge will reduce working memory load during instruction, and generalization is how we own our knowledge. 

While the intention of homework seems solid, a good intention without a good approach often gets a negative result. Or, as they say, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions”.  

Why is Homework So Difficult for Students with ADHD? 

Kids with ADHD Homework Problems

ADHD is a disorder of performance, not ability. Our students are very often proficient in the academic skills required to complete the homework assignment, which makes the lack of performance extra frustrating for caregivers and teachers. The struggles and setbacks experienced are related to the self-regulatory and executive function skills required within the homework completion process, which as you’ll discover is further compounded by the time of day and medication side effects. 

Executive Functions and the Homework Completion Process

Success in homework completion requires substantial executive functions including sustained attention, working memory, time management, and organizational skills. It is a consistent hurdle for a child with delayed executive function. 

For example. A third grader has one math sheet assigned each night to practice math facts. This assignment’s purpose is to reinforce the material learned that day, multiplication facts need to be practiced often for fluency. 

To complete the math sheet, the student must: 

  1. Write down the assignment- Working Memory 
  2. Place the assignment into the folder- Working Memory, Organization 
  3. Place folder into backpack- Working Memory, Organization 
  4. Transport backpack home- Working Memory, Organization
  5. Remember to look at the assignment book or do so on parent prompt – Response Inhibition, Time Management, Prioritization 
  6. Stop doing whatever it is they are doing to complete the assignment- Cognitive Shift, Response Inhibition 
  7. Start the assignment- Task Initiation, Response Inhibition, Working Memory 
  8. Finish assignment Sustained Attention, Response Inhibition, Goal Related Persistence
  9. Put assignments back into the folder. Organization, Time Management, Task Initiation 
  10. Put the folder back into the backpack-Organization, Time Management, Task Initiation
  11. Transport bag to school the next day-Working Memory, Organization 

“Just one math sheet” is more than ten separate tasks that require 100% accuracy or homework will be incomplete. The performance of the homework completion process, the where, the when, and the how of doing what is expected of you, is what is directly impacted by ADHD.

Many teachers and parents do not understand that this is not ” just ” one sheet of math for a child with delayed self-regulation and executive function.

Saturation Point

Many children with ADHD take stimulant medication to cope with the demands of the school day. By the time they finish 7 hours of school, and commute home, their medication is usually out of their system so they can eat and have a night of uninterrupted sleep. These children are often hungry and burnt out, and many crash. 

As evidenced by research, executive functions and self-regulation are two finite sources. They run out (which explains why you go off your diet at night). By evening we all have less available working memory, response inhibition, and frustration tolerance. 

When the parent says the “H” word, some children are primed like a perfect storm waiting to erupt. We are essentially expecting an overtired, burnt-out, hungry, unmedicated child with diminished bioavailability of self-regulation and executive functions to learn, independently. Does this sound like an optional learning environment? 😱

“Don’t open the door!” 

The truth is, they will not learn a thing from the homework assignment. There are tears, avoidance, anger, and ruined parent connections, all over a 10-minute math sheet intended to reinforce knowledge. Homework is counterproductive to learning when children have reached their saturation point. “Eighty years of research show that homework done in tears will not improve achievement and leads to resentment of school and learning.” Alfie Kohn 

Strategies to Support Executive Functions for Homework

School-based therapists can collaborate with teachers to add scaffolds to support performance for individual parts of the homework completion process. By adding support or scaffolding, you are reducing the executive function demands so the child can access the intended instructional purpose of the homework assignment. The following strategies can be implemented at a young age to facilitate the child benefitting from the intended purpose of homework.

Recording the Assignment

Does the child record the homework assignment wholly and accurately? 

If not consider adding support to this step:

  • A dedicated time to write down homework assignments. Consider avoiding the overstimulating last minute of the period while transitioning to the next subject.
  • Homework assignments should be posted in the exact location and recorded in the same manner daily.  
  • Using an agenda kept in a dedicated homework folder or a sheet stapled to the homework folder
  • Homework assignments for many schools are posted in a google classroom or other platform that can be accessed at home as a backup. 
  • Teachers can provide printouts of homework assignments. 
  • Teachers can stamp, check, or initial assignments confirming copy completion and accuracy. 
  • Establish Accountability Partner, aka “study buddies”- Partner children so they can check each other’s assignment books and make sure everything is correct and in the right place. Children are often proficient at monitoring others before they can monitor themselves.

Getting the Assignment and Materials Home

Does the child frequently forget to bring materials home or back to school?

If so consider adding support to this step.

Materials Needed List: Having the materials listed next to the assignment provide a whole class visual checklist for a multi-step task completed during a typically overstimulating transition time (pack up). 

List Materials Next to Assignment Classroom Help for ADHD

Dedicated Homework Folder: Create a dedicated homework folder with a unique color. This folder will serve as a reminder of what needs to go home and back to school. The folder can house the agenda, papers to go home and papers to go back to school. The assignment sheet can be included as part of the homework folder as the cover or as a stapled and reinforced component. Linked are durable ones used in many classrooms. We can label any folder.

Homework Folder

Homework Folder Home: The homework folder lives in the backpack. It doesn’t leave the backpack. Reinforcing this as its home is helpful. Stickers can be placed on the folder to remind the student to place it back in its home. 

Don't Forget Your Homework OT for ADHD Sticker

Hardware Attached – For students who seem to lose everything they touch. Attaching the homework folder to the backpack guarantees it will return to school. They literally become one, like the hardware components inside a box of build-it-yourself furniture. A string or a lanyard can do the trick.

Never Lose the Homework Folder Again OT for ADHD

Extra Set: For homework that requires books, an extra set for home is a frequent and reasonable accommodation to reduce the number of items coming back and forth. Teachers also post links to copies of the book chapters or handouts to download online as a backup. 

Establish Accountability Partner: aka “study buddies”. At the end of the day, buddies can help each other pack up the planners and books they’ll need at home.

The Homework Plan

Teachers and therapists can scaffold improved performance by co-creating a homework plan with the child that is detailed, time-bound, and encourages parent feedback, collaboration, and accountability. Homework plans are evidenced based and highly effective. Homework plans teach the skills needed for the homework completion process by explicitly planning and reviewing performance.

Effective Homework Plan for Kids with ADHD and Executive Function Delays

An effective homework plan needs to include six components :

1. What time will you do your homework? 

Some children need to take a break after school, while others work best while still in school mode. Various after-school activities, different caregivers, and shift-working parents may make a regular schedule difficult. Help develop the students’ time management and self-awareness by having them choose a homework start and end time each day until they find one that works. 

2. Where will you do your homework? 

Creating a homework spot can help. Talking about a distraction-free spot and trying a spot and requesting feedback the next day can improve self-awareness and self-efficacy and help the child discover what works best for them. Do they need silence, music, or some background noise? Do they need a body double ie. a parent or an adult working alongside them.

3. How long will the assignment take?

Having the child estimate the amount of time it will take to check and see if their estimate is correct helps improve task initiation and time management. Children with ADHD have substantial difficulty with time awareness. Non-preferred tasks feel like they will take much longer than they actually take. Homework can feel like it will take forever! This very concrete form of reality testing eventually wires together, reducing the perceived workload. Many adults with ADHD use this strategy.

4.What does “Done” Look Like? 

Define what “done” looks like in the homework plan. When the child completes the assignment, what does done look like? Do parents check it? Do parents initial the planner? Where does the completed work go? All can make or break the homework completion cycle. In my home, homework is not done until the assignment is placed back into the folder and in the backpack by the door. Create a what does “done” look like image with the student and check the done box when it is DONE. 

5. Parent Feedback 

Teachers are in charge of teaching 20-30 students. When the teacher receives a completed math sheet, the child is assumed to be doing fine. Very often, that math sheet would tell a different story. We often do not find out about homework problems until a major problem has begun. A major problem that could have been solved weeks earlier.

Evidence supports that parent/ teacher collaboration increases accountability. Having the parent initial and provide feedback on the homework assignment is a quick and effective collaboration tool that can prevent serious problems. Teachers can invite feedback by asking to know how long it took, what the child needed help with, and how the parent helped the child. When children are aware that teachers and parents are partners, stress is reduced for everyone. 

Homework and ADHD and Executive Functions Parent Collaboration

6. System for Review

Finally, systematically reviewing and revising the homework plan according to the child’s feedback is the key to sustainably improving performance. This will teach the child where, when, and how they learn best at home.

Homework Modifications

Children with ADHD may have processing problems that slow the pace of work. These children very often have extended time as testing accommodations for a reason. 

Reduce Volume

If the child is taking hours to complete a 10-minute assignment, the practice effect will be lost. Reducing the amount of work can effectively retain the assignment’s intention. Practice the front only, do odd numbers, do even numbers, ping pong them with an adult. The adult can scribe as the child dictates every other one. 

Give permission to differentiate within the goal

Allowing the parent to differentiate the homework while keeping the intent of the assignment can improve performance and develop skills. Some methods of learning and practice may be counterproductive to an individual student. Discovering what works for them can be used for life. 

For example, if the child has motor skill deficits, writing the spelling words 5 times will not increase the automaticity of spelling due to the increased cognitive resources needed to write. This child may spell them out loud or arrange letter tiles and then write them once. While the assignment is to “write spelling words five times, the purpose is to practice spelling for automaticity. Having the child do it another way that works for them will accomplish the intent of the assignment.

Other Ways to Practice Spelling Besides Writing Homework Help

Children relay very stringent rules to parents and freak out if the parent offers a slightly different method. Attaching a sheet to the back of the assignment because the child ran out of room might flip a kid’s lid because the teacher wants it done on this sheet! Giving permission to parents ( and their children) to be creative with how they practice will be effective and engaging.

Reframe And Clarify

If the child is proficient in the assignment and does not require more practice, preparation, or extension of the knowledge, don’t assign it. Ditch the busy work.

Provide Individualized Suggestions to Parents

There are ample articles, websites, guides, books, manuals, and full-blown courses that address the homework horrors for parents of children with ADHD. The suggestions and advice are so vast that it typically overwhelms most parents. I will not list them as they will need a post or two of their own. Parents often have difficulty choosing a strategy and aligning it with the child’s specific ADHD in context. Therapists and teachers can collaboratively use the data collected from the homework plan to provide targeted suggestions.

Reasonable Accommodations 

Every learner with ADHD is unique. For some children with ADHD, homework can be genuinely counterproductive to learning. These students may require eliminated homework as a reasonable accommodation’ on their IEP or 504 Plan. 

The problem is that homework-heavy teachers tend to eye roll at this accommodation without a proper understanding of what goes on for the child after school hours or adequate knowledge of executive functions and saturation point. Teachers may feel it isn’t fair to others or ask, “What will they do in high school or college when they have to study for a test?’.  

Teachers, parents, and school-based therapists need to understand that, unfortunately, for some, homework, in this developmental period, for this individual child, in their context is counterproductive and will not serve its intended purpose. No shame, no judgment. Equal and fair are not the same thing. Equal means we all get the same. Fair means we all get what we need. Homework is not the only way to practice, prepare for, and extend learned material.  

School-Based Occupational Therapy Role in Homework

Although homework is not adequately supported by evidence in elementary school to increase achievement, it is included in most classrooms as an instructional method to practice, prepare or extend lessons learned that day. 

Children with ADHD have significant difficulty with homework due to extraneous executive function skills present in the homework completion process, not the assignment itself. Poor EF and self-reg can be further compounded by saturation point, time of day, and medication side effects. 

There are at least 10 steps to the homework completion process, one wrong move and you lose the game!

The Homework Competition Process and ADHD and Executive Functions

Therapists and teachers can reduce the horrors of homework by providing scaffolding to the individual steps of the process and providing a homework plan that is detailed, time-bound, and encourages parent feedback, collaboration, and accountability.  

Therapists can assist caregivers in task differentiation and modification methods that will increase performance and facilitate the child’s ability to tap into the purpose of the homework assignment. 

School-based therapists’ role is to identify and reduce barriers to enable a learner to access and progress in their education. We can provide support, modifications, and accommodations to reduce the barriers present in the homework completion process so learners are able to access the instructional purpose of the assignment. When we address the root of the problem, we can hopefully take some of the horrors out of homework for our students, their parents, and teachers. 💕

Have a Happy Halloween!

References

Cooper, H. M. (2015). The battle over homework: Common ground for administrators, teachers, and parents. Simon and Schuster.

Dacian Dorin Dolean & Arne Lervag (2022) Variations of homework amount assigned in elementary school can impact academic achievement, The Journal of Experimental Education, 90:2, 280-296, DOI: 10.1080/00220973.2020.1861422

Intervention Tools

Free Download Ways to Differentiate at a Home – Effective Spelling Practice for Children with Fine Motor and attentional Support Needs. Click on the Image to Download.

Ways to Practice Spelling Besides Writing OT for ADHD

Check out our TPT Store for the Resources Used in the Post

Homework Planner- Two-page front and back document to make effective homework planners. Bound or print into weekly books for data and documentation. ( that’s what I do ) . ✅

OT for ADHD Homework Planner to Scaffold Executive Functions Improving Homework Performance
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