Homework – The Struggle Is Real

Let’s face it, no one likes doing homework. But for gifted children, the struggle is much deeper than a simple dislike of doing more work.

Imagine this: You hate your job. You spend 8 hours a day doing mindless, repetitive, rote work. You have few friends, the environment is bright and loud, and you spend the whole day holding your emotions in check so you don’t get in trouble with your boss. You go home and can finally relax, except that you have MORE of that same work to do. How do you feel about that?

That scenario is what our gifted children are experiencing daily. For most of them, they spend the day bored and lonely. They expend so much energy holding it together that they are exhausted and cranky when they get home. And then we tell them to sit down and do their homework. They stall, complain, cry, get frustrated, get distracted, and what should be a ten minute assignment ends up as an hour long battle.

As many of you know, I run an after school program that provides a place for gifted children to interact with their peers, pursue their interests, work on the challenges they face, and get their homework done. One child I worked with for years fought our homework time every single day. He would say things like, “This is my safe space – it’s not fair that I have to do homework here”. When pressed on this, he explained that doing homework at our program made him feel like he was back at school, which wasn’t a good feeling. He was also very sensory-averse, and the feeling of pencil on paper was like nails on a chalkboard. He started using erasable pens which helped, but the fact that the homework was just more of the same was the real issue.

So what can we do about it? The kids will always have homework, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. Learning how to manage their time and being responsible for the work are key executive function skills that are difficult to learn without things like homework. It doesn’t need to be a nightly fight – here are a few things that might help:

  • Be consistent from the beginning. Gifted kids love structure, predictability, and routine. If there are no negotiations about homework from the onset, there will be less drama later on. If that ship has sailed, talk with your child about how, when, where they want to do their work. Perhaps they like to get it over with as soon as they get home. Maybe they need a break first. Do they need total quiet, or are more productive in the middle of things? Let them take ownership over the plan and then stick to it.
  • Set a timer and be done when it’s done. Most teachers will start the school year saying that homework shouldn’t take more than x minutes a day. The National Education Association (http://www.nea.org/tools/16938.htm) recommends that students be given 10-20 minutes of homework a night, adding 10 minutes to each grade (so a 1st grader should have 10-20 minutes, 2nd grader 20-30 minutes etc.). When your child starts homework, start a timer and explain that when it goes off, homework time is over. If they don’t finish it during that time, put a sticky note on the homework explaining to the teacher that they spent the full x minutes on the work and could not complete it in that time. If it happens often, it would be a good idea to ask the teacher’s advice on what they would like you do to. Most teachers don’t want children struggling and getting upset over homework and will be reasonable if you give them a head’s up.
  • Find consequences that matter to them. At our program, if the child doesn’t want to do his homework, he doesn’t have to. However, he can’t do anything else until it’s done or gets picked up. They watch the other kids finishing and playing games, and see that there is a benefit to getting the work done. At home, if the issue is that they won’t do their homework at all, you can have them stay in their homework area until they have a decent amount of work done (then you can start the timer). If they aren’t allowed to do anything else, at some point they will start. You may also want to talk with the teacher about in-school consequences. The teacher may suggest coming to school early to do it in the classroom, giving up free time during the day to finish it, or initiating a reward system for turning in completed work.
  • Choose the hardest problems from the homework and only do those. When I train teachers on differentiation, one of the easiest tools I offer is the Most Difficult First. Basically, the teacher picks the 5 hardest problems from the upcoming homework and the students can do them in class. If they get them correct, they don’t need to do the rest of the homework. The reasoning is that if they can do the hardest problems, why sit through the easier ones? You, as a parent, can apply this same logic to homework. If the struggle is because the homework is repetitive and rote, choose several ‘hard’ items and have them do those first. If they complete them easily, write a note and stick it to the homework explaining that your child did the hardest problems which should demonstrate mastery/understanding of the topic being covered. Again, most teachers should be reasonable about this especially if you give them a head’s up about it.
  • Form a study group. Part of our program is a designated homework time. All the kids who have homework have to work on it then. As soon as they’ve finished, they can go back to playing games, working on their projects, etc. New students always – ALWAYS – resist doing their homework with us. Initially they may refuse, and then end up sitting there while their peers finish and head back to the more interesting activities. The other kids know the drill and get it done quickly and head back to games. By the second or third week, they’re all getting their work out as soon as it’s time. Having that group mentality of ‘let’s just get it done’ can be really helpful in the homework struggle. You might try getting a group of kids together a few times a week at the library, or rotating houses. If they’re older, you can even set up ‘virtual study groups’ where they FaceTime each other while doing their work. It may take longer, but with less struggle and a more positive connotation to it.
  • Think outside the box. For many households, the rule is to get the homework done as soon as they get home. Before any screen time, sports, etc. but not all kids do their best work then. Some may be late nighters and do it after dinner once the house has quieted down. Or early birds and like doing homework first thing in the morning before school. Some may get a surge of energy after sports and find they are most productive then. Listen to your children’s complaints; showing them that you are listening and trying to work WITH them can be invaluable. Try things out and see what works best. Then stick with it!

At the end of the day, homework is just homework. It’s not worth ruining relationships over, and most of the time teachers will be more receptive to alternative ideas than you may think. Give some of these a try and let me know how they work for you. If you have things that have worked that I didn’t include, let me know about those too!

And invest in sticky notes – you’ll be needing them.

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Think Zebras Not Horses

Why this blog?

The word gifted often comes with verbal quotation marks; people hedge and dance around the term and the meaning behind it. Teachers are skeptical when you explain the needs of your gifted child, and friends roll their eyes when you explain how difficult it is to have a ‘smart kid’. It is so often misunderstood and in reality few people really know the meaning of the term.

But the truth is this: having a gifted child is HARD. It’s hard when your friends can’t relate to your family’s struggles. It’s hard when your child is paralyzed by perfectionism. It’s hard when school is so boring that your child acts out and becomes ‘that kid’. It’s hard when you realize your child’s only friend is the 75 year old neighbor with whom they play chess. It’s hard when they become so consumed with issues like global warming and homelessness that they can’t sleep at night.

When most people see a gifted child they see the immaturity, the sensitivity, the ‘quirks’. They think horses, not zebras. They wonder if the child is on the spectrum, if they have anxiety, if they’re oversensitive. They think horses, not zebras. They wonder aloud why your gifted child seems to have so many problems in school, why they need to go to occupational therapy for fine motor skills, and why they melt down at soccer practice. They think horses, not zebras.

My goal is to help people think zebras, not horses. For the last 15 years I’ve worked with gifted children and their families and have seen the same issues time and time again. On this blog, I’ll be discussing those ‘quirks’, how they can manifest, and some practical suggestions. Let’s remove those quotation marks and raise our voices to support these amazing kids.

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Up next: Homework – The Struggle Is Real

Reach out and let me know if there are topics you’d like to discuss, or have questions or comments about the post!