Homework Routines That Work for Kids with ADHD

By Dr. Mary Rooney, Ph.D.

As a therapist I hear over and over again from parents and kids with ADHD that homework is the number one cause of frustration, stress, and arguments at home. This is true whether kids are in elementary school and have only 20 minutes of homework each night or they are in high school and have an hour or more of homework to do each day. Why? While it might seem like it should be simple enough to just sit down and do your homework, the task of doing homework actually requires many complex skills that are hard for kids with ADHD, like getting started right away, staying focused on something that is not interesting, delaying gratification (since homework comes with no immediate reward), organizing and prioritizing assignments, sitting still for an extended period of time, and blocking out distractions. On top of this, the same ADHD symptoms that make it hard to do homework interfere with learning during the school day, which means a child may not have absorbed all the academic knowledge and skills needed to complete any given assignment. When we take a step back and think about homework from this perspective, it starts to become a little clearer why kids with ADHD struggle the way that they do.

The good news is that despite the complexity of the problem there are some fairly simple things parents can do to help make homework time easier. The first, which I talked about in my last post, is to create a homework station designed specifically for a child with ADHD. The second is to create a simple homework routine that lays out the steps your child needs to complete each day and rewards him or her for his or her effort. When both the homework station and homework routine are used consistently, homework time becomes infinitely easier for kids with ADHD.

Steps for creating a homework routine:

  1. Time of day. Have your child do homework as soon as possible after he or she gets home from school or after-school activities. The later it gets the more fatigued kids become, and the harder it is for them to stay focused and on task during homework time. And as much as possible, have your child do his or her homework at the same time each day. If after-school schedules make this difficult, then aim to create as much consistency as possible – for example, on Tuesdays and Thursdays homework time is 4:30 and on Mondays and Wednesdays homework time is 6:00.
  2. Use a timer to build in homework breaks. Many younger kids with ADHD can only stay on task for about 10 minutes, and some older kids or teens with ADHD max out at around 20 or 30 minutes. Plan for this by building 5-minute breaks into the homework routine. Have your child set a timer for the first stretch of work time (15 minutes, for example). Your child’s job is to work consistently during this time. Then when the timer goes off he or she gets a 5-minute break. Make sure your child sets a timer for this break period and gets back to work for the next 15-minute segment once the break is over. Some parents worry that if their child takes a break he or she will never get back to work, but as long as you build this into your homework plan and reward your child for getting back to work quickly when the break is over, you should see that he or she actually gets more work done with breaks than he or she would with no breaks at all.
  3. Clear expectations. Provide your child with clear expectations around the behaviors you want to see during homework time. Really think through the small steps that you want him or her to take, regardless of what his or her specific homework assignments might be. Focus on things like getting started right way, continuing to work until the timer goes off, and getting back to work right away when the break is over. Try to keep your expectations limited to just 5 steps. For example:
    • Get started on your homework right away at your homework station (with only 1 reminder from an adult).
    • Use a timer for homework time (10 minutes) and break times (5 minutes).
    • Get back to work right away when a break is over.
    • Try to answer each question or problem at least once before asking for help.
    • Keep working until your timer goes off or your homework is finished.
  4. Build in rewards. “First you work then you play” is a good rule of thumb for everyone to learn and follow, and this is especially true for kids with ADHD. When it comes to doing homework, you can use this rule to create natural rewards that your child can earn when he or she finishes his or her work and has met your clear expectations. Think about fun activities your child likes to do that be used to motivate him or her to get homework done quickly. These can be things like playing with favorite Legos, playing outside, getting a limited amount of screen time, building forts out of pillows and blankets, etc. If time in the evening is very limited and you feel like you won’t be able to squeeze in a fun activity on some nights, then you can allow your child to earn a small reward instead (check out my post on quick and easy reward ideas for families). Sit down with your child and create a list of activities or tangible rewards they can earn for meeting homework expectations.
  5. Make a When-Then plan. Use the list of homework expectations and the list of possible rewards to create a When-Then plan. “When you complete your homework and meet the expectations, Then you can choose one activity or reward from the list.” Print your When-Then plan and post it on a wall near your child’s homework station so he or she can see it while he or she works. If your child starts to get off track, remind him or her about the plan and give your child an opportunity to refocus on work.

SAMPLE HOMEWORK WHEN-THEN PLAN

WHEN I FINISH

THESE STEPS:
  • Get started on my homework right away at my homework station (with only 1 reminder from an adult)
  • Use a timer for homework (10 minutes) and breaks (5 minutes)
  • Restart my homework work right away when my break is over
  • Try to answer each question or problem at least once before asking for help
  • Keep working until my timer goes off or my homework is finished
THEN I CAN CHOOSE ONE FUN ACTIVITY OR REWARD:
  • Play with Legos
  • Build a fort
  • 20 minutes of Minecraft
  • Play outside
  • Pick out a special treat to pack for tomorrow’s lunch

 

Following these 5 steps to create a homework routine for your child will go a long way in helping to make homework time less stressful for you and your child. Your child will have an easier time getting started on his or her work and staying focused until homework is finished. Plus, your child will be finishing homework more quickly, leaving more time for the fun activities and family time that everyone enjoys!


 

ABOUT DR. MARY ROONEY

Mary Rooney, Ph.D., is a licensed clinical psychologist in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of California San Francisco. Dr Rooney is a researcher and clinician specializing in the evaluation and treatment of ADHD and co-occurring behavioral, anxiety, and mood disorders. A strong advocate for those with attention and behavior problems, Dr. Rooney is committed to developing and providing comprehensive, cutting edge treatments tailored to meet the unique needs of each child and adolescent. Dr. Rooney's clinical interventions and research avenues emphasize working closely with parents and teachers to create supportive, structured home and school environments that enable children and adolescents to reach their full potential. In addition, Dr. Rooney serves as a consultant and ADHD expert to Huntington Learning Centers.

ABOUT HUNTINGTON

Huntington Learning Center is the tutoring and test prep leader. Its certified tutors provide individualized instruction in reading, phonics, writing, study skills, elementary and middle school math, Algebra through Calculus, Chemistry, and other sciences. It preps for the SAT and ACT, as well as state and standardized exams. Huntington programs develop the skills, confidence, and motivation to help students of all levels succeed and meet the needs of Common Core State Standards. Founded in 1977, Huntington's mission is to give every student the best education possible. Call us today at 1.800.CAN LEARN to discuss how Huntington can help your child. For franchise opportunities please visit www.huntingtonfranchise.com.

This website does not provide medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. The material on this site is provided for educational purposes only.

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