By Carol A. Kinlan. MEd, MBA, IECA (MA)
A mother looks at me. Her expression conveys deep frustration. We are sitting in my office, and I have just asked her, “How does your 16-year-old son go about completing his homework during the school week?”
“I hate evenings,” she says. We sit silently. To further drive home her point, she adds “I just hate school nights.”
This client’s teenage son, Jake, is a junior at a large, well-respected public school in Massachusetts. Jake is starting the college process. He has a GPA of 2.6 and received a 23 on a recent practice ACT. Those numbers are in contrast to a recent neuropsychological test that indicated that Jake has a very high IQ. Jake struggles with inattention and very poor planning skills. His mom is discouraged and wants to send him to boarding school. She is tired of “screaming and chasing him around” each school night.
I ask her to explain what school nights with Jake look like from the time he comes home. She says, “He comes in the back door. I ask him how much homework he has. He always tells me he’s ‘done a lot at school.’ He goes to his room and, I don’t know, he might be texting or using his laptop. We start arguing about the homework. Sometimes he’s good; he sits in his room and types out his papers. But most of the time we argue, and then he’s wandering around again, distracted.”
She looks tired, worn down. As an independent educational consultant (IEC) who works primarily with children with learning disorders, I find that parents of students with inattention and executive function issues often have this world-weary look. Unlike students who struggle with dyslexia, dysgraphia, or other disorders, students with attention and planning weaknesses can’t be as easily relegated to a tutor for direct support services during school hours. Students with executive function weaknesses have a less-than-efficient approach to making use of unstructured time. Parents observe that and feel saddled with the burden of helping their teenager complete each night’s schoolwork. As a result, they resort most nights to “bad parenting guerilla tactics,” as one mom put it. I tell parents it’s hard to have the life experience and mature brain of a 40- or 50-year-old and watch their teenager struggle with nightly homework. I also describe how the homework expectations for teenagers have changed dramatically over the last 20 years, but their brains have remained the same.
To help this mother or any other parent, I want to know which aspect of executive function is hardest. I ask her to rate on a five-point scale (5 = easily done and 1 = real nightmare) the following behaviors:
How difficult is it for your student to:
• Start a project, assignment, or homework?
• Transition from one assignment to another?
• Focus or attend to a particular assignment for at least 30 minutes?
• Self-regulate during the evening without getting angry, being highly inattentive, or complaining to a worrying degree?
• Complete and turn in all homework assignments?
Using these questions with a rating system helps parents and IECs obtain a better understanding of the student’s executive function profile. As we know, parents feel overwhelmed; inquiring specifically about possible symptoms can be therapeutic for parents. They feel understood and realize that in some cases, only one behavior is causing all the trouble each night.
What can be done? Assuming that the student has no other neurocognitive issues (e.g., with reading comprehension, writing fluency, or poor rote memory), I’ve found it’s extremely helpful to break each night into 30-minute segments. Like the skier staring down at a double diamond hill and turning back instead of taking the hill in shorter segments, many teenagers are overwhelmed by their nightly homework and don’t appreciate what can be done in 30 minutes.
Parents or a tutor or teacher can help the student by breaking down each night starting from the point the student walks in the door. For example:
• 4:15 snack, play basketball outside (breaks and exercise are important!)
• 4:45 algebra homework
• 5:15 start English, chapter reading
• 5:45 break for dinner
• 6:15 downtime
• 6:45 English, chapter reading
• 7:15 start outline for writing assignment
• 7:45 French homework
• 8:15 practice French vocabulary with mom (or alone)
Even when students must start homework at 8:00 or 9:00 p.m. because of other commitments, they still need to make use of 30-minute segments when they come home or during study time at school. Students who read slowly should time themselves to see how long it takes them to read 5–10 pages and plan accordingly. Most students think they read and comprehend material much faster than they really do. Again, an outside tutor or teacher can help with this system. Small rewards or praise delivered in a timely way can encourage a student to feel pleased with meaningful progress.
I find that many students are truly surprised when they discover how much time they actually have to get homework done before bed. Teenagers can easily fritter all that time away unless they get support. The goal is to help them realize that they have control over each half hour and that a great deal can be accomplished by a focused effort. Teens need to know that time can be defined as something available to them and that to be successful in life, they need to take control of it.
The mother who came to me tired and frustrated realizes that transitions between assignments are hardest for her son. We talk about how to give him a short break between tasks. We also discuss boarding schools, where those organizational skills can be better developed because teachers tend to their students 24/7 and offer extra help. We sit quietly for a while. The mom is sitting up straighter. Maybe she feels more organized herself, maybe more in control. I’m not sure; however, it feels good to be helping her. Before she leaves, she smiles and raises her hand in an imaginary toast, “Here’s to better nights at home!” I toast her back