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    How to Shape Homework Behavior with Autistic Children

    Topics: Autism & Transitions, Advice for Parents and Caregivers, Elementary (4-12), Teen (13-17)

    Let’s talk homework! If you are a parent to a school-aged child with autism, you may find it challenging to encourage your child to complete homework assignments. Children with autism will often engage in undesired behaviors, such as noncompliance, aggression, or full-blown tantrums. This becomes a stressful situation for the entire family. Rather than forcing your child to complete homework assignments, try incentivizing the child and shaping the homework behavior you desire. 

    Did you ever play Marco Polo when you were a child or hot and cold? In playing these games, any movement that takes the child closer to the prize is rewarded. Each of these successive movements is a closer approximation to the desired behavior.


    Here are 7 things to do to help your child complete homework:

    1. Schedule and Routine

    Set a specific time to complete homework assignments each day and stick to the routine! You may find that your child works best immediately after school, or you may find that your child needs time to unwind from the day and have a snack. Either way, remain consistent!

    parents helping children with autism with their homework at home2. Remove Distractions

    A typical school day for a child with autism is already overwhelming and stressful. At home, you want to limit the distractions, so that your child can stay focused after an already long day. Choose an area free from distraction from siblings, pets, toys, and television. 

    3. State The Rules Clearly and Stick to Them

    Make sure that your child understands the rules, and make sure that you stick to the rules. Many times, a parent will give into a problem behavior just to avoid the issue. However, this tends to create more problem behaviors or more severe behaviors. Use antecedent strategies, such as offering a drink or using a bathroom before homework time begins. This will eliminate the child trying to avoid or escape completing the homework. 

    4. Avoid The Use of Questions

    Never prompt a child to perform an activity using a question. Rather than asking, “can you do your homework now,” simply state, “please start your homework.” If you start with a question, you are allowing the child the opportunity from the start to be noncompliant and say “no.”

    5. Understand the Assignments

    Nothing disrupts homework time more than a parent struggling to understand an assignment. And we have all been there! Children with autism often struggle to understand or retain the requirements of a homework assignment when they are given the information at school. Try talking with the teacher and asking if they can send home written instructions or an email with instructions, so you can review the requirements of the assignment first before beginning homework with your child.  

    6. Use Visual Tools

    Create a visual schedule for your child to keep the child on track. Use numbered picture cards or a visual timeline of activities. For example, you may start with the first step, writing the child’s name at the top of the assignment. You can also use a visual timer to keep your child engaged. If one of your rules is that your child works on homework for 20 minutes, then set the timer for 20 minutes to help enforce this rule.

    7. Reward the Child for Completing Assignments

    Offer your child tangible items and activities the child enjoys upon completion of a desired behavior. This may be a favorite treat, television show, or game. However, you never provide a reward if the child did not successfully complete the task.   


    Shaping Homework Behavior

    If your child struggles to get through the steps of a homework assignment, you can try shaping the behavior. When shaping a behavior, you are reinforcing successive approximations of the desired behavior. You take a complex task, and you break it down into smaller, more achievable steps. 

    If you were to wait for the child to complete the spelling words on his/her own, you may be waiting a long time to offer reinforcement or perhaps positive reinforcement would never occur at all. Shaping allows you to build up to the desired behavior in steps and reward each step that comes closer and closer to the end goal. 

    As the child masters each step, you require the child to move on to the next step in order to receive the reward or reinforcement. 

    Let’s look at an example: Evan tantrums every day when told to write his spelling words. 

    First, identify the desired behavior or end goal: In this example, the desired behavior is that Evan will write all of his spelling words to complete his spelling assignment.

    Then, identify whether his present level of performance in achieving this desired goal.  

    Next, break this complex task down into smaller steps that will take Evan closer and closer to completing the assignment: 

    Step 1: Evan will write his name at the top of his paper.

    Step 2: Evan will write one spelling word of his choice.

    Step 3: Evan will write 3 spelling words.

    Step 4: Evan will write half of his spelling words.

    Step 5: Evan will write all of his spelling words except for one. 

    Step 6: Evan will write all of his spelling words.

    Teenage boy with autism lying on his bed while concentrating on homeworkBegin with the first step. As Evan masters each step, you direct him to move forward to the next step to receive a reward. Once you have moved past the first two steps, you no longer reward Evan for writing his name or writing one spelling word. The reward would be given when Evan writes 3 spelling words. If Evan, for example, struggles to move from writing half of the spelling words to all but one spelling word, you can add another step in between, such as all but 3 spelling words. 

    This example could also translate into completing a math worksheet or a reading assignment!

    Have you used shaping to reinforce your child for completing a homework assignment? What has worked (and not worked!) for you?

    Marianne Coppola

    Written by Marianne Coppola

    Marianne Coppola, MHA, ABA works as a child development specialist with toddlers and pre-schoolers. She is passionate about early intervention and finding creative and engaging ways to help children reach developmental milestones. Her work extends to children diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, Sensory Processing Disorder, Social Anxiety, and Motor Development Delays. She holds an M.A. in Healthcare Administration, and an M.A. in Special Education and Applied Behavior Analysis. She is currently studying to become a Board-Certified Behavior Analyst and is pursuing a PhD in Behavioral Health.