Organizing a homework space for special-needs children

August 10, 2011

For children with special needs or mild learning disabilities, homework often becomes a responsibility shared with their parents. Mom or Dad may spend an hour or two helping them complete math problems, and all the teacher sees is the A paper turned in the next day.

“Oftentimes [these students] kind of fly under the radar screen because parents help them so much at home,” says Ann Dolin, a former Fairfax special-education teacher and founder of the local tutoring service Educational Connections. “Lots of times kids come back to school with a beautiful paper. Everything’s done. The teacher has no idea what it took to get that child to do it.”

Dolin, with her army of 163 tutors, helps children of all learning capabilities complete class assignments in a timely manner and figures out the best way for them to focus at home.

“They don’t have to sit down at the desk the whole time,” she says. “They could have a lap desk or sit down on the floor. Some kids may pace around the house and read their notes . . . That type of movement during homework is important to many kids.”

We spoke with Dolin by phone about creating a homework space for young children with special needs, which school supplies work best for these students and how to make a homework area fun. Here are edited excerpts.

Q. Where is the best place to set up a homework station?

A. It really needs to be in earshot of the parent. Many kids with learning disabilities can’t really be left on their own and be expected to get their homework done independently. For example, the kitchen might be too distracting for some children, so a good alternative would be the dining room because it’s not right in the middle of a really busy location, but the parent can walk around the corner and check up on the child.

Generally the bedroom is not a good place for elementary-schoolers to do homework unless they are really motivated. It is far too distracting.

You kind of have to identify the needs of your child. Some kids like the hum of a busy area, like the kitchen. Some kids can’t stand the noise and the other goings-on, and they really need a quiet place. But in general you don’t want a place where the TV is on and there is a lot of stimulation from other distractions.

Q. How should you set it up?

A. The main thing is that you want to have everything together. For example, you could have an old shoe box lying around and put everything the student needs in that shoe box: pencils, markers, ruler, calculator.

For a lot of kids with learning disabilities, an electronic spell-checker is fabulous. I usually order them from Amazon because they are a lot cheaper. It helps them be more independent. Instead of saying, “Mom, how do you spell this or how do you spell that?” Mom can say, “I will spell this one for you, but you can look up the next one on your Spelling Ace.” Many kids with special needs are really frustrated with using a dictionary. Kids with learning problems often spell phonetically. So for example, they might spell phone f-o-n-e, and they’re never going to find it in a dictionary. A Spelling Ace picks up phonetic variations of words.

I like to keep things in a box rather than in a place. This way the supplies are portable.

Q. Besides a desk, what else works well for doing homework?

A. Many kids have a hard time sitting still at a desk. One of my favorite things is a lap desk. You’ve probably seen it at Office Depot or Barnes & Noble where it’s a cushion on the underside and the top is a hard, flat surface. I like them because the child can really sit anywhere comfortably. And oftentimes, if you let children pick it out, they are more likely to use it.

There is a Web site called Room It Up that has really colorful lap desks and Pottery Barn Kids has really cool lap desks.

Q. What’s something fun parents can add to a homework space that’s not too distracting?

A. There is this really neat product called Tangle Jr. It’s a fidget toy. For kids who are hyperactive, they are always grabbing at things or flicking their hair and they’re craving sensory input. They are doing that to help sustain their attention. And so as parents, often when we see our kids doing that, fidgeting with a pencil or flicking a paper clip, it’s our first inclination to say, “Stop doing that. Focus on your homework.” Instead of something dangerous like a paper clip, you can give them Tangle Jr.

The other thing I always suggest to parents is to have a timer. I really love timers for kids, especially those with ADHD. I call them Super Bowl kids. The Super Bowl is on for hours, but the amount of playing time is probably 40 minutes. Sometimes kids are like that when they do their homework. They might sit there for two hours, but the amount of time they actually do homework is a half-hour.

What we know is that when you say to a child, “Okay, you have spelling, math and reading assignments, so start your homework,” and it seems like this really big task to them, they’re likely to procrastinate and drag it on. But if you say, “I’m setting the timer for 15 minutes, and I want you to work as hard as you can for 15 minutes and then when the timer goes off you can daydream or you can take a break,” what parents will find is children are far more productive in that 15 minutes than they would be alone for that half hour. And it doesn’t have to be 15 minutes. It depends on the age of the child. For a little kid, it can be seven minutes; for an older kid, it can be 20 minutes.

Q. Are there certain school supplies you recommend for students with special needs?

A. Some kids like raised line paper so that kids with a writing disability can feel the lines on the paper, and it helps them write neater. Many kids with a disorder called dysgraphia use it. Their writing can be illegible, and the paper helps them stay on the line.

Also, the E.Z.C. Reader. They are really cool, colored reading guides. Not only does color help with attention, using the guides helps them read more fluidly because their eyes are able to track the lines better. Color has been proved with research to help with attention, and the tracking helps kids’ eyes move more fluidly from left to right.

Q. Are chalkboards or dry-erase boards helpful for certain tasks?

A. Kids are much more likely to write on a dry-erase board than a piece of paper. But you can’t turn in a dry-erase board. But if a parent is practicing math problems or helping with spelling, then a white board is the way to go.

I’m not sure what it is about a pencil, but for kids with sensory issues, the feeling of a pencil on paper is uncomfortable for them. When you write with a pencil, there’s friction between the pencil and paper. And that pulling or tugging is not as appealing as white boards because the marker just glides across the board.

Kids also like erasing, so it’s not set in stone. When it’s wrong, you can erase it so much faster with a white board.

Q. How should parents set up the area if there are multiple kids doing homework?

A. They should purchase study carrels. Those are just inexpensive cardboard dividers that can fold up and be put away at the end of homework. And they really prohibit kids from making faces at each other or poking each other. They’re really good at allowing a child to focus on his work and not worry about what another child is doing across the table. We get our study carrels from Calloway House.

Further reading:

If you would like to read more on this topic, Dolin suggests the following books: “The Organized Student,” (Fireside, 2005) by Donna Goldberg, “Organizing the Disorganized Child,” (HarperCollins, 2009) by Martin L. Kutscher and Marcella Moran and “Homework Without Tears,” (Canter & Associates) by Lee Canter and Lee Hausner.

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