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Homework can be a horror for LD perfectionists

By Deb Browne, MS, CCC-SLP, Brehm Preparatory School

Some kids would rather watch "Nightmare on Elm Street" than do homework. The H word -- to many students with learning disabilities -- is the true horror.

What makes it so scary and horrible for some students, and how can adults help?

First, we can realize the internal demands some kids put on themselves. A good portion of students with learning differences struggle with a double whammy: not only do they grapple with their particular LD, at the same time they are perfectionists! When adults recognize this, we stand a better chance of easing their anxiety and achieving harmony during homework time.

Perfectionism is often related to cognitive rigidity -- a characteristic seen in individuals on the Autism Spectrum, including Asperger's and Nonverbal Learning Disability -- but it also can plague those with other diagnoses, such as obsessive compulsive disorder, language disorder, and so on. "Black and white" thinkers judge themselves as good or bad, right or wrong, with no in between. Yet the learning process involves mistakes, which are poorly tolerated by this group, who may respond with anger directed at adults or themselves. Facing their H-work and their inevitable lack of perfection can be a nightmare for all concerned.

As educators and parents, our job with perfectionist students who have learning differences is to help them build an internal tolerance for the learning process, while providing external supports along the way.

Internal tolerance can be built by instilling two key concepts: that the students are learning and that learning is a gradual process.

From a cognitive standpoint, we can help students see themselves as learners and understand that learning naturally involves making mistakes. This concept may appeal to the black-and-white-thinking group which appreciates having a concrete "role" and understanding the expectations involved. It is expected that everyone will make mistakes while they are gradually learning.

Adults can act as role models by exhibiting more relaxed responses when they make mistakes themselves.

Role-reversal exercises in which the student teaches the adult, and the adult models positive reactions -- "Oops! I'll try again." -- can be helpful. Then language and visual metaphors can be used to help students understand the gradual nature of learning.

Making the "gradual" concept concrete can be illustrated by choosing an appropriate visual metaphor combined with language. The aim is to represent the idea that at first, the students may know nothing about a subject; yet through trying and making mistakes, they eventually learn and build their knowledge.

Metaphors can be used of moving from empty to full -- a container -- or from zero to a higher number such as a thermometer or speedometer. A drawing of a staircase could include words on each step, moving from knowing "nothing" to the first step where they will know a little, to the next step where they will know more, continuing up to knowing a lot, "getting it," etc.

When a student makes a mistake, seeing where they are on the continuum of learning can be a comfort. An appropriate adult response could be a light-hearted: "Oh, you're on step three in learning this, of course you'll make some mistakes!" and reinforcing that students can't go from zero to a hundred or jump from the bottom step to the top without passing through the in-between area where mistakes are expected.

Adolescents who work out can be reminded of the gradual addition of weights, such as, "You know you can't bench press 100 pounds right away. You slowly build up to it. Learning is the same way."

Another approach might be to actually list the steps or types of information being learned. Students are not born knowing long division, or even how to count. A time line with the skills learned at increasing ages could be used, starting with simple numbers at age two or three, then adding at age six, then subtracting, and so on, up to calculus which only the very old can understand (just kidding). When students start to get the idea of a time line of learning, a relaxed acceptance can emerge.

With that cognitive foundation laid, adults can develop the external supports which can help our perfectionistic students persevere through their homework.

1 - Clear expectations for assignments. Students need specifics because anything vague can create anxiety. How will they know when they are done if they don't know how many sentences to write or what materials to use? If more explicit information is needed about what's to be done, don't hesitate to open lines of communication with teachers; they will likely be thrilled about parent involvement. Be aware that different types of homework create different levels of stress: all divergent activities (brainstorming, writing, etc.) are usually more difficult for concrete thinkers than convergent (fill in the blank, fact-based questions).

2 - Conducive work space. Students should have a clear place to work such as a desk or table with good lighting, and a quiet environment. The student should not be able to hear the television at all from their work space.

3 - Make it fun -- fun materials. The choice of a favorite color for a highlighter, cool pens or pencils, colorful folders, etc.; can offset the "work" part of homework.

4 - Strategies which fit each student. Your student's IEP and accommodations listed can be a reference for this question, but you probably already know if your student is a kinesthetic (likes to move) or visual learner, has trouble concentrating for long, etc. Use this knowledge to apply fitting strategies. The kinesthetic student could sit on an exercise ball, or have a simple fidget toy. Breaks could be scheduled every 10-15 minutes when the student should get up and do something active, say shoot 10 baskets. Those with memory challenges may have a card with the steps for math problems shown in words or pictures.

5 - Eliminate distractions. See note about television above. The dog and the cellphone may need to be inaccessible. Whether listening to music is appropriate for your student is a good question for a Speech-Language Pathologist who can interpret auditory processing testing. The general consensus is that music without words does help some students focus. Observing the student at work usually can answer this question.

6 - Routine. A set time for homework reinforces the expectation.

7 - Follow-up, feedback about completion, not perfection. If you are at the beginning stage of remediating the homework horrors, focus more on completion than getting each question correct. Students see their instructors as having the job of teaching and may balk at parental attempts to correct and teach. The parental job at this stage could be simply to check the assignment expectations and whether the student has met them.

8 - Reward. Have the student suggest a few possible rewards to work toward. Simple visual reinforcers such as a calendar with "HW DONE!" each time can make their accomplishments concrete.

9 - Independence. Being perfectionists, this group of students often thinks they must do everything on their own. Explain that advocating for help and asking clarifying questions are also expected parts of the learner's job. Involve them and encourage them to take ownership of the process by having them choose which strategies they think will help them get their homework done.

Empower your young perfectionists with a tolerance for learning that will help them in all aspects of their lives. Hopefully, these tops will help you change the homework horrors into more harmonious evenings.

Deb Browne, MS, CCC-SLP, has been a speech therapist at Brehm Preparatory School for 11 years. She holds a Master of Science Degree in Communication Disorders and Sciences (1999) and a Bachelor of Science in Journalism (1979) from Southern Illinois University. Contact Brehm at:, by phone at: 618.457.0371, or via email at: .

Disclaimer: Internet Special Education Resources (ISER) provides this information in an effort to help parents find local special education professionals and resources. ISER does not recommend or endorse any particular special education referral source, special educational methodological bias, type of special education professional, or specific special education professional.


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