Autism Mom, Life

Middle School and Autism: Learning Productive Study Skills

September 4, 2016

Ever since Alex started 6th grade, the dynamics in our home have changed, and we’ve all been having a tough time adjusting. When at school, Alex is suddenly is expected to act more independently. Classes move along quickly, teachers are not as personal because they have so many rotating students, and classmates are more intimidating. We’ll get through this chapter, but initially we were off to a rocky start. Soon after school began, Alex would often come home tired and stressed, not remembering much of what he did at school. At home, the high volume of homework coupled with the lack of attention skills, made life miserable for both of us. Quickly, I was overwhelmed with fear. What if he doesn’t survive mainstream middle school?! But then, as usual, I had no choice but to collect myself and try to find ways to make things work. The first thing to tackle was to learn productive study skills and turn homework into a positive experience. I spoke to Alex’s teachers to give me some tips and, after a few trial and errors, we found what worked for us.

1. Set up a study space.

As much as we both love our comfortable couch, it proved not to be a good study space at all! So we moved to the kitchen table and removed clutter and distractions. Creating a quiet working environment helps concentrate the mind, and makes homework feel more like a task to get done. Then, he can go on the couch and relax, and the space for work versus play are more distinct, which works particularly well for Alex’s struggle with staying focused.

2. Set a timer.

Once we establish what needs to be done for a given subject, we set a timer. I found that a simple assignment can take a quite long time if he is left alone to daydream, so using a kitchen timer to be his constant visual reminder to keep working and speed up a little is a good motivator.

3. Take breaks.

Teachers suggest that in 6th grade, each subject should take no more than 30 minutes, and he has four subjects. To keep his attention, we take 5-minute breaks per each 20-30 minutes of work. Jumping on a trampoline or even doing jumping jacks works great! Sometimes he goes to his room to let the steam out, and that’s fine too.

4. Have a conversation

Kids on the autism spectrum can be more defiant, and if they think a task is illogical, they often won’t complete it. I’ve found arguing with Alex doesn’t work, so we usually have a conversation where I explain to Alex over and over the importance of learning and developing. We talk about what is expected of him and remind him how good he feels when he completes his work. Sometimes it is so tempting to say that if he doesn’t do the work, he may have to repeat a year or transfer to homeschool. I hold back threatening language though because I don’t want him to start fearing the possibility or putting himself in the mindset that he can fail.

5. Start giving room for independence.

Supervised independence that is. Once Alex starts working on his assignment, I am working next to him and always available to answer questions. I do encourage him to take a few minutes and try come up with an answer himself before he jumps to asking for help. Sometimes Alex gets agitated if he makes a mistake or if things don’t look the way he wants them to look, and I am there to help him remain calm and logical.

6. Setup a reward system.

In our household, each thirty minutes of homework earns thirty minutes of after-homework iPad time. I want to note that every day before and after school Alex has an iPad game checking routine for a few minutes. This iPad time does not need to be earned, because he has a hard day at school and these before and after minutes of time help him to turn himself from a stressful environment and relax. Whatever time Alex earns and can’t use during weekdays carries over to weekends.

7. Stay calm and collected.

To kids on the Autism spectrum, the world is filled with sensory stimulants and anxieties, which is exhausting. So when at home, I do my best to stay calm and patient, even though his lack of willingness and attention to work makes it difficult sometimes. But then I know that snapping or getting visibly frustrated would end up taking us backwards, and I don’t have the time or energy for that.

8. Some battles are not worth the fight.

There are days when Alex comes home very stressed and just cannot do any work. On these days I give him a break and we take a bit easier load. If I see that there is a pattern and he comes home stressed constantly, then I have to check with his teachers because something must be going on at school that bothers him.

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So here is my list of tips on how to make homework productive and a positive experience. I do want to stress that all these points took us a long time to master and that we are still working on some of them. But it is never late to start! One thing I learned from having a special needs child is that baby steps can take us very far. And that is true to every aspect of life!

Do you have a middle schooler at home? What are your tips on learning productive study skills? Please share!!

♡ Zuma A.

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