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Homework Struggles May Not Be a Behavior Problem

Chelsea was in 10th grade the first time I told her directly to stop doing her homework and get some sleep. I had been working with her since she was in middle school, treating her anxiety disorder.

She deeply feared disappointing anyone — especially her teachers — and spent hours trying to finish homework perfectly. The more tired and anxious she got, the harder it got for her to finish the assignments.

One night Chelsea called me, in despair, feeling hopeless. She was exhausted and couldn’t think straight. She felt like a failure and that she was a burden to everyone because she couldn’t finish her homework.

She was shocked when I told her that my prescription for her was to go to sleep now — not to figure out how to finish her work. I told her to leave her homework incomplete and go to sleep.

We briefly discussed how we would figure it out the next day, with her mom and her teachers. At that moment, it clicked for her that it was futile to keep working — because nothing was getting done.

This was an inflection point for her awareness of when she was emotionally over-cooked and when she needed to stop and take a break or get some sleep.

We repeated versions of this phone call several times over the course of her high school and college years, but she got much better at being able to do this for herself most of the time.

When mental health symptoms interfere with homework

Kids with mental health or neurodevelopmental challenges often struggle mightily with homework. Challenges can come up in every step of the homework process, including, but not limited to:

  • Remembering and tracking assignments and materials
  • Getting the mental energy/organization to start homework
  • Filtering distractions enough to persist with assignments
  • Understanding unspoken or implied parts of the homework
  • Remembering to bring finished homework to class
  • Being in class long enough to know the material
  • Tolerating the fear of not knowing or failing
  • Not giving up the assignment because of a panic attack
  • Tolerating frustration — such as not understanding — without emotional dysregulation
  • Being able to ask for help — from a peer or a teacher and not being afraid to reach out

This list is hardly comprehensive. ADHD, autism spectrum disorder, social anxiety, generalized anxiety, panic disorder, depression, dysregulation and a range of other neurodevelopmental and mental health challenges cause numerous learning differences and symptoms that can specifically and frequently interfere with getting homework done.

The usual diagnosis for homework problems is “not trying hard enough”

Unfortunately, when kids frequently struggle to meet homework demands, teachers and parents typically default to one explanation of the problem which is that the child is making a choice not to do their homework.

That is the default “diagnosis” in classrooms and living rooms. And once this framework is drawn the student is often seen as not trying hard enough, disrespectful, manipulative, or just plain lazy.

The fundamental disconnect here is that the diagnosis of homework struggles as a behavioral choice is, in fact, only one explanation, while there are so many other diagnoses and differences that impair children’s ability to consistently do their homework.

If we are trying to create solutions based on only one understanding of the problem, the solutions will not work. More devastatingly, the wrong solutions can worsen the child’s mental health and their long-term engagement with school and learning.

To be clear, we aren’t talking about children who sometimes struggle with or skip homework — kids who can change and adapt their behaviors and patterns in response to the outcomes of that struggle.

For this discussion, we are talking about children with mental health and/or neurodevelopmental symptoms and challenges that create chronic difficulties with meeting homework demands.

How can you help your child who struggles with homework?

How can you help your child who is struggling to meet homework demands because of their ADHD, depression, anxiety, OCD, school avoidance, or any other neurodevelopmental or mental health differences? Let’s break this down into two broad areas — things you can do at home, and things you can do in communication with the school.

Helping at home

The following suggestions for managing school demands at home can feel counterintuitive to parents — because we usually focus on helping our kids to complete their tasks. But mental health needs to jump the line ahead of task completion. And starting at home will be key to developing an idea of what needs to change at school.

  1. Set an end time in the evening after which no more homework will be attempted. Kids need time to decompress and they need sleep — and pushing homework too close to or past bedtime doesn’t serve their educational needs. Even if your child hasn’t been able to approach the homework at all, even if they have avoided and argued the whole evening, it is still important for everyone to have a predictable time to shut down the whole process.
  2. If there are arguments almost every night about homework, if your child isn’t starting homework or finishing it, reframe it from failure into information. It’s data to put into problem-solving. We need to consider other possible explanations besides “behavioral choice” when trying to understand the problem and create effective solutions. What problems are getting in the way of our child’s meeting homework demands that their peers are meeting most of the time?
  3. Try not to argue about homework. If you can check your own anxiety and frustration, it can be more productive to ally with your child and be curious with them. Kids usually can’t tell you a clear “why” but maybe they can tell you how they are feeling and what they are thinking. And if your child can’t talk about it or just keeps saying “I don’t know,” try not to push. Come back another time. Rushing, forcing, yelling, and threatening will predictably not help kids do homework.

Helping at school

The second area to explore when your neurodiverse child struggles frequently with homework is building communication and connections with school and teachers. Some places to focus on include the following.

  1. Label your child’s diagnoses and break down specific symptoms for the teachers and school team. Nonjudgmental, but a specific language is essential for teachers to understand your child’s struggles. Breaking their challenges down into the problems specific to homework can help with building solutions. As your child gets older, help them identify their difficulties and communicate them to teachers.
  2. Let teachers and the school team know that your child’s mental health needs — including sleep — take priority over finishing homework. If your child is always struggling to complete homework and get enough sleep, or if completing homework is leading to emotional meltdowns every night, adjusting their homework demands will be more successful than continuing to push them into sleep deprivation or meltdowns.
  3. Request a child study team evaluation to determine if your child qualifies for services under special education law such as an IEP, or accommodations through section 504 — and be sure that homework adjustments are included in any plan. Or if such a plan is already in place, be clear that modification of homework expectations needs to be part of it.

The long-term story

I still work with Chelsea and she recently mentioned how those conversations so many years ago are still part of how she approaches work tasks or other demands that are spiking her anxiety when she finds herself in a vortex of distress.

She stops what she is doing and prioritizes reducing her anxiety — whether it’s a break during her day or an ending to the task for the evening. She sees that this is crucial to managing her anxiety in her life and still succeeding at what she is doing.

Task completion at all costs is not a solution for kids with emotional needs. Her story (and the story of many of my patients) make this crystal clear.

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