People (like me) have strong opinions on this topic while the research is inconclusive. In fact, more recent studies suggest that homework may be detrimental, not just ineffective. After decades of debate, without any conclusive evidence that homework is beneficial, I think it’s past time to abandon this “strategy.” If homework were truly valuable, that should be evident by now. I do get passionate (and frustrated) about this topic because I’ve seen too many kids and their parents go through nightmarish struggles for no good reason.
1. For special needs kids, but especially twice exceptional kids, the school day has been hard and long enough. Sometimes attendees at a workshop on learning disabilities participate in activities that mimic the struggles of learning disabled kids. Participants typically report that they had no idea school could be so difficult. Here are some examples of worst case scenarios I’ve seen numerous times:
- You have a reading disability. You spend the day surrounded by written directions and worksheets that cannot be deciphered. You rely on other kids for a sense of what to do. You don’t bother with the directions that you can’t read them, so you make many mistakes, even while copying others’ work. Some kids get annoyed at you for copying them. You may be good at math, but you can’t read the word problems. You struggle to copy words and sentences from the board. Even working as hard as you can, you lag behind the other kids. It’s impossible to keep up! You spend your day stressed and trying not to appear as stupid as you feel.
- You have a writing disability. You discover that you must write all day long. You write in reading, math, science, social studies, and then there’s writing itself. Even though you are great at math, now you have to “explain your thinking” by writing a paragraph, so math is no fun any more. You have no idea how to spell most words correctly, so you try to copy what other kids have written or hunt for words somewhere in the room. You feel like an idiot when you’re told to use a dictionary, because you have no idea how to get beyond the first letter (or maybe two). If you do finish your writing assignment, it doesn’t look anything like the other kids’ work. You spend the day stressed and trying not to appear as stupid as you feel.
- You are on the autism spectrum. You are trying your best to understand the directions, but the teacher is talking too fast. You have no idea what’s important and what’s not; it’s a jumble of words. You try to copy a kid nearby, who gets upset. Now you’re in trouble and feeling mad. The teacher isn’t fair at all, you have no idea why she is upset with you, and you still haven’t finished that work. None of it makes sense and the other kids are driving you crazy. You feel like you are crawling out of your skin. Will this day ever come to an end? You spend the day stressed and trying not to appear as stupid as you feel.
- You have an attention problem. You thought it was going to be a good day because the class did this “brain jam” action thing first thing in the morning, but now, you have to sit for a LONG time and listen to the teacher talk. You notice that another class is walking by the room and you wonder when it’s time for recess. Your feet accidentally hit the chart stand and the teacher calls your name, telling you to sit at the front of the group. You move up there but the other kids don’t give you enough space. Then you notice a beetle crawling right along the edge of the wall. Someone pokes you because the teacher is calling your name. Now you have to sit in a chair next to the group. Some kids make faces at you so you do the same back at them. Then the teacher assistant calls you to her desk, asking why you can’t pay attention. You spend the day stressed and trying not to appear as stupid as you feel.
- You are twice exceptional. You used to love school but now it’s one boring thing after another. On top of that, you can’t read like other kids. That doesn’t make sense, since you can understand more about the characters and plot than many other kids. You are terrific at math, but can’t read the directions so you skip them. It looks like really easy math, anyway, but after you finish, the teacher says you did it all wrong. You try to pay attention but nothing is interesting. You feel this knot in your stomach because reading group is coming up. You imagine how you could get the teacher to cancel reading groups, coming up with a couple of good ideas. But then reading begins, after all. You spend the day stressed and trying not to appear as stupid as you feel.
My point is that school is stressful for kids with special needs, probably in far more ways than I have ever observed. Then what happens? They are assigned more work on what appears to be an endless school day. After exhausting their mental effort and emotional resilience all day, they are required to find some fresh source of concentration and energy on tasks which only trigger memories of their failings during the day.
2. For special needs kids, homework is usually ineffective practice. There’s a reason that students are identified as having special needs. Even with an inclusion or mainstreaming model, these kids often need work that is tailored to meet their unique learning challenges. By definition, practice means that key skills are already in place. Homework is not the time for students to learn new concepts. Many parents fill in that knowledge gap by “helping” their kids through assignments which their kids find confusing, boring, repetitious, and unpleasant. The learning disabled kid who did not have the requisite skills to complete a similar assignment in class, long before it was 6 or 7 PM, must now tackle the same type of work. The ADHD kid may be completing unfinished classwork as homework, which is punishment for having a miserable day. For the twice exceptional kid, it’s more drudgery after a grueling day of drudgery. For the ASD kid, this may be the first time they actually attempted work of this sort, having missed the instructions and eventually tuning out the barrage of teacher-speak.
3. For the parents of special needs kids, homework is often a source of confusion and misery as well. Many parents find themselves in the unenviable role of homework coach or hapless cheerleader, trying to pull their child through the homework tangle. Just when these kids need a chance to chill, they may spend more than twice as long as their peers on “practice,” accompanied by unintended conflicts with parents. Some special needs kids are so rule-oriented that their parents can’t stop them from slaving away all night. Other parents are fully convinced that the teacher must know best, so they badger and cajole their kids through inexplicable assignments. Even if an IEP provides modifications for homework, such as transcribing or reduced time, many parents feel guilty about using these modifications, as though they have failed in some way (perhaps conditioned by their own homework experiences).
Special needs kids do often need additional practice on skills, but that should occur during the school day. If that isn’t occurring, then something needs to be changed at school, not added to the child’s backpack.