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Homework Hand-holding: Disability or Dependency?


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boy and dad homeworkMatthew’s homework habits are a puzzle to his parents. He sits at his desk for hours, seemingly working but accomplishing little. It’s only when his mother or father sits with him that he perks up and things begin to click. His teacher reports a similar pattern in school.

Matthew’s parents aren’t sure what to make of this. Is he showing signs of a learning problem, or is he trying to get someone to ease his frustration? 

Answering these questions can be a challenge for parents, but fortunately they have the benefit of some useful information sources. A learning disability, namely a specific problem in acquiring information resulting in academic deficiencies, may be evident from: 

  • Reviewing your child’s standardized test scores.
  • Examining his classroom work.
  • Working with him on homework. 
  • The teacher’s perspective. This is perhaps the most important source, because the teacher will have a keen sense of how your child’s skills compare with those of his classmates.

 1. A dependent learner

After reviewing this data, you may conclude that your child doesn’t have a learning disability, but rather is a dependent learner, one who’s only motivated to work when an adult sits with him. This may reflect his lack of confidence or low tolerance for frustration. He may elicit your or the teacher’s attention by sending an SOS, which may take the form of putting his head down, slamming down his book, or doodling on his paper.

If this is so, fight the impulse to rescue him from difficult assignments. Giving your child answers or completing his work conveys your lack of confidence in him. Self-confidence wanes; dependency grows. In addition, the teacher may get a false picture of your child’s strengths and weaknesses.

In short, is the problem one of disability or dependency?

Does this mean you should be uninvolved in your child’s homework? No. Supervising homework is an important way to promote school success. But supervising doesn’t mean always being by his side. Think of yourself as a resource, able to help if needed, but otherwise letting your child handle the assignment. Give clues or pose leading questions rather than providing answers.

2. Learning problems

On the other hand, your work with your child may intensify your concerns that he has a learning problem. He may: 

  • Struggle to understand homework.
  • Not retain material from one day to the next. 
  • Have trouble focusing.
  • Fail tests regularly. 
  • Misunderstand directions. 

If you see a pattern of these problems, consider requesting an evaluation by your school to determine if your child has a learning disability. In New Jersey, a Child Study Team performs this evaluation. Every school district in the state has such a team. You may also consider a private evaluation. 

Dr. Shore, a psychologist, teaches part-time at Rutgers. He has authored six books and created a film series on bullying. Visit his website or email him.

How involved are you with your child's homework? Do you feel your child may be a dependent learner?

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