It is the fall, school has been in session for over 2 months now, and in many households across America the battle lines have been drawn. On one side: the parents plaintively asking “have you done your homework?” and on the other, the child—suddenly non-verbal or explosively combative.
A recent professional journal had an article entitled, “Homework, a Mental Health Condition”, and I thought “how true”! And then I got to thinking why is this so? And slowly the answers started to evolve.
For many children processing information is a laborious and torturous exercise in cognitive gymnastics. It is equivalent to being hopelessly lost in a strange city with no GPS system to help navigate you to your required destination. It is not knowing if you are right side up, or upside down. It is disorienting and threatening.
Children are not foolish, and it is so true that you cannot kid a kid. Why on earth would they want to revisit a situation that is so demeaning? They have just spent 6-8 hours in a place that constantly reminded them that they are different and inadequate, and now well-meaning parents want to know if they have willingly opened a virtual “Pandora’s Box” of emotional and intellectual degradation, are they nuts!!!!
Homework is supposed to be a review or a reinforcement of previously learned materials. However, for many children experiencing sensory integrative issues, it is not a repetition, but a re-entry into information overload and disorganization.
Children with sensory issues often use transference and anger to deflect attention and responsibility for their work outcomes. “I did do it”, belligerently spoken is often a code for “don’t make me wrong, I can’t handle that”.
Making order from disorder is one of the many roles of the occupational therapist treating children with sensory integrative issues. A good place to start is to create specific patterns that stay in place and become a “homework routine”. Children who are experiencing intense sensory disorganization need the stability and security of situations that can be relied upon to be part of their “automatic” responses.
Instead of seeing at this as belligerence, it is important to look at these actions as reactions that are fear motivated. Deep within our central nervous system, at its very core, are the neural structures that trigger emotions and protect us from danger. The amygdala, the hippocampus and other structures within the central gyrus are telling these children, “Watch out, Danger Ahead!!” and they are doing what any normal person would do, they are doing their best not to get hurt.
Everything inside them is on “alert”. They are impulsive, tactically defensive, hyper-reactive to noise, clumsy and either overly talkative or sullenly quiet. No wonder the article regarded homework as a mental health issue! It can be, for some children, a very painful and very disorienting experience.
Utilizing the “Homework Box” concept (as outlined and explained in the book, “Learning Re-Enabled”) a child is able to initiate the homework process in small steps that allows them to enter and depart the homework environment at specific intervals.
The concept is simple. With the parent the child gets 3 boxes that he/she covers in contact paper or decorates in some colorful way. Box one is the “Dump Box”; when they come home the entire book bag just gets dumped into this box, and then the child is done with step one. Box 2 is the snack box, which has the child’s favorite after school snacks, and this is to be opened after the book bag has been dumped into Box 1. Box 3 is filled with all the supplies needed to do homework. (It is advised you shop for these items or select them from items around the house together.)
Suggested Homework Supply Box Contents (*from “Learning Re-Enabled)
- Scotch tape
- Electric pencil sharpener
- Paper: plain-----lined-------graph
- Rulers-one 6” one 12”
- Children’s dictionary
- Alpha Speller™ (or something similar)
- Tag board for table (to make a smooth writing surface)
- Glue sticks
- Colored Pencils
- Hole punch
- Large (5” x 8”) envelopes
- Small expandable file
- Small desk lamp
- Extension cord
The place that this takes place is not the bedroom, the bedroom has a bed in it and beds are for sleeping!! Instead, put the child near the family but away from TV, and other distractions.
Everything is taken out of Box 3 and placed on the table for ready use. And then the child takes another “break” (of about 5 minutes).
Next step is to go through Box 1 and put all non-homework items back in the book bag, this also gets rid of gum wrappers, broken pencils, and gets needed permissions slips into the right hands in a timely manner. Then the remaining items are homework items, arranged in the order that the child chooses to complete them. As each assignment is completed the books and papers go back into the book bag, ready to be brought back to school. When Box 1 is empty, homework is done. Box 2 snacks go back into the pantry, Box 3 supplies go back into the box and into a closet or corner, and the “Homework Monster” has been contained for yet another day.
Eventually this becomes an automatic routine “activity of daily living” for the child, reducing homework-related stressors, and the occupational therapist has helped both parent and child address their emotional, organizational, sensory and cognitive needs. And isn’t it the creation of automatic positive patterns to enhance the occupations of living at the core of everything we do? Now, go do your homework!
Susan N. Schriber Orloff, OTR/L is the author of the book. “Learning RE-Enabled” a guide for parents, teachers and therapists,(a National Education Association featured book) as well as the CEO/Exec. Director of Children’s Special Services, LLC an occupational therapy service for children with developmental and learning delays in Atlanta, GA. She can be reached through her website at www.childrens-services.com or at firstname.lastname@example.org