The hell of homework – just add ADHD

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Most days, I don’t think about the fact that M has ADHD. It’s just part of him, like his hair colour. He takes medication to help him focus and reduce his anxiety. Over the years, I’ve developed strategies to minimize his triggers and help him learn to cope; at this point, they’re so internalized, I don’t consciously think that reminding him to take his keys in the morning or giving him a head’s up before he has to get off the computer or the TV is related to his ADHD. Yes, he’s messy and has a trouble organizing himself to do household tasks, like clean up his room. But he’s a 12-year old boy. I have brothers, so I know full well that this is pretty typical of this age group.

Recently, M was having some significant challenges completing his school work. His home room teacher advised me that M hadn’t turned in several assignments. It was the end of term, and M needed to submit these assignments, so his teacher could mark them. It sounded simple – M would spend a couple of nights at home and get caught up.

It was, however, anything but. Just getting M to the table to start working was a battle of near-epic proportions. One night, his dad spent 20 minutes getting him to stop standing on his head in a chair and sit down and finish a geometry work sheet. M insisted it was “too hard,” and claimed he didn’t understand the concepts. Once his butt was actually in a chair and he focused on the questions, he knew most of the answers and finished them in about 15 minutes.

Next up was a geography project and finishing up some french vocabulary. I assumed that we could build off the success of the night before and get both of them done without too much of a struggle. Wrong. Once again, M declared it was “too hard for him” and refused to work on his geography project. He refused all offers of parental assistance and, with great drama and a few tears, enumerated all the reasons he couldn’t do the project. This was met with insistence from both parents as to why he should and could do the assignment. Matt insisted he didn’t care if he failed or not. Tempers flared and there was much strum and drang. Everyone was exhausted by the time they went to bed.

It wasn’t until a couple of days later that I realized what was going on  – this kid has ADHD. It makes it much more difficult for him to organize himself. It was less about not wanting to do an assignment or a project (although there’s certainly an element of this too); he isn’t able to look at an assignment and mentally break it down into the requisite steps. Not that this comes naturally to very many 12-year-olds, but for M, it’s even more challenging. It’s as if he lacks the necessary program that allows his brain to sort out the information and organize it in a meaningful way. If the project is at all complicated (i.e., involves several steps) or unfamiliar to M, he shuts down. Even more frustrating, when M did complete an assignment, he’s forget to give it to his teacher so it could be marked. Even when he put it in his agenda, he’d still carry it around for days before handing it in.

You would think that as his parent, I would have put tow and tow together sooner. But M’s elementary school had a “no homework” policy. We had our hands full dealing with his behavioural challenges (also ADHD-related), so no homework was fine by us. M’s transition to middle-school has gone better than I expected, so maybe it wasn’t a big surprise that I didn’t immediately make the link between the homework battles and his ADHD.

Once the penny dropped, I started trying to map out a plan to help M learn to organize himself. His dad and I could push and pull him through middle school, but high school isn’t far off and he needs skills to manage the work load. Fortunately, I have a good friend with an older child with ADHD, who gave me a number of good tips. The experts suggest that consistency is key for children with ADHD and suggest that students use an agenda which parents and teachers check regularly. M has an agenda provided by the school, but he told me that his teacher wasn’t actively using it any more. My friend suggested that an electronic organizer might work better. M doesn’t have a phone but I figured his iPod would have some sort of app he could use. However, when I asked him about it, he wasn’t very keen (he did, however, take the opportunity to lobby for a phone).

The last step was to meet M’s home room teacher and the Learning Support teacher. M already has accommodations through his IEP and the teachers were very helpful in terms of coming up with ideas to help him. Although M wasn’t keen on my suggestion to download a calendar on his iPod, his teacher helped him set it up. Most of M’s teachers post weekly summaries of the class work, so I’m checking the website on a regular basis. M used to forget to bring worksheets home but most of them are available on the website, so we re-print them as necessary. it’s not the most environmentally friendly approach, it cuts down on the excuses. M does most of his written work on the computer, both at school and at home, as he’s started saving everything on the Cloud. Even better, he set this up on his own. He seems to be taking more responsibility to do his work in class – when I reminded him about his current french project, he told me he still had several classes in which to complete it.

I don’t expect that we’ve “solved” the homework challenge. As I’ve learned over the years with M, there’s no such thing as an easy fix. I don’t expect him to rush to the table every night to do his homework. He did spend some time one day this week working on an assignment before his dad or I got home – his dad reminded him, but he did it. This is progress.

This recent experience is also a reminder to me that my child does have challenges. They may not always be obvious on a day-to-day basis – he’s doing well these days, so it’s easy to forget about his ADHD, etc. Sometimes, though, I need to dig a little deeper and figure out why he’s acting a certain way. It’s too easy to attribute his behaviour to stubbornness or teenaged attitude. That’s not fair to him. While sometimes he wishes he didn’t have ADHD, he’s managing it, rather than the other way around. This too, is progress.

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