Warning: this strategy is going to fly in the face of traditional recommendations to parents! If we learned anything from the 2020 pandemic, when school and home began to merge as one, it's that we have to be open to new and different ways of doing what we've always done.
Traditional Advice Does Not Always Work
We hear from the experts all the time how important it is to be consistent. “Have your kids do their school work in the same place, at the same time,” the experts tell us. Or, “Make sure she is sitting properly at a desk when doing her school work.”
That may be true for typical kids, and even for some kids with ADHD or other challenges; but it can also be a recipe for failure for many kids who are 'wired' differently.
Our kids are complex, and we need to understand and respect that.
For example, doing school work in the same place every day can get really boring. There is nothing innovative or fun enough to motivate them or engage their attention – unless, of course, your school work station is in a tree. Besides, most of our kids are struggling to sit and focus all day. They need a little freedom to move around.
The same is true for expecting your child to do school work at the same time every day. Their energy fluctuates, and you need to meet them where they are, not where you want them to be. Some days, 4:00 in the afternoon is just not going to be a good fit.
Create Flexible Structures for School work
So before you choose a schooling station or decide on a time for your child or teen, do a little detective work to figure out what works best for your kid (and for you). You might even come up with a few options together. Giving your child a sense of control to be part of choosing where and when it gets done offers a strong sense of ownership and buy-in – which is critical as your child is trying to learn how to take responsibility for schoolwork.
Allowing for some flexibility within the structure means that you set a clear expectation that schoolwork gets done everyday, but you let go of directing exactly where, when and how. Having different options for where your child does schoolwork, or different times that schoolwork could get done, gives your child a sense of participation in the process.
This way, at the end of the school day, whenever that happens to be, instead of saying, “It's schoolwork time,” you can ask, “So where do you plan to do your schoolwork today?” or, “What time do you think will work best? We're having dinner at 6:30 p.m., and I know you have a show you want to watch tonight – when do you plan to do your schoolwork?” (NB: use “plan” instead of “want,” because most kids do not “want” to do their schoolwork, and can you really blame them?!)
This strategy applies to older kids and teens, as well. Studying with friends on line or in groups can be a terrific structure for older kids with ADHD or anxiety. As long as the work is getting done, it fosters greater independence. If it's not getting done, that's a different conversation entirely. You can talk about that and come up with a new plan together by using the ACE strategy.
Make it Work For You, Too
You can apply this schoolwork strategy differently, depending on what's important to you.
For the Parent Who Thrives on Structure:
If you feel that some structure is important, you might want to set up a few different schoolwork stations that your child can choose from each day, and two different options for when they might do their schoolwork. Then, each day, you can ask, “What time are you doing your schoolwork, and what station are you choosing?” You may discover that if your child does not get his schoolwork done by 5:00, then it's best to plan to wake up a little early and have him do it in the morning, rather than waste hours trying to get 10 minutes of schoolwork completed.
For the Parent Who Prefers Less Structure:
If you're open to let your child do schoolwork where she wants, then you don't need to have formal schoolwork stations. In that case, you can ask, “Where do you feel like doing your schoolwork today?” Our kids have done schoolwork on the dining room table, under the kitchen table, and in a tree outside (family rule: reading only in the tree, no writing tasks allowed). The only condition here (besides safety) is that schoolwork is done in a reasonable time frame. Before allowing this kind of freedom, you want to set the expectation that you'll check in with each other to make sure it's working, and agree to reconsider if it seems to be too distracting.
Bottom line for "less structure": You can hold your child accountable to doing schoolwork more effectively when you allow some freedom to figure out how and where it gets done.