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Fostering Growth Through Structure at Home

By: Rabbi Dr. Yisrael Rothwachs and Mrs. Leora Hecht

When parents come into school and see their child hang up his coat, take out his supplies, put away his backpack, and take a seat — all without any prompting from the teacher — they often ask, “How did you get him to do that? At home it would take half an hour and 10 reminders for him to just hang up his coat.”

There are several reasons for this discrepancy, including the natural structure of the school day and the times when children are at home, which tend to be less structured. In school we are able to stick to the same routine day after day — something that is generally not possible at home where there are other siblings, changing schedules for after-school activities, and any number of other variables. Early mornings and after school children are generally tired, rushed, and hungry, a combination that is not conducive for anyone to be on their best behavior.

While it is not feasible to create the same level of consistency at home as children experience in school, there are strategies that we use at school that parents can replicate in the home. These challenges may arise with both typically developing children and special needs children and the strategies we suggest below work with all children. Special needs children often need more opportunities to practice and a greater focus on structure than their typically developing peers. Consistency is therefore key to everything we will discuss.

What You Say and How You Say It Matters

Many of the children with whom we work have language development issues; therefore, consistent, succinct, and clear language is essential. Consider asking your child’s teacher what language they use when setting expectations at school and then using those same phrases with your child.

Offer Limited Choices

Ask, “Do you want to start your homework now, or first have a snack?” rather than “Do you want to do your homework?” The answer to the latter question is likely to be no and then you end up in a power struggle. The limited choice in the first question gives your child a sense of agency but makes your expectation that they will do their homework clear.

Give Your Child Time to Process

Perhaps the most challenging step for all of us is to pause after giving a directive. Even for teachers with decades of experience, a three-second pause can feel awkward. But, it is essential for children, especially those with language difficulties, to have a few seconds to process your request before additional information is presented. For example, “It’s time to put on your pajamas.” THREE-SECOND PAUSE. “Would you like to wear the green pajamas or the orange pajamas tonight?”

Preparation is Key

The more you can prepare in advance, the smoother hectic times like mornings and after school will be.

Create a Workspace that Works for Your Child

The right workspace may vary depending on your child’s age and abilities. Having a designated location in the home for homework that has everything your child needs for their work, comfortable lighting, and sufficient quiet for them will reduce stress around homework. Whether this should be a place with you or another adult nearby depends on how independent your child is with their work.

Make Schedules that Work for Your Family

Homework doesn’t necessarily have to be done immediately. Consider other needs in the household when deciding the right schedule. For example, if making dinner at the same time your child is doing homework is causing added stress for you, plan to separate these activities if possible. If mornings are the most hectic time in your home, as they are for many, schedule time in the evenings to lay out clothes and get backpacks ready so that there is less to do in the morning.

Create Visual Cues

Many children benefit from charts, checklists or timers.

Depending on your child’s age and reading level, pictures or words that lay out each step in a routine can help them remember what they need to do without constant reminders. The act of checking items off their list as they complete each action can be immensely satisfying, giving positive reinforcement as your child works through each step. The beeping of a timer letting your child know when a break is over and it’s time to return to work eliminates the need for you to issue repeated reminders.

Practice, Practice, Practice

The high level of organization parents may witness in school is generally seen later in the year after teachers and students have had the opportunity to practice routines many, many times.

At home you will also need to practice new routines many times. Ideally, plan practice time when things are quiet at home like on a Sunday afternoon. Mastering new skills is much easier at these times than during a busy weekday morning or when a child is tired and hungry after school.

While practicing with your child, you may also want to include others in the home so they are on the same page. If grandparents or older siblings are frequently around while your child is getting ready for school or doing homework, it is helpful for them to understand the processes you are putting in place.

Manage Expectations — Yours and Your Child’s

You can’t change everything all at once. Prioritize what is most disruptive in your home right now and pick one or two things to start with.  For example, one mother felt that if her daughter could just put away her backpack, shoes, and coat when she got home without constant reminders, it would help the rest of the evening go more smoothly. She worked with one of our occupational therapists to make this chart to help her daughter remember what was needed independently:

Remember: You Are Not Alone and You Are Doing Great

The challenges we have discussed here are faced by all parents — even teachers and therapists who work with children all day long face these same challenges when they go home to their kids. The suggestions we have shared are not prescriptions that will solve all challenges. These are just a few suggestions of approaches we hope you will find helpful.

Remember to reflect on your child’s progress as you work on your priorities. Help them recognize what is working and see that they are succeeding (and be sure to give yourself positive feedback as well).

Finally, remember your child’s school can also be a great resource. Talk to your child’s teachers about what the structure and rules are in school and how you can use some of the same approaches at home.

This article is based on a webinar presented by Rabbi Rothwachs, Leo Brandstatter z”l Dean, and Mrs. Hecht, Associate Director of SINAI at YCQ, on March 13, 2024 as part of the SINAI Schools Community Education & Support Webinar Series. View recordings of other webinars here.