As we go into the school year and that pit in your stomach starts to form there are certain areas of chronic concern, such as homework completion that increase the sense of queasiness.  Usually the difficulty with homework is accompanied by the ongoing sense of disorganization that is typical of a significant number of  boys in the upper elementary to middle school grades.

Take fifth-grader Matthew who is driving his family crazy. The nightly ritual of “What do you have for homework… Did you hand in your homework?… When are you going to get started on your homework?”  is taking its toll on the family and increasing the sense of stress that is experienced. Matthew’s mother is particularly frazzled by the ongoing homework battles.

Handing in his homework and writing down his assignments are not the only problems Matthew has.  Once he gets started, it can take Matthew incredibly long time to finish.

An example toward the end of the school year was one night where it took Matthew four hours to complete his homework, which turned into an agonizing ordeal. Over the four hours, Matthew dawdled and completed very little. There was much yelling back and forth. The temperature of the household was running very high.

Matthew’s parents keep telling (yelling)  “You’ve got to get organized. You’ve got to get organized. You need to try harder.”

That’s like telling somebody with a bad leg, “You’ve got to run harder. You’ve got to run harder.”  It’s not going to happen.

The fact is Matthew simply doesn’t have it in him to “get organized.” At least Matthew doesn’t have it in him to do it on his own.  Matthew’s psychological testing and history reveal that he has significant organizational  (executive function) deficits.

Telling him over and over to “get organized” and “try harder” will fall on deaf ears.

In terms of how you approach a child like Matthew, his parents need to be involved, but not too involved. I like to use a 10% parental involvement ratio, which provides a certain level of structure and input.  The 10% involvement ratio means that you help the child get started (rather than telling them to do it entirely on their own) by breaking tasks down, clarifying directions and guiding, to a certain extent.

The 10% involvement is the equivalent of "floaties,"  helping to keep the child's nose above water.  Without the 10% involvement, a child like Matthew will sink like a stone as you keep telling him, "You've got to get organized."


Adapted from "School Struggles, (2012), Richard Selznick, Ph.D. (Sentient Publications)