Homework Help From Occupational Therapy

A woman helping a young boy with schoolwork

Ashley Opp Hofmann

Homework. The term often causes dread among students and parents alike, but as students go back to school, there’s no need for them to also return to previous struggles they may have had with homework. Occupational therapists can help students, teachers, and parents look at all aspects of the homework process and the student’s skills, and help him or her to succeed in school.

 The Trouble With Homework

Why is homework such an issue? According to school-based occupational therapist Judith Schoonover, MEd, OTR/L, ATP, the main problems children tend to have with homework are organization, working independently, knowing what to do, and turning in the finished product. All sorts of reasons can account for students having trouble in each of these areas, and an occupational therapy practitioner can help to identify them. But addressing two big areas—organization and student accountability—can dramatically help students to “own” their homework and their role in completing it.

To help with organization, a student must first have a schoolbag that is the right size to carry home materials and return the completed work. At home, environments and lifestyles play a big part in how children approach their homework. “They need a safe, orderly, consistent place to do homework,” Schoonover says. “If a home or lifestyle is cluttered, it makes it harder for kids to order themselves. Children crave order and most thrive under schedules. They like going to bed and getting up at a certain time. They might whine about it, but it helps them feel better physically and emotionally when there’s consistency.”

Students also need to be held accountable. Sometimes they struggle with the independence that homework requires because of the amount of support they receive. “A lot of students lack organizational skills and often teachers, teachers’ assistants, or even parents, in an effort to be helpful, do so much for them that the student doesn’t know that these materials or their assignments really belong to them,” Schoonover says. “Oftentimes, someone puts the homework in a student’s folder, takes it out of his or her folder, turns it into the homework box, and writes down the assignments in his or her notebook.”

“I also see a tendency that when children forget their work, parents go and collect it for them,” Schoonover says. “There seems to be a diminished accountability for kids and few opportunities for children to be held responsible. When they are not involved with the [homework] process from start to finish, it is difficult for them to see the relationships between the parts to the whole.”

How Can Occupational Therapy Help Teachers?

In general education, occupational therapy practitioners address student struggles broadly as a classroom consultant by collaborating with teachers. An occupational therapy practitioner might observe the routine of the classroom during the school day; identify potential barriers to turning in homework, such as the homework box being difficult to find; and suggest ways for the teacher to arrange the room to support students’ different learning styles and organizational skills.

Occupational therapy practitioners can also help teachers to make their expectations clear. Often, the written instructions for homework, if there are any, are so obtuse that neither the child nor the parent can figure them out. Occupational therapists can assist the teacher in delineating the sequence of expectations in a manner easily discernible or understandable. A teacher might be so familiar with the content and what is expected that he or she may not realize that the instructions are not sufficient for the student to complete the assignment.

How Can an Occupational Therapy Practitioner Help Individual Students?

For an occupational therapy practitioner to work directly with a student, the student needs to have an individualized education program (IEP), which specifies occupational therapy. If failure to complete homework is adversely affecting educational achievement, an occupational therapy practitioner can identify the reasons why and help the student, teacher, and parents to address them.

“Sometimes, students can’t finish their homework because they don’t have the tools to express what they know. When they get home, they’re not successful because there is nobody to scribe, type, or spell for them,” Schoonover says. “The problem may be a poor match of what is expected and what the student is capable of doing. That’s where an occupational therapy practitioner can help and make suggestions.” For example, a student who cannot write could make a scrapbook that depicts what he or she has learned, use a computer to type, or record an audio response.

What makes occupational therapy practitioners so good at addressing problems with homework? “We have an understanding of the physicality of learning and the emotional components of learning. We understand the effects of medication, and we know what mobility issues may interfere with learning,” Schoonover says.

For example, a student sitting at a desk that is not at the right height might expend too much energy trying to balance, “making it difficult to focus or perform motorically,” Schoonover explains. The student may miss verbal instruction because he or she is paying so much attention to maintaining posture, although the student may not even realize the problem. An occupational therapy practitioner can identify this type of barrier.

Or, if a student is unable to sequence or organize an assignment, it may be because it appears endless or overwhelming to him or her. “The occupational therapy practitioner can make suggestions to the child, teacher, or parent regarding how to break up assignments into manageable parts, circumventing a self-defeating attitude or a homework battle,” Schoonover says.

How Can Parents Help?

Schoonover has some advice for parents to help make homework time less painful. Holding children accountable, she says, is absolutely key, and there are simple ways for kids to learn to take responsibility for themselves. “Parents can assign responsibility [with] consequences. Children need to have chores like making their beds, carrying in the groceries, or raking the lawn. That’s how they learn the work ethic that’s a part of doing homework without being reminded and nagged until it becomes a battle,” Schoonover says.

Daily routines, such as homework, must be consistent; expectations and consequences must be consistent; and the environment for doing homework must be consistent, meaning that the child should do his or work in the same orderly place each day.

Every child is different, and will approach and complete homework in a different way. Occupational therapy practitioners understand and can identify a child’s strengths as well as the underlying causes of why he or she struggles in school. Most importantly, occupational therapy practitioners can give children the tools they need to successfully fulfill their roles as students.