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Homework Routines Matter for Students with (and Without) Learning Differences

Let’s face it: no one likes homework. But if your teen has a learning difference, homework isn’t merely an annoying inconvenience—it can turn your living room into a battleground, complete with nightly tears, shouting, and meltdowns. (And the kids don’t like it either!) Research shows that students with learning differences need a different approach to homework. 

That’s why Lawrence School, a K-12 school that serves students with learning differences, uses this philosophy: More isn’t better, and assigned homework should focus on content students have already mastered, so that they can complete their homework alone and with confidence.

Are you feeling the “ah-ha” moment? This is an approach I think a lot of parents can get on board with, regardless of whether or not their child has a learning difference. And the strategies Lawrence uses to help bring peace to the nightly routine can benefit every family. 

What Research About Homework Says 

There isn’t much research to support homework for younger kids, says Denise Brown-Triolo, Ph.D., director of student advocacy and support services at Lawrence. Even among older kids, homework works best when it’s brief. High school students should not have more than two hours of homework per night, Brown-Triolo says.

Cheryl Cook, academic dean of the upper school at Lawrence, points to research supporting the social and emotional benefits of students with learning differences participating in extracurricular activities, and says that homework should not interfere with that.

“We believe the type of homework and amount of homework has to be mindful for the learner and allow them time to do the other things outside of school that are important to them,” Cook says.

That work-life balance is a good recipe for all students; all work and no play leads to stress and burnout that can cause our students to become disconnected from their learning. 

Practice, Not Perfection

At Lawrence, there is an emphasis on assigning work that students are already familiar with and feel competent at. “We’re really looking for assigning work that the students can do with minimal support from Mom and Dad; they can do it on their own based on what they’ve shown in class,” says Cook.  

Additionally, says Brown-Triolo, homework should be focused on practicing an already mastered skill, not necessarily perfecting it. “If a student’s learning difference is related to spelling, they should not have points off for spelling in a math homework assignment,” Brown-Triolo describes.

How Parents Can Help 

Whether or not your teen has a learning difference, how you approach homework at home can make a big difference. Cook offers these proven strategies for making homework a more positive, empowering experience for both you and your teen. (Yes, it’s possible!)

  • Set up a routine about when homework will get done—ideally the same time each day
  • Have a designated homework space; encourage your teen to make it their own by picking out a desk, décor, and materials
  • Homework time should be limited; work with your teen’s school to decide what that limit should be, and then stick to it. 
  • Make sure there are lots of breaks; after working for 15 minutes, take a 5-minute break

Advocating for Your Child 

If your teen continues struggling with homework despite your best efforts, you may need to further advocate on their behalf. Especially if your teen has an IEP, Brown-Triolo shares these key homework accommodations to ask for:

  • Whatever assistive technology your teen needs in the classroom (such as text reader, dictation, speech-to-text) should also be provided at home
  • If your teen has a print disability, request at-home access to electronic versions of books or articles 
  • Students with difficulty organizing materials or physical weaknesses may need access to an extra set of materials (textbooks, papers, etc.) at home. 
  • If motivation is a factor, request that the plan include wording emphasizing homework effort, not accuracy
  • Request that homework be limited to a certain amount of time to accommodate executive functioning learning differences and teens with academic learning anxiety

Winning the Homework War

Changing your mindset toward homework and working with your teen’s academic team should turn the battle ground into common ground. But even once you have a plan in place, you may hit roadblocks along the way. Says Brown-Triolo, “You should never hesitate to reach out to your teen’s teachers and IEP coordinators if you have concerns.”

Wendy Wisner

Wendy Wisner’s work has appeared in The Washington Post, Huffington Post, Scary Mommy, and elsewhere. She is a frequent contributor to yourteenmag.com.

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