"For children with special needs or mild learning disabilities, homework often becomes a responsibility shared with their parents. Mom or Dad may spend an hour or two helping them complete math problems, and all the teacher sees is the A paper turned in the next day.
'Oftentimes [these students] kind of fly under the radar screen because parents help them so much at home,' says Ann Dolin, a former Fairfax special-education teacher and founder of the local tutoring service Educational Connections. 'Lots of times kids come back to school with a beautiful paper. Everything’s done. The teacher has no idea what it took to get that child to do it.'
Dolin, with her army of 163 tutors, helps children of all learning capabilities complete class assignments in a timely manner and figures out the best way for them to focus at home.
'They don’t have to sit down at the desk the whole time,' she says. 'They could have a lap desk or sit down on the floor. Some kids may pace around the house and read their notes . . . That type of movement during homework is important to many kids.'
We spoke with Dolin by phone about creating a homework space for young children with special needs, which school supplies work best for these students and how to make a homework area fun. Here are edited excerpts.
Q. Where is the best place to set up a homework station?
A. It really needs to be in earshot of the parent. Many kids with learning disabilities can’t really be left on their own and be expected to get their homework done independently. For example, the kitchen might be too distracting for some children, so a good alternative would be the dining room because it’s not right in the middle of a really busy location, but the parent can walk around the corner and check up on the child.
Generally the bedroom is not a good place for elementary-schoolers to do homework unless they are really motivated. It is far too distracting.
You kind of have to identify the needs of your child. Some kids like the hum of a busy area, like the kitchen. Some kids can’t stand the noise and the other goings-on, and they really need a quiet place. But in general you don’t want a place where the TV is on and there is a lot of stimulation from other distractions.
Q. How should you set it up?
A. The main thing is that you want to have everything together. For example, you could have an old shoe box lying around and put everything the student needs in that shoe box: pencils, markers, ruler, calculator.
For a lot of kids with learning disabilities, an electronic spell-checker is fabulous. I usually order them from Amazon because they are a lot cheaper. It helps them be more independent. Instead of saying, 'Mom, how do you spell this or how do you spell that?' Mom can say, 'I will spell this one for you, but you can look up the next one on your Spelling Ace.' Many kids with special needs are really frustrated with using a dictionary. Kids with learning problems often spell phonetically. So for example, they might spell phone f-o-n-e, and they’re never going to find it in a dictionary. A Spelling Ace picks up phonetic variations of words.