Homework and LDs: Three Essential Strategies

Homework Every parent faces it sooner or later - the homework battle. Attitudes towards homework have shifted back and forth over the years, between concern about poor academic performance and worry about the stress that homework can place on kids. Currently, the pendulum seems to be swinging toward the anti-homework side, with authors like Alfie Kohn stating that, “Homework is Killing Kids”. Evidence for and against homework tends to be mixed, with a bias towards its positive impact on academic performance. But proponents on both sides tend to look at the effects of homework on typically-developing kids. What about children with learning disabilities?

There can be no doubt that kids with learning problems need extra help - they tend to require more time, effort, and practice with some activities than their classmates do. Although extra help tends to be provided during the school day, it may not be enough to compensate for the impact of a learning disability; kids who take longer to do their work may face a widening gap between their performance and that of their classmates. It makes sense, therefore, that homework would be more important for students with learning disabilities if it allows them time to complete the same assignments that their classmates are doing.

On the other hand, the extra effort required for children with learning problems suggests that academic motivation and perseverance is also essential. If completing assignments at home has a negative effect on their attitude towards learning, they may again be at risk of experiencing the widening gap between their progress and that of their peers.

Clearly, some parents have kids whose learning style makes homework difficult for them. So how can they walk the tightrope between providing their children with adequate time and practice to master new concepts and maintaining a positive attitude towards learning? I think the answer lies in achieving a balance between working around the weaknesses to allow kids to demonstrate their knowledge, practicing weaker skills, and engaging in activities that maintain self-esteem.

To find this balance, parents need to talk to their kids about their schoolwork, homework, and their difficulties.  Psychoeducational assessments, which provide detailed information about kids’ learning styles, can be helpful, but the student’s perspective can be equally valuable. If writing assignments are a source of stress, parents need to find out why! Is it their slow handwriting, concerns about spelling errors, or difficulties finding ideas? This information allows parents and kids to problem-solve together and find work-arounds. Scribing, access to a computer, scheduling breaks, or help with brainstorming might make writing less aversive. Developing a poster or a presentation might accomplish the same goal as writing an essay, while minimizing the written component. Listening to the child, and engaging in mutual problem-solving, are essential, in my opinion.

Practicing to develop skills that are weak can be difficult, especially if a child's weaker skills are having an effect on his or her self-esteem. Drills and flashcards are usually not the best solution (although that’s how I learned multiplication) if parents are interested in helping their children to maintain a positive attitude about learning. Games that target particular skills might help - card games often have a visual memory component, and The Game of Life requires addition and subtraction skills, for example. Kids with writing disabilities sometimes benefit from writing tasks that are not evaluated, that can be fun. Finding a pen pal or joining the Flat Stanley Project might motivate kids to write. Creating a comic book could be more enjoyable than writing a story.

Students who have trouble at school also need opportunities to participate in activities that play to their strengths. Athletics are often particularly helpful, since exercise seems to support brain development and can help kids to cope with stress, but any extracurricular that allows children to demonstrate their stronger abilities could be valuable. I strongly believe that kids need to be able to say, “I may not be very good at spelling, but I’m good at something!”

Balancing accommodations for weaknesses with practice and extracurriculars can often make homework less frustrating for parents and kids, even if they don’t have a diagnosed learning disability. Reducing frustration and conflict might lead to improved attitudes about homework and learning, which can put kids with learning differences on the right track!

Note: Posts on Family Anatomy are for education only, and are not intended to replace professional or medical advice. If you need to talk to someone about family or mental health issues, you can get a referral from your family doctor. Doctor Brian discussed kids in general in this article, but every child is unique; your experience may vary.