Homework Routines That Work for Kids with ADHD

As a therapist I hear over and over again from parents and kids with ADHD that homework is the number one cause of frustration, stress, and arguments at home. This is true whether kids are in elementary school and have only 20 minutes of homework each night or they are in high school and have an hour or more of homework to do each day. Why? While it might seem like it should be simple enough to just sit down and do your homework, the task of doing homework actually requires many complex skills that are hard for kids with ADHD, like getting started right away, staying focused on something that is not interesting, delaying gratification (since homework comes with no immediate reward), organizing and prioritizing assignments, sitting still for an extended period of time, and blocking out distractions. On top of this, the same ADHD symptoms that make it hard to do homework interfere with learning during the school day, which means a child may not have absorbed all the academic knowledge and skills needed to complete any given assignment. When we take a step back and think about homework from this perspective, it starts to become a little clearer why kids with ADHD struggle the way that they do.

The good news is that despite the complexity of the problem there are some fairly simple things parents can do to help make homework time easier. The first, which I talked about in my last post, is to create a homework station designed specifically for a child with ADHD. The second is to create a simple homework routine that lays out the steps your child needs to complete each day and rewards them for their effort. When both the homework station and homework routine are used consistently, homework time becomes infinitely easier for kids with ADHD.

Steps for creating a homework routine:

  1. Time of day. Have your child do their homework as soon as possible after they get home from school or their after-school activities. The later it gets the more fatigued kids become, and the harder it is for them to stay focused and on task during homework time. And as much as possible, have them to their homework at the same time each day. If after-school schedules make this difficult, then aim to create as much consistency as possible – for example, on Tuesdays and Thursdays homework time is 4:30 and on Mondays and Wednesdays homework time is 6:00.
  2. Use a timer to build in homework breaks. Many younger kids with ADHD can only stay on task for about 10 minutes, and some older kids or teens with ADHD max out at around 20 or 30 minutes. Plan for this by building 5-minute breaks into the homework routine. Have your child set a timer for their first stretch of work time (15 minutes, for example). Their job is to work consistently during this time. Then when the timer goes off they get a 5-minute break. Make sure they set a timer for this break period and get back to work for their next 15-minute segment once their break is over. Some parents worry that if their child takes a break they will never get back to work, but as long as you build this into your homework plan and reward them for getting back to work quickly when their break is over, you should see that they actually get more work done with breaks than they would if they took no breaks at all.
  3. Clear expectations. Provide your child with clear expectations around the behaviors you want to see during homework time. Really think through the small steps that you want them to take, regardless of what their specific homework assignments might be. Focus on things like getting started right way, continuing to work until their timer goes off, and getting back to work right away when their break is over. Try to keep your expectations limited to just 5 steps. For example:
    • Get started on your homework right away at your homework station (with only 1 reminder from an adult).
    • Use a timer for homework time (10 minutes) and break times (5 minutes).
    • Get back to work right away when a break is over.
    • Try to answer each question or problem at least once before asking for help.
    • Keep working until your timer goes off or your homework is finished.
  4. Build in rewards. “First you work then you play” is a good rule of thumb for everyone to learn and follow, and this is especially true for kids with ADHD. When it comes to doing homework, you can use this rule to create natural rewards that your child can earn when they finish their work and have met your clear expectations. Think about fun activities your child likes to do that be used to motivate them to get their homework done quickly. These can be things like playing with their favorite Legos, playing outside, getting a limited amount of screen time, building forts out of pillows and blankets, etc. If time in the evening is very limited and you feel like you won’t be able to squeeze in a fun activity on some nights, then you can allow your child to earn a small reward instead (check out my post on quick and easy reward ideas for families). Sit down with your child and create a list of activities or tangible rewards they can earn for meeting homework expectations.
  5. Make a When-Then plan. Use the list of homework expectations and the list of possible rewards to create a When-Then plan. “When you complete your homework and meet the expectations, Then you can choose one activity or reward from the list.” Print your When-Then plan and post it on a wall near your child’s homework station so they can see it while they work. If they start to get off track, remind them about the plan and give them an opportunity to refocus on their work.

SAMPLE HOMEWORK WHEN-THEN PLAN

WHEN I FINISH

THESE STEPS:

·         Get started on my homework right away at my homework station (with only 1 reminder from an adult)

·         Use a timer for homework (10 minutes) and breaks (5 minutes)

·         Restart my homework work right away when my break is over

·         Try to answer each question or problem at least once before asking for help

·         Keep working until my timer goes off or my homework is finished

THEN I CAN CHOOSE ONE FUN ACTIVITY OR REWARD: ·         Play with Legos

·         Build a fort

·         20 minutes of Minecraft

·         Play outside

·         Pick out a special treat to pack for tomorrow’s lunch

 

Following these 5 steps to create a homework routine for your child will go a long way in helping to make homework time less stressful for you and your child. They’ll have an easier time getting started on their work and staying focused until their homework is finished. Plus, they’ll be finishing their homework more quickly, leaving more time for the fun activities and family time that everyone enjoys!

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