Homework strategies for kids with ADHD, autism

Homework Strategies for Kids with ADHD, autism

What a pain!

Kids don't want to do homework. Can you blame them? They just sat in school for 6-7+ hours, now we want them to sit down and do more school work during the little free time they have for themselves in the evenings. And struggling learners have been pushing so hard all day to listen and do what they're asked. They're spent, making them even more adamant that they not do any homework. And thus, the homework battles commence.

Homework is a parenting struggle for the majority of us raising kids with ADHD and/or high-functioning autism. It's personally the most dreaded time of the day. There are some rules and strategies to implement to make it a bit better {thank goodness!}.



Homework Ground Rules

There are some general ground rules that should always be followed for homework time:

  • TV and other distractions must be turned off (music in the background actually helps some children drown out their surroundings and focus — it is a distraction for me, but my kids do homework better with music on).
  • Get creative! Let them do homework wherever it works for them, even if that's on the floor under the dining room table. If they're doing the work, it doesn't matter where.
  • Praise and reward often (typically more often than you are comfortable with).



Homework Timing

We've played around with time of day my son does homework over the years. I first tried homework right after school thinking medication would still be working {and that we should just get it over with}. That was a disaster. Kids need time to unwind and do whatever their hearts desire after being in school 6+ hours on someone else’s time.

We also tried after dinner, when school was a distant memory. That wasn’t as big a battle to get him to agree to do homework, like immediately after school was. However, his medication is no longer helping him slow down by that time, and it was a monumental chore to actually get anything accomplished.

4 pm turned out to be our “magic” homework hour. Now, I use the term “magic” very, very loosely. Our children with ADHD will never be willing to do homework, nor will they be efficient at it. It’s finding what works best under their circumstances that will be “magic” for your family. It may not be “magic” for a typically-abled child, but it’s magic for us. Remember, even the best laid plan will not cure the resistance to homework.

Be sure you offer lots of breaks. Physical movement helps with mental alertness, but also gives your child the opportunity to destress and regroup.



Homework Location

At 4 pm we turn off all electronics and sit down at the dining room table or kitchen counter. It could be on the floor, hanging upside down on the sofa, or under the bed for that matter — anywhere your child is comfortable, focused, and can write. Don't be rigid about your idea of the way homework should be done (at a desk, for instance). The key is to figure out where and how your child can do their best on this task. It may be unconventional, but whatever works for them is totally acceptable, and best.

The HowdaHug chair was a miracle tool for us for many years.



Homework Toolkit

Continuous preparation is a common procrastination technique, conscious or not. To prevent this, create a homework toolkit. The toolkit should be some sort of box or desktop organizer (this desktop organizer is perfect for your toolkit!), even an actual toolbox, with every single thing necessary to complete homework, prepped and ready to go:

pencils (sharpened — sharpening pencils is a favorite procrastination technique of children),
pencil sharpener,
pencil grips (if used),
colored pencils (sharpened),
age-appropriate scissors,
notebook paper,
construction paper and/or blank copy paper,
index cards,
glue stick,
post-it notes,
clip board (if not working at a table or desktop),
anything else your child may use for homework.

A timer (there are many specifically for ADHD and special needs) is a great tool for completing a task, too. ADHDers often struggle with the concept of time. My son constantly asks me “how much longer?” when doing something he’d rather not be doing. He often overestimates the amount of time something will take, as well. A timer helps with both. If he is given a math worksheet and he has 15 minutes to complete it, the timer is set for 15 minutes. At any given moment, he can look at the timer and know how much time he has left to finish. The Time Timer is my favorite.



Get Creative with Homework

Get creative and make homework visual when you can. When my son was young, we got really creative. We used macaroni for math (in middle school, we've used candy corn to solve math problems, then eat them as the reward — I don't like a lot of candy, but sometimes desperation wins). He liked to spell words with uncooked spaghetti mixed with elbow macaroni for curves (when the spelling words were 3 or 4 letters). Does your child love to paint? Let them paint their spelling words or their illustration for their writing assignments. Painting letters is actually a common therapy tool for children that struggle with hand writing. What about play-dough? I purchased a box of 101 alphabet and number cookie cutters for $10, and sometimes we used that for spelling and math.



Homework Accommodations

I can't begin to count how many parents have told me their child is spending hours on homework every night just to get it done. We're talking 2-4 hours for kids in elementary school. That's not okay, folks!

Kids with developmental delays (ADHD and autism) and learning disabilities should not have to work on homework any longer than their neurotypical peers. To have a child work on a math assignment for two hours that took their peers 15 minutes to complete is punishing that child for having a disability. That's not acceptable. That's very, very unacceptable!

The rule of thumb for the maximum daily time spent on homework is supposed to be 10 minutes for every year of grade. That's 10 minutes for a first grader, 20 minutes for a second grader, 60 minutes for a sixth grader, etc… Ask your child's teacher how much time they expect their students to spend on homework each night. If your child is doing substantially more, ask for modified assignments, so your child is only working that length of time, whether the assignment is finished or not. We did this all through elementary school, and it helped a great deal.

Share your thoughts.

  • Homework time is a disaster every single night and weekend in my home. My 7th grade son with ADHD/anxiety routinely spends 2-4 hours on homework. He has a 504 plan but his school is adamant that they will not give any reduction of homework. He is very bright but just shuts down when overwhelmed by homework. I will not be surprised when he is trying to drop out of school in HS. I have even told the school he already vetbslizes this along with extreme emotional upset and they are still unwilling to do anything help ease the stress that homework is giving. The only thing they've been willing to do is to give one extra night…which only stresses him out more because it just puts him behind. Between his troubles and my 9 year old sons emotional issues (ADHD/SPD/anxiety) I feel like I am constantly drowning and instead of throwing me a life preserver I just get more water thrown at me 🙁

    • I'm so sorry Tracy! I would continue to push the school. If the principal refuses a reduced assignments accommodation, I'd call the Director of Special Education/Special Services/Exceptional Children for your school board (city of county department of education) and let that individual know that there's a school they are responsible for that is refusing to appropriately accommodate a special needs student. Again, forcing a kid with a disability to work on homework substantially longer than their peers is PUNISHING THAT CHILD FOR BEING BORN WITH A DISABILITY. That's not acceptable.

  • My 13 y/o son has had ADHD since he was in 1st grade. We choose to medicate him because he can't make it through a day without it. He's now in 7th grade, in a charter/college prep school, and homework is mostly just classwork that he didn't finish. He has a 504 plan in place to help him at school. But at home it is a fight, EVERY. SINGLE. DAY to get any more work out of him. He is failing one class, and close to failing 3 more. I have done everything from tutoring, to one-on-one time with homework. No matter what I try, nothing works. Electronics are his vice, so those have been taken until his grades come up. I've spent 3+ hours today to get him to write a 5 paragraph essay that's due by midnight. I've cried, threatened, walked away, and now feel like the worst parent on Earth right now. I have met with the teachers, principal, counselor (today), and everyone in between. Its so frustrating that we end up yelling, lecturing, and then my husband and I fight about it. I'm currently looking into military schools for lack of any other options. Do you have any ideas how I can do better?? I'm a nurse and my husband is a supervisor, so schedules are weird some days. I'm starting to think there is some autism problems in there also. I just don't know what to do now. Even psychologists can't get through to him. Do you have any additional advice, or strategies to try with him?? I'm at my wits end and I feel like I'm destroying my son and my family every night. My daughter (6th grade) takes his side and hates me too most days. Please help…

    • Hi Lori!

      I'm so, so sorry to hear that you're struggling so much. Let's see what we can do about it.

      What you have done so far and are doing now isn't working. That means it's time to try something new. No matter how much you threaten or punish, it won't change the behavior, because you're not addressing the underlying issue, which is the actual problem. I just did an entire podcast on this last week – listen here: https://parentingadhdandautism.com/2017/11/02/parenting-adhd-podcast-015-behavior-just-symptom/.

      As Ross Greene says, “Kids do well IF they can.”

      So, let's take threats and punishment off the table (I know, it feels wrong, but it isn't working and won't solve the problem). Instead, let's ask WHY. Why is he refusing to do homework? Why is he taking so much longer to do the work than it should take? And ask your son why he is struggling with homework. We don't ask our kids for their insights enough.

      Potential reasons include:
      – undiagnosed learning disability (if writing is an overwhelming struggle, it could be written expression disorder and/or dysgraphia, my son has both)
      – overwhelming volume of work
      – doesn't know how to get started
      – doesn't understand the assignment or the work
      – just isn't good at school

      That's right — some people just aren't good at school. They don't learn the way our public schools approach education, and struggle with the skills required, like executive functioning. Parents of kids with ADHD must adjust their expectations of “success at school” most of the time. Smart kids sometimes can't accomplish A's and B's.

      However, he should be passing. The fact that he's not signals to me that the school isn't supporting his needs effectively. It isn't laziness or a lack of motivation, or even self-discipline necessarily. It is a difference in his brain that puts him at a real disadvantage under the mainstream, neurotypical expectations of school.

      Remember too, while he's 13, developmentally he's 20-30% behind. That means some of his skills are still at the 9-10-year-old level. That's where expectations need to be in those areas.

      I know this isn't the response you expected, and probably not what you wanted to hear, but it's the truth.

      Use Dr. Greene's Collaborative Problem Solving Model (CPS) to get to the root of the issue: https://www.livesinthebalance.org/walking-tour-parents. It really works wonders!


  • This sounds so rosy perfect. My 7th grade ADHD/ASD son is on an IEP at school (took six years and a near legal battle, but it got put into place). We do EVERYTHING listed above, and all he will do is fight and battle and shred his homework. He is doing okay in his classes with a class work focus, but when it comes to homework, even accommodated homework, he won’t. Even if he does it under duress, he won’t turn it in… even with a learning strategies class/teacher to help. He is drastically failing and does not seem to care… he simply would prefer to do anything other than work. He is the same way with his singular chore, emptying the dishwasher. He has always struggled with having to deal with the ‘inconvenience’ of work. We are at a total loss. We are exhausted from the battles and home repairs from him being in a rage. His meds help ‘take the edge off.’

    • There's always a reason behind this behavior. Challenge yourself to stop using words like “refuses” and “won't” and ask yourself WHY. He wants to do well, but he may have lost hope that it's even possible for him anymore.

  • Thanks to all the brave parents who are willing to share their journey. It helps knowing you’re not alone in the struggles. Some things you mentioned, Penny, are a good reminder. I often forget in the heat of the moment that their is a reason why my son is so angry, refusing help, etc. When I step back at the end of the day, with perspective, alone, without an extra parent’s perception, or teacher/principal expectations, it’s always clear that the little boy inside (the one that is much younger than the one standing in front of me) doesn’t believe in himself. He knows compared to his peers that he’s not the same. He feels alone no matter what my good intentions are for him. And what he always needs most are 1. More understanding than I could ever imagine someone needing 2. More breaks than I think are justified 3. And more grace than I alone can often muster. But ironically I need the exact same things!!! Great amounts of understanding that this is incredibly challenging, breaks!, and to forgive myself when I forget to put love first. I do not have a great co-parent but I have an awesome kid who feels incredibly bad about himself most days at some point. I just gotta love him and me through it. I get lots of help by reading about what helps, listening to others with atypical kids, prayer, therapy and yes, a drink when I need one. 🙂 <3

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I'm Penny Williams.

I help stuck and struggling parents (educators, too) make the pivots necessary to unlock success and joy for neurodivergent kids and teens, themselves, and their families. I'm honored to be part of your journey!

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Makes time visual for those with time blindness.


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A chair that gives kids a sensory hug.

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