Homework is a universal experience for students and parents in classrooms around the country. Teachers assign homework for multiple reasons: a tool to reinforce learning, build fluency, extend student practice and thinking, prepare students for the upcoming lesson, and more. Homework is a key function of pre-teaching and re-teaching of content area skills so students with significant cognitive disabilities will greatly benefit from participation and expectations for homework as long as proper supports and adaptations are in place. Student learning is strengthened with multiple opportunities and repeated practice for newly taught skills. In addition, all students benefit from having background knowledge and schema activation prior to being introduced to new material. Homework is a great place to provide students with a foundation to tie learning to and can also help students firm up skills mastered at school. Within the context of an inclusion classroom, teachers often wonder what to do about homework for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. The answer to this question about when and how to give homework cannot be answered until teachers decide what their main purpose or goal is for assigning homework for all their students. School and district policies may also influence the purpose and requirements for homework. Information and recommendations provided in this TIPS sheet specifically relate to the collaborative educational team process for how to make homework successful for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in inclusive classrooms.
If teachers in the inclusive setting are assigning homework to students in their general education classrooms, then students with the most significant cognitive disabilities in those classrooms should be assigned homework with adaptations to fit their unique learning characteristics and needs. As is true for all students, teachers should consider their requirements for homework while setting high-expectations for all students, including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. The general education teacher can work with the special education team (i.e. special education teachers, related service providers, paraprofessionals) to plan adaptations to homework. By presuming competence in all students, the bar is not lowered for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities and they are not excused from this important educational experience.
Parent involvement is key to successful homework for any student. Teams should involve all parents early in the school year in supporting their children with homework completion. For students with disabilities, teachers need to take the lead in establishing clear and frequent parent communication about homework policies, expectations, grading practices, and any areas where a student is having difficulties with homework (Jayanti et al., 1997). The need for clear and frequent teacher-parent communication is especially important for students with significant cognitive disabilities. Conversations about expectations for homework can start at the Individualized Education Program (IEP) meeting or can be part of parent-teacher conversations early in the school year. Parents of all types of students may have concerns about homework, including how it is graded, how long it takes to complete, and the cumulative volume of homework coming from multiple instructors. A meeting between the parents and teachers is a good starting point to allow parents to express any apprehensions they have about how to support their child in completing homework so the team can address this and find ways to help the parent. A face-to-face meeting is highly recommended, especially for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. For example, if parents have concerns about having the time to assist their child with a significant cognitive disability with homework, this issue can be addressed in an IEP team meeting and possible solutions discussed (e.g., child receives homework help in special education resource room or after school program). The team can decide what will be most appropriate for each student. Without parent buy-in and assistance, it is likely that homework assigned may not be completed. However, when parents are included in the homework process, students can reap enormous benefits from the at-home assignments.
Before deciding how homework should be differentiated for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, teachers must first decide what homework to assign for their whole class. It is important to match supports and accommodations students receive during instruction to the supports and accommodations provided for homework. For example, if a student has Velcro items to manipulate numbers on an equations board for solving math word problems during class, then these materials should be sent home with the student to maintain continuity between the two settings. Different approaches are also needed for adapting homework depending on the content of the homework assignment, the age of the student, and specific student needs.
Perhaps the simplest option for teachers is to assign the same homework to students with significant cognitive disabilities as to their peers (Stockall, 2017). Conversations about homework can often be heard at the lunch table. When students with significant cognitive disabilities are assigned the same homework, they also have an opportunity to engage in these conversations. More importantly, the content of the homework matches the content of instruction. It is important to remember that the adaptations the student needs in the classroom must also be applied to work at home (Hampshire et al, 2014).
Standards-based learning is an important part of education for a student with significant cognitive disabilities. Homework can provide students with significant cognitive disabilities an opportunity to practice foundational academic skills linked to the grade level content, making sure that the materials are still age appropriate (e.g., not giving an older child who needs foundational skills worksheets developed for kindergarteners). Teachers may choose to supplement grade-level work with assignments that address those bridging skills, such as basic arithmetic or sight word practice.
Homework differentiation may be needed in inclusive classrooms for many students, including students with and without disabilities. General education teachers can make accommodations and adaptations for students using principles of Universal Design for Learning (UDL). UDL involves incorporating multiple means of action and expression, engagement, and representation for teaching students. When incorporating UDL in homework, teachers can use any or all of the following UDL guidelines.
Teachers should use UDL to provide multiple means of action and expression for completing homework assignments. Teachers can do so by varying the methods for response and allowing multiple media tools to be used for completing homework. For example, a teacher might give the whole class three possible modes of expression for completing a homework assignment. Students could have the choice to respond to respond to a reading by: (a) making a video with a classmate (i.e., speaking); (b) writing a few paragraphs individually (i.e., writing); or (c) creating a Pinterest board with images summarizing the story and showing reactions to the text (i.e., use of visuals). For students with the most significant cognitive disabilities, they could choose a way to respond that works for them parallel to each option given to the class. For example, they could respond to a reading by: (a) creating a video with a classmate using their Alternative and Augmentative Communication (AAC) device to say some of their lines; (b) writing sentences using assistive technology device software; or (c) manipulating selected images that are relevant to the reading to create a permanent product such as a poster board. In these examples, differentiation is happening for everyone and it gives all students a way to show what they know, including students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. The educational team has to plan for the learner with the most significant cognitive disability to help them be successful with the response option they choose.
Teachers could also use UDL to provide multiple means of engagement by recruiting student interest in assignments by offering “individual choice and autonomy” or “optimizing relevance, value, and authenticity” for assignments (CAST, 2018). For example, instead of assigning math problems or spelling lists, consider instead a project-based approach where students apply the skills they have learned in class to real-life situations. For example, students could learn to add decimals making a budget, apply measurement skills when doing the laundry, or identify or read text in the community (Hampshire et al., 2014). Homework choice boards are another way to promote individual choice. This could involve giving students nine options for practicing their spelling words with choices such as writing the spelling words three times each, writing a short story using all of the spelling words, or typing the words into word processing software. This UDL guideline can be an option for all students to promote motivation for completing homework.
Teachers could also use UDL to provide multiple means of representation for students prior to them completing homework assignments. For example, in a lesson highlighting students’ response to literature, a teacher could provide students with a choice between a hard copy book of Shakespeare’s MacBeth, or an e-book for their tablet with an optional read aloud feature. For students with significant cognitive disabilities the text might be simplified and shortened, with a summary added at the end and the written text supplemented with the ability to listen to the simplified story read aloud. The simplified text reduces the text complexity while focusing on the key events and characters needed to answer story comprehension questions. All students respond to MacBeth, but the way they take in the information about the text may vary.
After students turn in their homework, what next? Do we grade it for accuracy? For completion? Do we grade it at all? The answer will depend on the initial purpose of the homework assignment. Beyond grading, the teacher must decide how to give feedback to students in some way (e.g., giving stickers or stamps for good work, highlighting correct answers, providing written comments or audio recorded comments, engaging in a class discussion of common errors, etc.). Depending on the age of the student, it may be helpful for teachers to provide feedback that gives the student a chance to turn the mistakes into an opportunity for a learning experience. Feedback for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities can be more effective if delivered in an individualized manner with specific error correction.
When homework is assigned to provide students with additional practice or to reinforce fluency, grading homework for accuracy may be an appropriate choice for students at some grade levels and in some situations. There are advantages and disadvantages to grading homework for accuracy. An advantage is that it is easy to see whether the student grasps the content. A disadvantage of grading for accuracy is that a score may reflect the help of their parents, making it difficult to determine what work the student completed independently.
When homework is assigned as a way to prepare students for upcoming lessons or to extend student thinking, grading homework for completion may be the appropriate choice. Grading for completion may be particularly meaningful for students of a certain age, and for students with significant cognitive disabilities. For example, junior high students may do math homework at night to practice a concept, but may correct their own work in class the next day with the help of the teacher. The teacher simply checks off that the homework has been done. In this type of situation, homework is used to increase student independence and responsibility. By completing the work at home and returning it to school all students can begin to learn responsibility. If homework is graded only for completion, it is still important for teachers to review students’ errors and correct any misconceptions to prevent future errors.
The final option is to simply not grade homework for any student in the class. Teachers may decide not to grade homework for a number of reasons. For example, a school may have a policy of assigning no homework for primary grade students other than requiring students to read for a certain number of minutes every night. If this is the standard for the general education classroom, then it is acceptable practice for students with the most significant cognitive disabilities as well. For some families, homework is a way to be engaged in their child’s education and can be a conversation piece when communicating with the teacher about their child’s progress. For these parents, they may be less concerned about the grade itself but more interested in seeing what topics their child is working on in school and watching to see what the child knows on their own.
If homework is part of the inclusive educational experience in the general education classroom, then students with the most significant cognitive disabilities should do homework too. Homework can serve many purposes, such as: reinforcing content learned in class, encouraging family engagement, allowing time to complete unfinished class work, and giving students a common topic for discussion with peers. Teachers should use the guiding principles of UDL to plan and design homework assignments that support the learning of all students. Educational teams should collaborate to figure out how to make homework meaningful and successful for all students with the most significant cognitive disabilities. Teachers should presume competence and not assume students with significant cognitive disabilities cannot do homework.
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Clausen, A., Liu, K., Reyes, E. N., & Wakeman, S. (2019). Homework (TIPS Series: Tip #7). Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota, TIES Center.
TIES Center is the national technical assistance center on inclusive practices and policies. Its purpose is to create sustainable changes in kindergarten-grade 8 school and district educational systems so that students with significant cognitive disabilities can fully engage in the same instructional and non-instructional activities as their general education peers, while being instructed in a way that meets individual learning needs. TIES Center is led by the National Center on Educational Outcomes (NCEO) at the Institute on Community Integration, University of Minnesota, and includes the following additional collaborating partners: Arizona Department of Education, CAST, University of Cincinnati, University of Kentucky, University of North Carolina – Charlotte, and University of North Carolina – Greensboro.
TIES Center is supported through a Cooperative Agreement (#H326Y170004) with the Research to Practice Division, Office of Special Education Programs, U.S. Department of Education. Opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the U.S. Department of Education or Offices within it. Project Officer: Susan Weigert
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