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Dear AuSM Therapist,

I am struggling with my 14-year-old son and his homework and grades. It seems like he does not care unless we punish him. Sometimes, even if he does his homework, he won’t turn it in. He had Fs and many late assignments. It seems like he wants attention, even if it's negative. We feel stuck, and our only option is taking away something. However, this makes all of us miserable and is very difficult to enforce. We also do not want to punish or push too much as we know, he also struggles with anxiety. What can we do?

-Homework Help
Dear Homework Help-

This is a concern I hear from many families. Many of my clients report not remembering to turn in their homework even after completing, or that they cannot see the point of completing. There are multiple potential reasons your son could be struggling. Try some of these suggestions and see what helps:

You are correct that taking away things as punishment probably is not the best way to go. Even though the situation is frustrating and taking away preferred things seems to be the only motivation, there are more positive ways to look at the situation and help set your son up for success. You may want to check first with your school team to see if there are options for creating a better system. Sometimes students will have a choice of a study hall or a homework help class that can be very helpful with getting most of the work done in school. Sometimes this is not an option for younger kids, and it may mean that their case manager or another teacher can do a check-in each day going over what is due. A homework system and modifications can be addressed informally or formally in an IEP meeting. Getting the support at school may help alleviate some of the struggles that may occur at home.   

It also may be essential to make an after school visual schedule. While it can be tough to set up a routine and stick with it, this may be something that will pay off for all of you. Knowing what is expected at certain times can be useful. Starting a new habit is hard at first, but once we start getting in the practice, and the habit is formed, it likely will not take as much effort. When a routine is set up and expected, it can help reduce some of the anxiety your son may be feeling around homework. 

Keeping to the schedule is where you need to remain consistent and compassionate. If some screen time is allowed before homework, know that asking to transition from an activity such as screen time can be difficult for a lot of adolescents. If homework is a challenge, you are requesting to do two difficult things at once, which may increase the struggle. You may find it is easier to set up a situation where your child can have screen time after homework is complete. Or you may find your son needs to have screen time right after school, then dinner, then homework, and maybe screen time if there is time after homework. 

You may want to set up a report card your son can complete with you regarding the homework experience, such as how is it working, does he feel supported, does he like space, what would he like to see changed. If he has input on how the system is organized, he may want to participate more. 

Another strategy may be to try talking through the work: thinking out loud and problem-solving can be a great model for your child. It also may help to talk out loud about your thoughts and feelings, especially to if you are getting frustrated, and model what you can do to help yourself when frustrated. If you can establish a good relationship with the school team, you may be able to start small and slow and build up the amount of work and time. This likely is something that would be individualized for your son.

If your son seems to like a predictable response, try to make a big celebration for persevering or reports of turning in the homework. Keep your feedback minimal when you need to correct or ask about missing assignments. If you are worried that more support is required, you may need to call an IEP meeting. Another option may be to meet with your other supports such as a therapist to discuss strategies for setting up values and coping with uncomfortable emotions such as anxiety. Ask him what is important to him. Learn about what he hopes he can learn or do more of this month, next year, or even after high school.

Because each child is unique, it's difficult to pinpoint the exact supports needed. It's OK to pause and help your son advocate for what he needs and what is important to him.  

-Sara Pahl
AuSM Counseling and Consulting Services
Dr. Amy Carrison, PsyD, LADC
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Sara Pahl, MS, BCBA, LPCC, NCC
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Bjorn Walter, MA
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James Rechs, LICSW
Rochester Office
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Barbara L. Photo
Dr. Barb Luskin, PhD, LP
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Beth Pitchford, MA, LPCC
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Meg Benefield, MSW, LICSW
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Sara Lahti, MA
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