A “Bird by Bird” Approach to Homework Struggles

Some 'short assignment' strategies for helping children with their homework.

Posted Aug 04, 2019

Today’s post is prompted by a bit of summer vacation reading: Anne Lamott’s “Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.”  

It’s the first full week of August, September is just a few weeks away and a new school year is on the horizon. This season, for some neuro-developmentally atypical children and their parents, is a time of gradually building apprehension and even dread:  HOMEWORK IS COMING.  Yes, homework, which for some, can mean meltdowns, conflicts, late nights and exhaustion, each and every night.

The author Anne Lamott, when speaking with her adult and young adult students about overcoming blocks to creative writing (if this likely seems far away from your own child and life, bear with me as the connections will soon become clear) recommends breaking overwhelming tasks down into ‘short assignments' that are easier to tackle.  She shares a story from her childhood:

"I also remember a story that I know I’ve told elsewhere but that over and over helps me to get a grip: Thirty years ago my older brother, who was 10 years old at the time, was trying to get a report on birds written that he’d had three months to write, which was due the next day.  We were out at our family cabin in Bolinas, and he was at the kitchen table close to tears, surrounded by binder paper and pencils and unopened books on birds, immobilized by the hugeness of the task ahead. Then my father sat down beside him, put his arm around my brother’s shoulder, and said, 'Bird by bird, buddy.  Just take it bird by bird.'"

How can we help our children or adolescents take their homework ‘bird by bird?'

  1. Separate each assignment. For math homework, copy each problem onto its own sheet of paper or fold a worksheet in a way that only one or a few problems are visible at a time. If using a computer, format the screen or document so that it is clear that your child is working on only one problem at a time. When it is time to read, sit with your child and read the first sentence, have your child read the next, and then repeat. Very gradually increase (you read one sentence and your child reads two, and so on) the amount your child reads.  
  2. Use flashcards. When memorizing facts for a test, create and use flashcards. Older children reading longer books or novels can use e-readers (such as a Kindle or Nook) or e-reader apps.  These allow one to highlight while reading and then, with a ‘click’ of a mouse, convert these highlights into flashcards.  
  3. Take turns. When completing writing assignments (yes, writing is usually the biggest challenge and triggers the most upset) you can alternate sentences with your child and very gradually increase the amount your child writes. Encourage your child to write just one sentence at first, or if you're helping an older child, just one paragraph. You can also allow your child to dictate their thoughts aloud to you and then modify what they have dictated.
  4. Take breaks. Use a clock or kitchen timer. Set it for five or 10 or 20 minutes (consider your child’s age) of work. Frame this as a ‘sprint’ then a (short) break exercise. 
  5. Remember to use positive reinforcement. Always socially reinforce each step, each success, and each experience of competency with energetic praise, hugs, fist bumps, etc. (I will write, in a future post, more about concrete reinforcers.) You might want to add comments such as, “You are becoming a person who can work hard, and keep going when frustrated."  Perhaps, if repeated often and with love, your child might begin to internalize these comments as their own 'self-talk' or even core beliefs about themselves.

Lamott describes her own writing struggles and the strategies that work for her: (Note that despite those struggles, she now writes well and for a living.) 

". . . . I finally notice the one-inch picture frame that I put on my desk to remind me of short assignments.  It reminds me that all I have to do is to write down as much as I can see through a one-inch picture frame.  This is all I have to bite off for the time being.  . . . I remember to pick up the one-inch picture frame and to figure out a one-inch piece of my story to tell, one small scene, one memory, one exchange." 

Lamott adds:

E. L. Doctorow once said that “writing a novel is like driving a car at night.  You can see only as far as your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.”  You don’t have to see where you’re going, you don’t have to see your destination or everything you will pass along the way.  You just have to see two or three feet ahead of you.  This is right up there with the best advice about writing, or life, I have ever heard.

Approaches and strategies such as those found in this blog post, and Lamott's way of thinking about writing, may be helpful for some neuro-developmentally atypical children and their parents, but not for others. To paraphrase an oft-cited Henry Murray quote:  We are all like all other children and parents, like some other children and parents and like no other children and parents. 

A good way to know what works for your child and what does not is to experiment (try something out, see if it works) and individualize (take account of your and your child’s strengths and weaknesses and personality traits). Also, be persistent (give each approach a thorough try, and be willing to move on and try another). Most importantly, be accepting and forgiving of your child and yourself.

References

Lamott, Anne (1995).  Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life.  New York:  Anchor Books