Homework Contracts for ADHD Middle and High Schoolers
By Jenna Wattenbarger, certified coach for HomeworkCoach
As a homework coach for students with ADHD, I am a big fan of homework contracts. This is one of the first things I set up when I see a toxic power struggle between parents and kids. In this article, I’m going to explain to you how to set one up that works for middle and high school students with ADHD.
A homework contract with a neurotypical kid will include: when and where homework will be done; what the parents will do to help; and what rewards or punishments will act as enforcement.
A homework contract with an ADHD adolescent needs more nuance than this. You can’t just take it for granted that these kids fail to do homework because they don’t feel like it. ADHD kids face executive function deficits. They often don’t know or remember what’s due, and it’s a constant struggle for them to keep materials organized, follow instructions, and stay focused. Where most kids might be bored or irritated by their schoolwork, ADHD kids may be dealing with intense dread, shame, panic, fear, resentment, and hopelessness.
So first, they need more outside structure to compensate for poor executive function. And second, they need more emotional coaching and problem-solving help. A homework contract clarifies how parents and kids make these things happen, taking a lot of the chaos and mess out of homework battles.
Take a minute to look at HomeworkCoach’s sample homework contract. It will help you make sense of some of the comments that follow.
Jacob’s strongest subject is math. But halfway through the semester, he has a C in precalculus. He doesn’t think Mrs. Vauldwort likes him. The material is at once too easy and too tedious. In class, she seems far away, like he is looking at her through the wrong side of a pair of binoculars. Many trains of thought race through his mind at the same time; they are moving too fast for him to see them clearly. They keep knocking each other over. When she passes out the homework sheet on unit vectors, he folds the paper absentmindedly, and puts it in his bookbag.
Jacob goes to lacrosse practice after school. At home, he sits down to do his homework, but only because his mom, Jennifer, yelled at him. Just the sight of his bookbag floods him with dread. His schoolwork is a stupid waste of time. A feeling he can’t name weighs on him. Resentment. Everyone looking down at him with their self-righteous mastery of pointless, meaningless tasks. To cope with this emotional flooding, he procrastinates by looking at YouTube videos.
He fishes through the loose papers in his bookbag until he finds the vectors worksheet. He can’t remember how to do the problem, and he didn’t take any notes. It seemed so easy in class. He stays stuck until his older sister walks in and shows him how to find a worked example of the problem on the Kahn Academy website. He remembers what to do now. But there’s a fly buzzing around in his room so he goes downstairs, finds the flyswatter, and gets a snack. His brother is playing on the Xbox, and he joins him for a friendly game of Madden until Jennifer walks in and yells at him again to finish his homework. He goes back upstairs without the flyswatter. By the time he finishes the homework, it’s been two hours.
The next day, he goes through all of his papers, only to find he left his homework at home. He turns it in the next day. “I will take this,” Mrs. Vauldwort says, “but I have to penalize you one grade point.”
He is humiliated. Why did he even bother?
Now let’s look at how a homework contract could have kept this chaos at bay. If Jacob and Jennifer had a homework contract set up, they could have the following policies in place:
- She would remind him calmly to start his homework at the same time every day.
- She would read over all the instructions with him before he started.
- He would put his phone and computer away before starting on homework.
- She would pop in every 30 minutes to make sure he was on track with his homework.
- She would check his work, so long as she understood it.
- They would make sure homework was in a binder before school each day.
- She would discuss his learning disability with his teachers (potentially getting Mrs Vauldwort to allow him to scan and email in his homework, which could become part of Jennifer and Jabo’s night routine, to ensure complete homework is delivered electronically.)
- There would usually be some small reward at the completion of homework. Just knowing there is a reward in sight can help keep jacob on track.
Such terms might sound like coddling to someone without ADHD. But for someone who lives in panic mode, these interventions can make all the difference. Jennifer wouldn’t feel the need to yell at him because she wouldn’t feel so out of control. Jacob would feel much more calm with safeguards in place to check his forgetfulness, procrastination, disorganization, and lack of focus. And when he did mess up, they could investigate the problem together to figure out how to prevent it next time.
I think it’s essential to agree on terms together, to obtain your child’s buy-in. Adolescents want more power and independence. They feel more in control when they have some say in the matter. Here are some details to work through.
What should the schedule look like everyday? People with ADHD have a hard time getting into a routine. But when they can get that routine going, they are so much more confident and productive. This is why ADHD adolescents need to do the same things at the same time every day.
- Pick a time after school that has allowed for eating a snack and releasing pent-up energy.
- Do not set the time for after dinner if your student tends to get very tired, or if their medication will have worn off.
- Do not allow screen time until homework is done. Screen time increases hyperactivity, reducing focus. Also, you are building a reward into the process by putting screen time after homework.
What materials do you need? This includes a computer, a desk space, and office supplies. Three-ring binders and hole-punches are great. ADHD students benefit immensely from dry erase boards, schedules, and planners. And in Jacob’s case, have a fly-swatter at hand.
What arrangement might you set up with teachers? If you don’t have a 504 Plan or IEP, you can try for informal workarounds. You could ask if it’s ok to scan and email homework. Or for extra-credit opportunities to offset penalties for turning in assignments late.
When should a homework coach or tutor be considered? It is just a fact of life that teenagers listen to other adults more readily than to their own parents. An impartial third party can make things less personal. If your child is really struggling with executive function deficits, you might want to consider a homework coach who will come into the home and help your child get on top of their schoolwork. The long-term benefit is that a good homework coach will also teach executive function skills that many of us take for granted, such as how to have better awareness of time, how to break up projects, and how make schedules. Ask your child how they feel about this, and if they resist, reach an agreement that as long as they maintain a certain performance (as measured by grades), you will hold off hiring a coach.
How much time is reasonable to work on homework? There is a limited amount of time kids can spend on schoolwork before they will burn out. They need time for personal growth, leisure, everyday maintenance, rest, and sleep. I recommend capping homework at two hours a night for high school students. If they are doing more homework than that most nights, you may need to reach out to their teachers. You know your child best, so come up with a time cap together. This will help them understand you are on their side.
The Student Section of your contract should lay out practices that will compensate for poor executive function. These practices will go above and beyond what you would ask of a neurotypical kid. You may, for example, decide to look over homework instructions together before beginning, and then to check in the morning to make sure the homework is in their bookbag. Here are some other options, which you will find in our sample homework contract:
- Write a to-do list with time estimates at the start of each session.
- Write task lists for any homework requiring multiple steps.
- Start right away, doing the work I like least first
- Show homework to my parent after completion to check for minor errors.
Rewards and Consequences
A homework contract will not work if it does not build in rewards that are perceived as valuable by your ADHD teen. There must be short-term rewards as well as longer-term incentives. Many studies have shown that ADHD children do better with short-term rewards. Here’s an article which will explain why, but in summary it’s related to a deficient reward system. The ADHD brain may have fewer or less-effective dopamine receptors. Dopamine is released when anticipating a reward. And dopamine helps the ADHD student focus (ADHD drugs like Ritalin and Adderall act as dopamine re-uptake inhibitors). So a short-term reward helps your child get started on his homework and get it done.
How about punishments? My feeling is it is not a good idea to punish a child for behaviors related to their ADHD, such as forgetting a book at school. Character-related homework issues, on the other hand, are good grounds for discipline in the ADHD child. One friend of mine, whose 12-year-old has ADHD, says that she likes sticking to the three D’s: dishonesty, disrespect, and disobedience. So an ADHD teen could be lose privileges for:
- Saying he didn’t have homework even though he did.
- Yelling at his parents because he doesn’t want to start homework.
- Saying he is going to his friend’s to study–but actually just playing video games.
As Michael Riera, PhD put it in his book, Staying Connected to Your Teenager, parents step down as managers around this age. They are later hired back on, so to speak, as consultants. You will probably be the most helpful with organization.
Think back to Jacob and his mom, Jennifer. Jennifer is being a good consultant when she checks in to see that Jacob remembers to follow the directions, put his homework in a binder, and keep his planner up to date. She knows he still needs a lot of structure in these areas, and that he appreciates it.
When she insists on sitting with him while he does his homework, nags him about doing it, or steps in to do it for him, she is becoming a manager.
But what if he doesn’t stick to the contract? Isn’t she supposed to get on his case? If the contract has set up a system of rewards well, Jennifer should calmly note that she’s disappointed he will not get the reward, and that they will try again next period.
As a good rule of thumb, try to stick to a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative comments (and nonverbal interactions) when you talk to your child about homework. Positive interactions can include smiles, hugs, humor, affirmations, collaborative problem-solving, specific praise, and active listening. Negative interactions can include criticisms and commands.Everything you say should communicate, “I’m on your side, I give you the benefit of the doubt, I am proud of you, I love you, and I respect you. We can figure this out together.”
And that, really, is the point of the homework contract. It’s a way of involving your child in a process that allow both of you to achieve your goals of harmony at home and success in school. Good luck!
Jenna Wattenbarger is a certified coach for HomeworkCoach, a tutoring agency for students with ADHD and organizational challenges. Homework coaches work in the homes of their students two or more days a week, helping the student stay on top of their assignments while building such Executive Function skills as organization, planning, problem solving, time management and control of focus.