Helping Kids with Homework Anxiety

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Writing in a notebook; UW Health psychologists offer suggestions for helping kids with homework anxietyMADISON—Time to do your homework!

You might be hard-pressed to find a kid who enjoys hearing that particular parental call, and the stacks of reading assignments, spelling lists and multiplication problems that accompany it. But for a surprisingly large number of children, even the most basic of evening homework assignments isn't just a chore, but a crippling source of stress and anxiety.
The Stress of Homework

Marcia Slattery, MD, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at the University of Wisconsin, knows it well. Each year, she and her colleagues treat and counsel hundreds of children who are anxious about school-related issues, including homework. For some kids, the stress over even the anticipation of homework can occur all through summer vacation, several months before school is even a topic of discussion.

"Around 50 percent of the kids that I see have anxiety that tends to peak as summer goes by," says Dr. Slattery. "The pressure of the volume of work and how to sort it out broadens into the issue of how best to approach homework. That's an issue that comes up a lot in my clinic."

Homework stress can affect any child, but it's especially difficult for children who suffer from an anxiety disorder, the most common psychiatric problem that afflicts children. Driven by pressure caused by procrastination or concerns about performance, kids who suffer from this type of disorder can tense up and become irritable when homework assignments hit, becoming unable to get the job done or spending hours trying to do it perfectly.

"These children tend to be very performance-driven, driven to please and do well," notes Slattery. "They are often the straight-A students, and they're very geared up by the concept of 'I have to do this well.'"

Slattery notes that homework anxiety can often indicate other problems, including attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) or an undiagnosed learning disorder. "These things go together quite frequently," she says.
Developing a Routine
The good news is that there are many things parents and their school-age children can do to make the homework experience less stressful and anxious.
Begin with consistency. Finding a specific time each day to sit down and study, regardless of whether there's been any homework assigned, creates a routine, says Dr. Slattery. Routine and predictability are excellent antidotes for anxiety and stress, and breaking up a big project can help to avoid the pressure of last-minute crunching. Have the child schedule fun things to look forward to at the end of homework time.

Environment can also play a big role. Dr. Slattery suggests designating a specific place for study that's comfortable, but not too comfortable, i.e, no beds, and far away from televisions and other distractions. Avoid attaching homework to other household chores or activities.

Most important, parents need to get involved and show an interest in their child's homework, not to do it for them, but to demonstrate that it's worth taking time to do.
"Parents can also be incredibly important models for their children by engaging in things like reading or writing during their child's homework time. It sends a loud message that "homework time" isn't just for kids."

"The analogy I use with parents is that if you tell your child you have to sit down and do your homework while the parent is off watching TV or talking on the phone, it's like an adult telling another adult to get on a treadmill and exercise while the other one sits on the nearby couch and eats chips," Dr. Slattery says.

In cases where the anxiety is severe enough to affect a child's ability to perform and interact with others in school or a learning disorder is present, a more involved approach that incorporates teachers, guidance counselors and child psychiatrists may be helpful.

"One of the things I'm often telling people is that anxiety is exhausting for these children," says Dr. Slattery. "They constantly have to adapt at school, and they're already tense to begin with. It's such a critical time to get the school year off to a good start, and there's a tremendous amount we can all do to help."

Date Published: 09/11/2008

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