Homework: Does It Have to be so Daunting?

We are now into the fall season, and a new school year has taken off! You realize your relaxing summer evenings has been taken over by a crammed, tight schedule with barely any time to complete all your evening routines. You have limited time to squeeze in after school programs, dinner, bedtime routines, and the dreadful homework battle. Will you ever feel ahead of schedule? What happened to fun family time?

Reducing the stress around homework can eliminate battles providing the family with extra time together in the evenings. The following tips can help support the homework process, making it a smoother and more manageable routine.

1. Find the right spot! Let’s add stimulus control to increase attention and on-task behaviors. Stimulus control is said to occur when an organism behaves in one way in the presence of a given stimulus and another way in its absence. For example, the presence of a stop sign increases the probability that “braking” behavior will occur. Also, if you always eat when you watch TV, your eating behavior is controlled by the stimulus of watching TV. You may want a snack when you begin to watch a show even if you are not hungry. Create an environment that is solely used for homework and studying. This may take place at a dining room table or at a desk or even in the bedroom. Make sure this location is not the same location that your child plays in. This could cause distractors as the play area has stimulus control over playing behaviors. Sometimes it’s helpful to always have the same environmental sounds and lighting. Try using a bright lamp or play quiet classical music. If your child’s behavior is paired with this environment, the setting will have even more control over the attention and on-task behaviors.

2. Chunk the assignments! Present the assignment in smaller, more manageable tasks. Instead of giving you child a worksheet with 20 problems, cut the sheet and give your child a strip of paper with a few problems at a time. For older children, you may want to teach them how to chunk themselves. May be you could create a visual of chunking ideas and strategies for his/her reference. Help them at first and then slowly fade back your support. Reinforce independent use of these strategies.

3. Use behavioral momentum! Behavior momentum is a strategy that entails completion of easy tasks prior to attempting more challenging tasks. It’s important to alternate these two types of tasks in order to gain the most behavioral momentum.  This can help increase your child’s motivation to sustain attention to the task because you are building in many opportunities for success. This also helps avoid paring homework aversive properties.

4. Use positive reinforcement! All behaviors you wish to see increase should initially use a system of positive reinforce.  Figure out how often you need to reinforce. If it’s a challenging behavior that has an extensive history, reinforce often. If your child just needs a fine adjustment to the expectations and routines, and responds well to reinforcement systems, you may be able to delay the schedule of the delivery of reinforcement. Think about how often your child currently tantrums or exhibits escape behaviors surrounding the demands of homework. If he/she begins to display negative behaviors 15 minutes after the start of homework, provide reinforcement before he/she gets to that point. Deliver the reward before the behavior! This will help motivate your child to push through. 

5. Choose the right reinforcer! Find something powerful and novel. Make sure this item is NOT already available at other times during the day. Would you work hard to earn something you get for free? Token systems can help avoid the risk of your child “getting tired of the reward” or “not caring about earning it.” A token system is designed to deliver a token or other symbol that can later be exchanged for a reinforcer.  However, you should only use a system like this if your child can benefit from delayed reinforcement and has had positive experiences with token systems before.

Your child is an individual. There are not set behavioral strategies that work for everyone. As you try new things, you will learn more about the best strategies for your child. It’s always beneficial to check in with professionals such as BCBAs or your child’s educational team in order to gain the best support to design a positive and effective system. 

By Nikki Stewart, MA, BCBA

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