One of the biggest challenges for kids with special needs is getting schoolwork and homework completed. This month we’ll look at two major problems with academic work that our kids face – getting started and staying focused.

Getting some kids to start a task can be a challenge. You may find yourself thinking, “This kid just doesn’t have any initiative!” When you think that, realize that while we think of showing initiative as having strength of character, it is actually related to the ability to start something on your own. (Think of the root word initiate.) Why might kids have a hard time starting?

  • Some kids have a weakness in sequential ordering and simply don’t see the starting point. It is very difficult to start something if you can’t figure out what comes first!
  • Other kids have low levels of mental energy and assignments can seem like an entire mountain of work that is very overwhelming.
  • Still other kids may not understand what to do but be embarrassed to admit it.

Here are some things that can help:

Provide visual support for the task

  • Mark the beginning and ending of a task
  • Give out only needed supplies

Ensure understanding of directions

  • Have the child read the instructions aloud to you or paraphrase in their own words
  • Give an ordered checklist if there are many steps to a project

Assign work within student’s ability to accomplish

  • Give smaller units of work, so that it is not so overwhelming
  • Break large projects into smaller, component pieces
  • One fun idea if you want a child to complete five math problems is to give them a sheet with ten and allow them to cross one off as they complete one.

A second problem, staying focused on work, is difficult for everyone at times but can be a constant problem for some students, such as students with the inattentive type of AD/HD. This is an integral part of their disability and not willful behavior. It is important not to lose patience with this aspect of the disability. Please remember that the students appreciate subtle cues not embarrassing reprimands.

Many students who have an Autistic Spectrum Disorder have an area of particular interest to them. They can become expert in these areas and may use the interest as a springboard to a career in their adult years. You can sometimes keep these students engaged in academic tasks if they relate to their area of interest. The concern here is that the interest must be school appropriate, the topic must be flexible enough for academic tasks, and it cannot take over the entire class. You may find that the student will use the interest for a topic in a writing assignment, as a free-choice reading selection, or for science or social studies projects. Please note that sometimes students’ areas of interest have to be banned from school, as some children simply cannot control themselves if there is access to it during the day.

Here are some suggestions:

Reduce distractions

  • Use study carrels or earphones
  • Keep work areas free of unnecessary materials
  • Use proximity to help kids stay on task

Keep things short and simple

  • Give short tests and quizzes
  • Keep directions simple
  • Have student repeat directions back to you

Be precise in your teaching

  • Connect new learning to known concepts
  • Frequently check work in progress
  • Summarize key points

Use engaging activities

  • Play games that keep all students fully participating
  • Allow time to pursue particular interests
  • Relate particular interests to academic tasks

Stay positive

  • Praise when student is engaged
  • Give credit for participating
  • Allow breaks from work