Is Executive Function the Missing Link to Your Kid's Success?
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Nov 22, 2022
Let’s be honest… No student loves homework - and for good reason. When we consider the full school day, extracurriculars, and various social components that are all part of a typical school week, it’s no wonder why students want to relax and recharge when they finally get home. However, part of growing up is learning to roll up our sleeves and do those essential things we might not want to do - and for students, this means working through that algebra worksheet or history reading despite being drained from the 10+ hour day they just had.
If you’re already shaking your head thinking “not my kid,” then you’ve come to the right place. Although students typically understand the importance of completing nightly homework, their resolve tends to fade away when the alternative is something more fun after a long day. In those moments, the cost of missing a single homework assignment may seem inconsequential within the context of an entire semester. However, this mindset can have a pile-on effect. Once we’ve given ourselves permission to avoid something difficult once, it’s much easier to give that same permission again. Left unchecked, those few skipped assignments may develop into a strong habit of homework avoidance where every night becomes a battle to even start at all. In other words, it may become something called homework refusal.
In this blog, we’re going to explore homework refusal and what you can do as a parent to nudge your student toward a healthier relationship with their homework. We’ll organize this exploration through four key questions:
Let’s dive right in.
Homework refusal is when a student develops a strong avoidance of homework to the point of regularly refusing to complete their school work. A typical student who struggles with homework refusal may procrastinate to start their assignments, freeze up when they sit down to work, struggle to resist distractions after school, and release outbursts of anger or frustration when confronted about homework.
Over time, these issues often devolve into worsening grades, frequent conflicts at home, and increased stress levels for caregivers and students. As a result, the parent-child relationship can become strained due to nightly battles over homework that make time at home increasingly unpleasant for the whole family. So now that we understand what homework refusal is, how does it develop in the first place?
Homework refusal is a pattern of avoidance that’s developed to cope with the stress of completing homework. Understanding the core cause of homework refusal starts with identifying what exactly about homework is so stressful for your child. We’ll explore a few common reasons for this stress so you can identify which is most relevant to your situation. It’s also important to remember that attributing homework refusal solely to inherent character flaws (like laziness or apathy) is almost always counterproductive. Homework refusal can develop around the same age that other latent challenges around learning or mental health do. In other words, what may seem like laziness at the surface may simply be the tip of a much deeper iceberg with a core problem that exists outside of your student’s control. Let’s explore some of those potential underlying causes. (Note: It’s possible that more than one of these causes is relevant to your student - many can and do coexist.)
If homework feels overwhelming for your student, it’s possible they might be struggling with a learning or neurological difference or disorder that makes completing homework harder than it is for their unaffected peers. These are the most common:
One of the most common ones to consider is Attentive-Deficit/Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD), which generally makes it harder to do difficult or boring tasks because of differences in the ADHD brain’s reward circuit. As a result, those with ADHD struggle with self-management abilities like task initiation, organization, planning & prioritizing, and emotional regulation. You can learn more about ADHD specifically here.
Two other common learning differences to consider include dyslexia, which involves difficulty reading due to problems identifying speech sounds and learning how they relate to letters, and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a developmental disorder that impairs the ability to communicate and interact with the world. If you suspect that any of these examples could be relevant to your child, then we encourage you to have them evaluated by a neuropsychologist or other qualified clinician. Identifying the core struggle is a critical step in conquering the issues surrounding homework. Most importantly, remember that a learning difference can make work feel impossible and overwhelming, so the more parents can do to reduce that stress around homework, the more likely they'll be able to actually help their student - which leads perfectly into our next cause...
When students refuse to do homework, caregivers find themselves with a difficult choice - either directly intervene to make sure homework is completed or disengage and let them suffer the academic consequences that come with missing homework assignments. Both options are unappealing, yet it can be easy to rationalize direct involvement as the best course of action. After all, you want your kid to succeed, right? If you see that a child has trouble staying motivated, organized, and on top of things, shouldn’t caregivers be willing to do whatever it takes to help them overcome that?
Not necessarily! This approach has two big problems: first, it keeps our kids dependent on us instead of helping them learn to do things for themselves. Second, in the context of homework refusal, you have to remember that a student’s avoidance is often a coping mechanism to avoid the stress of homework. When parents start micromanaging homework time by nagging them to start, hovering over them while they work, checking for completion, and enforcing their attention on the task at hand, it's actually making homework more stressful for them. As a result, our noble intention can suddenly have unforeseen consequences. If you’ve found your direct involvement with your child’s work has resulted in more conflict, more stress around school work, and continued avoidance of homework, then the evidence indicates that that approach is likely making the problem worse. Luckily, there are other options parents can do to support this issue that we’ll be covering later on in this article.
Although homework can feel stressful (even for the most successful students), it needn’t be at a debilitating level. If your student has developed high emotional responses to homework that involve crying, shaking, hyperventilating, or tantrums surrounding homework, then anxiety may be the core issue at play. If anxiety is the core issue fueling homework refusal, then micromanaging will likely make it worse. Instead, it's important to seek out mental health support for the anxiety specifically and work through the underlying beliefs around homework that are reinforcing your student’s avoidance.
Some students set unrealistically high expectations for themselves and their work, which can make it overwhelming to finish or even get started in the first place. This phenomenon is called perfectionism, and it’s often misunderstood as only applying to the highest performing students. In reality, perfectionism does not mean your work is actually perfect. In fact, that initial expectation can significantly decrease the quality of work as students may feel they can’t reach the ideal they’ve set for themselves and decide there’s no point in trying at all. Breaking down this core belief is central to overcoming the larger issue of homework refusal and can be done with the support of a coach or mental health professional.
Executive Function skills enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, get started on work, and manage multiple tasks. When an individual struggles with these types of tasks on a regular basis, they're experiencing Executive Dysfunction - a catch-all term for the cognitive, emotional, and behavioral difficulties that impact one's ability to succeed in their academic, professional, and personal lives. These include issues with time management, organization, task initiation, emotional regulation, planning & prioritizing, and impulse control. Up to 90% of those with ADHD struggle with Executive Dysfunction, which impairs goal-directed behavior such as completing homework. However, you don’t need to have a diagnosis of ADHD to struggle with these skills. Many other issues, including the ones we covered so far, can cause issues in those areas. Regardless of the cause, strengthening Executive Function skills can make homework much more manageable.
Oppositional Defiant Disorder (ODD) is a type of behavior disorder defined by children being uncooperative, defiant, and hostile toward peers, parents, teachers, and other authority figures. If the issue of refusal extends beyond homework, this may be a core cause to consider. Seek out a clinician who specializes in this issue, as it’s not an easy one to navigate alone as a parent. Treatment for ODD often includes psychotherapy, parent training, and could involve medication to treat underlying conditions such as depression, anxiety, or ADHD, as well.
Now that we’ve covered the most common causes of homework refusal, let’s explore some of the most practical solutions available to overcome it. We’ll break these solutions up into three categories: parenting strategies, Executive Function strategies, and seeking outside support. Let’s start with parenting solutions first.
As we explored earlier, there are a number of reasons why caregivers ideally shouldn’t be deeply involved in their student’s daily homework routine if that student is working through homework refusal. So that leaves an important question: what might the most useful caregiver role be?
Answering this question starts with talking to your student about what they think is a fair level of involvement with their homework. Is it simply checking in to make sure they know what needs to get done or are they okay with a more involved role that includes setting the environment up for success? The answer will depend on the student, but the important thing is to involve your student in the conversation. If you can speak to them at their level and involve them in the process of establishing your role, you’re already showing them that you’re their ally - not their enemy. Over time, you can evaluate that role in action night-to-night and see how it impacts their ability to get homework done. If something isn’t working or needs to change, return to the initial conversation to come up with a new plan to experiment with. If this doesn’t work or the refusal is still extreme, then you’ll know it’s time to look for outside support, which we’ll cover near the end of this article.
On the opposite end of micromanaging, there’s also the potential for enabling bad habits. This is why it’s important to set clear expectations around homework but also involve your child in creating those expectations. Talk through what seems reasonable and what happens if work isn’t done - and make it clear that you simply want them to succeed. Also, understand that each kid is different regarding how they feel about and approach their school work. Some may find English to be easy but have no patience at all for algebra, some may love math but get frustrated even just thinking about writing an essay. Whatever the case may be for your child, it’s important to know your child’s strengths and challenges, and what conditions allow them to learn best. This includes considering the frequency of breaks while working, how they can transition into work time, what environment allows them to be most productive, and which assignments give them the most trouble. After a month or two, you should have a clearer indication of what’s working, what’s not, and whether your child needs additional support beyond what you can provide.
Completing all their homework may look like a typical night for some students, but for a student with homework refusal, it’s a big deal to even take out their materials to get started - or to have a conversation about what needs to be done. Celebrating these types of small wins with rewards or encouragement can be a great way to motivate students by reminding them that homework time doesn’t have to be such an excruciating experience. Small wins can include trying out a new tool or strategy, sitting down to focus for a given time, or starting homework without a fight. Whatever the wins might be, be sure to acknowledge them so your student knows you see the changes they're making, no matter how small. It reminds them that progress happens often a little bit at a time and even those small increments can feel really great when you shine a light on them.
If your child gets upset at the idea of homework, then simply staying calm through their emotional outbursts and demonstrating a solution-oriented attitude can go a long way. When kids see that their caregivers are calm, collected, and ready to find solutions, it can lay the groundwork to help them regulate themselves and mirror that calmer approach. At the very least, this technique helps caregivers be mindful of keeping their own emotions on a even keel during a challenging interaction with their child.
As you’re working through these changes, work on building a good relationship with your child’s teacher and involve them in the process of change. Start off at the beginning of the school year by sharing your goals and worries with them, and stay in touch as the year progresses to share what you’ve been working on at home and where they can help in the classroom. Your relationship with your child’s teachers will pay off during the good times, but even more so during the challenging ones.
Executive Function strategies are helpful for all students regardless of whether they’re a child with ADHD that refuses to do school work or any other core reason for refusing homework. We know they’re effective because our coaches use them in video sessions with the students they work with and they’ve seen how transformative they can be for all areas of a student's life, including homework. One reason that they’re so effective is that they rely on the belief that when there’s a way there’s a will. In other words, when students know how to get their homework done (the way), they’ll be more motivated to actually do it in the first place (the will). Hopefully, these strategies will help pave that road for your student’s own transformation, too.
Sometimes big tasks are just too overwhelming to even start. To reduce the burden and motivate students out of inaction, have them choose the first assignment to do and spend just 5 minutes on a timer seeing what they can get done.
When we’re given permission to stop after 5 minutes of work, starting may not seem so overwhelming. We’ve seen this tactic become a springboard to more extended periods of work simply due to the fact that it eliminates the fear of getting started. You may find that the 5 minutes lead your student into becoming immersed in the work at hand and continuing to work past that stopping point. If not, then try pairing this tactic with our next strategy…
Every homework assignment is its own task to conquer and may deserve its own scheduled break, too. Maintaining constant focus over a few hours and many assignments is challenging, even for adults. After a while, your student may lose steam and not want to do more. This is where structured breaks come in. When your student makes substantial progress or finishes one assignment, encourage them to take a timed 5 or 10-minute break to transition to their next assignment. Scheduling this into the homework session can make the burden seem less overwhelming overall and the individual assignments easier to start, knowing that there will be breaks in between. This strategy works best when the student has a say in how long the break should be relative to the assignment and what the break should consist of. Activities like listening to a favorite song, shooting a dozen freethrows, or grabbing a healthy snack can recharge a student without deraling their progress entirely
Homework time doesn’t always have to be just doom and gloom. One effective way to make homework time less scary is by pairing work with something fun and rewarding. This could be a pet curled up by your child’s side, their favorite treat waiting for them before they start, or a playlist of music they can enjoy listening to while they work (instrumental tends to be best!) Whatever it might be, pairing homework time with something they enjoy can greatly reduce the urge to avoid whatever assignment needs to get done.
One of the most challenging parts of starting homework is simply the feeling of having to tackle it alone. The chances that your student has a friend or someone from their class they can do homework with is likely high - so why not buddy up with them to get work done? This technique is also called body doubling and can be done with a friend, sibling, or even a caregiver who also needs to get work done, too. On top of making homework time less intimidating, it also can put kids on their best behavior if they’re with a friend that they’re not comfortable melting down in front of. This can be a great way for them to learn firsthand that homework doesn’t have to feel like such an unbearable burden.
The Pomodoro Technique is a method of working in pre-determined chunks of time. It’s essentially a combination of short, productive intervals (like 5-minute goals) and short breaks. For example, your student could work for 25 minutes, take a 5-minute break, and then go back to work. Coach and podcast host, Hannah Choi, encourages her clients to pay attention to diminishing returns when using the Pomodoro Technique. In this context, diminishing returns means that the effort being put in doesn’t necessarily yield the same results as it did when first starting the activity. Finding out when your student is most productive can be an effective bit of insight to have when deciding the sequence of the work they have to do. There are a number of apps that have Pomodoro Timers that can be used to set the working and break periods ahead of time (like this one).
Transitioning from something fun or relaxing to a dreaded non-preferred task like homework is often going to pose a challenge. "Softening the blow" is one way to ease into these types of tasks or responsibilities. Some examples of this could be eating a snack, calling a friend, or even just stepping outside for a quick walk before sitting down to start homework. These all can work well as structured transitions. Best of all? In addition to reducing homework refusal, this approach also builds cognitive flexibility and task initiation - two critical Executive Function skills.
If you’ve read through all this and at any point said to yourself “this is too much for me to do alone,” then it might be worth looking for outside support. For homework refusal, one of these three options might be the best choice, depending on your student’s core challenge area.
Executive Function coaches work on strengthening the core self-management skills of time management, task initiation, organization, emotional regulation, and planning & prioritizing. Since challenges in these areas can make homework much more difficult to approach (let alone finish), working with a coach 1:1 to apply strategies in their week to strengthen these key areas can prove to be the missing ingredient for overcoming homework refusal. Best of all, coaches provide a different perspective from a parent or teacher and can be viewed as an ally in a student's journey rather than another person telling them what they need to do. You can learn about our approach to Executive Function coaching here.
If your child has more involved core issues such as anxiety, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, or other neuropsychological profiles, it’s worth researching occupational or behavioral therapists near you who specialize in those particular areas. Once those support links are in place, parents, coaches, and tutors all have a much higher likelihood of success at empowering kids to overcome their homework refusal.
If every Executive Function and behavioral factor are accounted for and homework is still a battle, then a tutor in the subject area your student is struggling in may be the best support option. A good tutor can fill in gaps that are holding a student back in a particular subject and give them a new teaching perspective to make the information really stick.
Your student's homework refusal can feel like an exhausting problem with no solutions, but there are a number of approaches you can use to improve the situation at home. A good combination of understanding why your child is refusing homework, what role your parenting plays in the equation, and what strategies and supports you can lean on all provide the foundation your student needs for a lasting transformation. Above all, know that change is possible!
Is ADHD contributing to your student's homework refusal? Watch our free on-demand webinar to learn the fundamentals needed to successfully manage the Executive Dysfunction associated with ADHD.
Sean Potts is the Marketing Specialist at Beyond BookSmart and a recent graduate of Ithaca College’s Integrated Marketing Communications program. As a former coaching client and intern at BBS, Sean has spent the better part of the last ten years witnessing firsthand the positive impact Beyond BookSmart's mission has on transforming students’ lives. Jackie Hebert is the Director of Marketing for Beyond BookSmart. Whether it's managing our websites, overseeing our social media content, authoring and editing blog articles, or hosting webinars, Jackie oversees all Marketing activities at Beyond BookSmart. Before joining Beyond BookSmart in 2010, Jackie was a Speech-Language Pathologist at Needham High School. She earned her Master's degree in Speech-Language Pathology from Boston University, and her Bachelor’s Degree in Psychology from the University of Massachusetts, Amherst.
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