The single most important thing you can do as a SENCO is invite parents in for progress reviews and really listen to what they tell you. The first time I did this, the message I heard about homework was so resounding, so emphatic and heartfelt, that I took a proposal for a change of policy to SLT immediately afterwards, which was agreed. From then on, private reading was all the homework we required from some of our KS3 pupils.
This was not a lowering of aspirations – something we work relentlessly to avoid in the SEND arena. Here, again, parents can be our guides. Most are passionately committed to securing the best possible outcomes for their children. They would never argue that homework should be jettisoned if they could see any real benefits. That’s why the reading continued, for all. Fluency comes only with practice – parents accept their vital role in that.
But sorting through sheets in the bottom of a bag, trying to make sense of hastily scribbled notes in a planner, stressing over the forgotten VLE log-in, running out of printer ink, upending the mattress to find the right exercise book under the bed. Frankly, any household experiencing Homeworkgate is fraught. Add a special need like autism into that mix and the whole endeavour can become as distressing and exhausting as it is futile.
Dr. Tony Attwood gives two reasons here why homework can provoke such huge emotional reactions in autistic children. The first is based on the fact that they have two curriculums to learn at school, the academic and the social. So they are having to work twice as hard as their neurotypical peers and can be intellectually and emotionally exhausted by the time they get home.
The second explanation lies in their profile of cognitive skills, which must be accommodated. One aspect of this is impaired executive function, similar to that of children with ADHD. This can manifest in difficulty planning, organising and prioritising, in impulsivity, in poor working memory and inflexibility when problem solving. Factor in the autistic child’s difficulty in coping with frustration and managing anxiety, and it’s easy to understand why homework can be such a huge hurdle to overcome. A battle.
We must listen to our parents when they wave the white flag. They aren’t seeking to undermine our high standards or to make excuses for lazy, wilful children – they just want us to be empathetic and responsive; to put individual needs above blanket policy; to take those words ‘reasonable’ and ‘adjustment’ more seriously than we do now. This might mean adapting homework tasks to reflect the cognitive profile of the learner, Dr. Attwood has some suggestions, it might mean reducing it, or it might mean acknowledging that the child will cope better with school, and therefore make optimum progress, with no homework at all for now. And if this is the case, I can reassure that it doesn’t result in the immediate collapse of standards, or in a rampaging epidemic of homework refusal. As in, ‘He doesn’t do it – why should I?’
Children understand the principle of fairness – in fact, most of them hold it very dear. And if they don’t, well then we could always – you know – educate them.