Recently I had a meeting with two colleagues who, like me, are both mothers. One was distracted as we started because she had gotten a text from her high school age son that he had left his keys on the bus. How would he get into the apartment? She had an appointment for a haircut after her work, a rare time set aside just for her. By the time we met, she had figured out that he could wait for her in the library nearby, a reasonable option. All the same, she was rattled. It was unnerving that even though he’s in high school, he would lose his keys.
This triggered a brief discussion about how much parents should alter their lives to help children to avoid stressful experiences. We shared the annoyance of being our children’s executive function, the one who organizes stuff and time. I assure you that we did this with love. We also wondered when to decide that external support robs children of opportunity to manage on their own, and thus feel proud and independent.
This question is particularly tricky for parents of children with ADHD, Asperger Syndrome or learning disabilities. These children all have deficits in executive function. They have difficulty keeping track of stuff; they have difficulty managing time. They are easily overwhelmed by unforeseen complications (especially those they bring on themselves).
So, when do you provide the support, and when do you pull back? Well, it depends-- on your child, his readiness and how much stress he can handle at that point.
Many parents check their children’s homework over and ask them to correct any wrong answers. Parents do this with good intentions, but I always advise them to let children hand in the homework as is. How will teachers know whether the child has learned the material? It is not a parent’s job to teach new material, so if your child doesn’t know the math after school, the teacher needs to know that. It doesn’t mean that your child is bad — likely he just needs more help or an accommodation in teaching style. A good teacher will know that.
It is useful for parents to go over the assignment notebook with a child to see what homework there is and consider when and how it will get done. This is a problem-solving kind of talk, not a blame game. If you check the assignment notebook, you know whether your child is using it. If you know what the homework is, you can ask intelligently whether it is done. A parent’s job is to provide a space and time for homework and check to see that it is done (not done right).
In this talk you can discuss timing. How much time does your child think the math work sheet will take? It’s helpful for children to give an estimate and then see whether they were realistic. This is not a blaming concern. This is gathering data. “Oh, I see that it took 45 minutes instead of 20 minutes. That’s good to know.” It might mean that there is no time for a TV show before bedtime. That might be disappointing, but this is another time when it would be good not to protect your child from the realities of life. It’s a “teaching moment.” You can simply say with optimism, “So, tomorrow, you’ll know to start sooner, and then you can watch TV.”
You might want to discuss timing just to coordinate family activities. Like will there be time to get to the library for the book he needs after the soccer practice?
This is one that really gets parents and children upset. Clothing, books, backpacks, permission slips. So many things to keep track of.
The parents’ job is to assist a child with putting systems in place that help organize stuff.
So, you might set up a coat closet with hooks for his or her jacket, a bin for hats and mittens and a bin for shoes, boots and so forth. You might say that the last step of homework is to pack up the back pack for the next day and place it by the door. No TV until that is done. Children with executive function deficits need adults to help them with systems. Then they need to use them. You can help by nagging less and praising more when you see a system in use.
Even with the best systems in place there will be problems. For instance, you get back from the bus stop and see the permission slip, the book report, whatever on the kitchen counter. Do you go to work late and run the item by the school? Again, it depends. Perhaps you simply do not have that option. Then your child has a “teaching moment” about packing his backpack. No need for blame — just a reminder to get everything in. If you do have the option to take the item to school, it’s a more difficult decision. I would say that if your child is already very stressed about other things, it would be a kind move to take the item to school if not having it would really be a problem for him. However, if he can just as well take it in the next day, and it won’t totally ruin his day, let him take it a day late. It’s a “teaching moment.”
As your child gets more proficient at using the systems, you can pull back on your prompts and reminders little by little. Stay tuned in to your own needs. Are you doing so much for him that you resent your efforts? If so, what can you do to simplify your efforts or your expectations? Do you feel guilty when he forgets something or do you see it as a “teaching moment“ for him? Helping with structure is not the same as taking the responsibility. If you allow some “teaching moments,” it is more clear to your child where the responsibility lies.
By the way, at the end of our meeting, my colleague got another text, “Found the keys!”
Parent Coach and Licensed Psychologist, Carolyn Stone, Ed.D. (www.drcarolynstone.com) educates parents of children with learning disabilities, ADHD, Asperger Syndrome and anxiety about their children’s needs using humor and evidence-based practices. Parents learn new strategies through role play and homework. She teaches children to manage their anxiety and attention and to understand their learning styles. You can learn about Dr. Stone’s work from her blog at http://www.drcarolynstone.com/blog/.