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Supporting My Neurodivergent Child With Schoolwork at Home

Gather the tools you need to help your child succeed

Published on: September 12, 2023

Dad helping neurodivergent child with homework

Every fall, one word strikes fear into the hearts of returning students and their parents: homework.

Kids hate it. Parents hate it. Teachers and administrators fight over its value. Yet every school year, you are likely to find yourself faced with the homework beast. And if you are supporting a neurodivergent learner, you know this beast can be tough to slay.

I am not here to discuss whether homework is good or bad, or whether it should or should not exist. The work my son is doing at home is almost always classroom work that he did not finish (or start) during the school day. He has an Individualized Education Program (IEP) and support in the classroom, but as he gets older, the reality is that he has to do schoolwork at home on occasion to pass his classes. But for simplicity, I will refer to this work as “homework,” since, you know, we do it at home.

I also want to acknowledge that there is a range of diversity in neurodivergent people. The ideas below are what have worked for our family; however, this is by no means the definitive guide for homework support. You know your child and your family best. I hope that you find some of the suggestions helpful; feel free to ignore those that are not. Here is what’s worked for our family over the years as we’ve helped our neurodivergent child put on his armor and slay that homework beast.

Make a clear plan

The first step to homework success is having a clear plan and sticking to it. Will you check in with your child about homework every day? Twice a week? Not at all unless they ask for help? Every child is different and responds best to different levels of engagement. The important thing is that you set up a plan together and stick to it. Can you change the plan if it all starts to fall apart? Of course! But you will need to sit down with your child again and discuss what’s working, what’s not and the changes that are necessary.

Once a plan is established, write it down. This will leave less room for the “but that’s not what you said” arguments in the future. At our house, we come up with the plan, write it down (or print it), read it together and everyone signs it. We all buy into this plan as one unstoppable team!

Have the right supplies on hand

  • Visual timer. Many neurodivergent kids have trouble fully grasping time. If I tell my son we will be working on homework for 20 minutes, I might as well say 17 hours. It doesn’t quite compute. A visual timer takes that fuzzy concept and turns it into something physical he can see. These timers work great for almost any situation when kids need to do something for a specific amount of time, such as wait for a turn.
  • Calculator. Yes, my son’s phone does have a calculator. But you know what else that phone has? The internet, social media and about a million other distractions. The goal here is to stay focused and get things done, and if a phone makes an appearance, you can kiss that focus goodbye. (Parents, when was the last time you pulled out your phone and only used the calculator, without checking messages or Instagram or …? Exactly.) Bonus: Kids don’t use a simple calculator very often anymore, so my son thought it was pretty novel and cool!
  • Pens, pencils, paper. Again, any time I can get my son off a screen and engage his physical body, things go smoother. I print out everything I can, from reading packets to math sheets. (Talk to your school; sometimes teachers will provide hard copies.) Again, I have found that my son can focus much better when he is holding something physical and writing his answers down. Do we sometimes need to type? Of course, especially for essays or when homework can only be submitted electronically. But whenever possible, I have him use pens, pencils and paper rather than a screen.
  • Clipboard. Part of the challenge with my son’s ADHD is the “out of sight, out of mind” way he works. If he can’t see something, it simply does not exist to him. When he shoved that homework assignment into his backpack, it might as well have disappeared off the face of the earth. So, when we go through his backpack and pull things out at home, those papers need to be put somewhere visible. We keep a clipboard on the wall right next to the area where we store our shoes, and when homework (or a permission slip) makes its way out of the backpack, that is its first stop.
  • Calendar or whiteboard. When my son has several weeks to accomplish a more substantial project for class, he will often put it off until the very last day, or not do it at all. (Cue the email from his teacher.)

    When this happens, it can feel overwhelming to face. For example, imagine thumbing through a multipage history packet, feeling the pressure to get it done in one sitting. To make big projects feel manageable, I write out the days of the week (or use a paper calendar or a whiteboard planner) and under each day, list the work that needs to be done (broken down into very small amounts), with a check mark box next to each piece of work. Completing a 10-page packet? Impossible! Doing one or two pages on Monday? Doable.

    If a packet is large, I sometimes will take out the staple and only present him with one or two pages at a time, since just holding the whole thing can be overwhelming. He checks each task off the list as we go, which is satisfying and brings a sense of accomplishment and success.
  • Headphones. My husband is a software engineer. When he is working and really in the zone, he always wears headphones and is listening to music. While this might not always be possible at school (it is sometimes allowed, although it can be a slippery slope to those other phone distractions mentioned earlier), it is possible at home. Music can help my son focus, so headphones are a big help. Noise-canceling headphones can help block out distractions, too, if your child works better when it’s quiet.

Alternative ways to take in information (Kindle, audiobooks, etc.). Sometimes the goal of at-home learning isn’t to complete an assignment so much as it is to get the information to stick. My son also has dyslexia, so reading a novel can feel like climbing Everest. Enter the audiobook. Sometimes we just listen; other times, we follow along in a print copy of the book, pausing frequently to talk about the story or underline an important piece of information.

An e-reader has also been a hugely useful tool. My son likes to make the font quite large, and while holding a 200-page novel might feel intimidating, a small, sleek e-reader does not. A device that is designed just for books (without color or quick and easy internet access) is key, for reasons similar to the calculator. Reading on a phone or color tablet can work, but when distractions are a swipe away, it’s hard to resist.

A C-Pen can also be a big help for kids (and adults) with dyslexia. Simply glide the pen scanner over the text you need to read, and the text-to-speech pen reads it out loud. These devices are an investment for sure, but they allow people who struggle with reading to work more independently and gain confidence.

Stay in touch with teachers

At the beginning of the school year, I email all of my son’s teachers, introducing myself and letting them know I am here and able to help with schoolwork at home.

In my view, the teachers and I are a team, helping my son make his way through school with as much success as possible. Sometimes I need to email them for clarification about an assignment, when my son just can’t figure out what to do. Other times I let them know that I am aware of the work he is missing, and that we have a plan for getting it done. This might not work at a school (or with a teacher) with strict deadlines, but in our experience, his teachers are glad to hear from me and happy there is a plan for completing the missing assignments.

Most of all: Listen to your learner

This one took me too long to learn. I used to think, Kids are supposed to work at a desk and would insist that my son sat at (or stood next to) a table to get his work done.

One afternoon as he was working on answering some questions while stretched out on a bed, he flopped over on his stomach and started writing away. (Thanks to our handy clipboard, he had a hard surface to press on.) Much to my surprise, the work went quickly and easily. It turns out, lying on his stomach is my son’s preferred way to work, so we went with it.

Getting schoolwork done at home can be a big challenge, but having a plan can help. As this next school year gets underway, take some time to connect as a family and make a plan to defeat the homework beast once and for all.

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