Of all the jobs in the world, that of the teacher is often both one of the most valuable and one of the least well-compensated. For special education teachers, this is doubly true, particularly given the well-known high burnout rate of teachers who work with students with learning disabilities. One way in which the inherent stresses of the work can be mitigated is by adopting streamlined and self-maintaining strategies for regular classroom tasks. If this is done properly, after some initial time invested in teaching the system to the students at the beginning of the school year, the structure already in place can continue to generate smoother sailing for months to come. For special education classrooms, where so much time can be wasted by regular disruptions, this is particularly the case. As with other classrooms, homework turn-in policies can prove a major stumbling block if they are not evidence-based. Upon comparison, one hypothetical set of homework policies prove not only non-productive but even counterproductive, but a competing strategy can be devised using evidence-based practice to result in the best chances for success.
Ms. Zalogwe’s homework policy is excessively strict, and would not produce the desired outcome in most classrooms, and particularly not in a special education setting. It would be interesting to learn what Salend and Schliff (1989) might make of Ms. Zalogwe’s homework practices, as they “ . . . examined the homework practices of 88 teachers of students with learning disabilities” (p. 621). Though their study was not performed terribly recently, it is interesting that some of the same problems they note are still extant—at least in the form of hypothetical scenarios—in the present. For example, it is possible to raise concern over whether Ms. Zalogwe’s policies might lead to what could here be referred to colloquially as a “rich get richer” outcome, in which students already relatively equipped to deal with the rigors of academic organization proceed to learn even more about interacting with strict policies. Those at the other end of the normal distribution, on the other hand, might easily abandon all hope and become even more slipshod about turning in homework than they had been before. The students in the middle would become polarized and pushed toward the extremes by a zero-tolerance policy, for Ms. Zalogwe’s black-and-white thinking could not help but influence the mindset of her students. In addition, the chaos caused by the rush to turn in assignments to the box on Ms. Zalogwe’s desk could lead to negative social interactions. Thus, in the long run, Ms. Zalogwe’s policy fails on all three accounts—it does not promote positive social interaction, it does not motivate the students who most need motivating, and it actually leads to disengagement by a considerable portion of the students.
In order to develop a more evidence-based homework policy than that espoused by Ms. Zalogwe, it is instructive to turn to the literature at hand. To provide a quick and easy summary of the strategies that work, Bryan and Burstein (2004) described their work as follows: “This article summarizes the results of these studies in general and special education classrooms and describes several strategies that appear to improve homework compliance—including reinforcements, graphing, cooperative study teams, homework planners, and parent involvement” (p. 213). It is clear that this approach is a much more social and interpersonally dynamic strategy than that of Ms. Zalogwe; peers and parents are explicitly involved as an integral part of the tactics. This can be of additional importance for special education students, who may lack social skills as well as academic skills. A sound policy following these guidelines might involve study groups that help a student’s peers hold that student accountable for completing work, as a model of real-life situations in which students may eventually find themselves. However, there is still more that can be done.
In order for the motivation ingrained in a novel homework policy to be truly effective, extrinsic motivators—such as points for study teams who turn in homework—must be balanced with intrinsic motivators. For example, in one study performed on students with special needs in the middle-school and high-school age range, it was found that, “A multiple-baseline design across subjects demonstrated a clear relationship between the introduction of self-monitoring of assignments and an increase in assignments completed. Goal setting and self-graphing of data appeared to increase this effect” (Trammel, Schloss, & Alper, 1994, p. 175). An important takeaway message here is that special education students must be taught how to manage their assignments using intrinsically motivated strategies such as goal-setting. How to do this is not knowledge that comes installed in a student’s brain fresh out of the box, so to speak. In truth, all students would probably benefit from explicit instructions on organization techniques, but this is particularly germane to the issues that face students with learning disabilities. Strong maintenance of such techniques can serve as a compensatory strategy for such students, placing them on a more even footing with their peers. In the end, to bolster up special education students to a level with greater functionality is a laudable task for any educator working in a special education classroom.
The ideal homework strategy for a special education classroom must incorporate both social elements, such as study groups, and individual elements, such as teaching students to set goals for themselves and check their progress periodically. This approach is a far cry from simply imposing overly strict policies on the premise of the old educators’ saying that, “It is easier to start strict and later relax than to start relaxed and try to become strict later.” Any truly decent homework policy must strike a balance of firmness, as balance in all things makes for fewer interruptions and a less bumpy path. Removing obstacles to the education of students with learning disabilities can help them reach greater levels of independence more easily, and it is this increased dignity for those with learning disabilities that must be set as the goal for special education teachers to pursue.
Bryan, T., & Burstein, K. (2004). Improving homework completion and academic performance: Lessons from special education. Theory into Practice, 43(3), 213-219.
Salend, S. J., & Schliff, J. (1989). An examination of the homework practices of teachers of students with learning disabilities. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 22(10), 621-623.
Trammel, D. L., Schloss, P. J., & Alper, S. (1994). Interventions using self-recording, evaluation, and graphing to increase completion of homework assignments. Journal of Learning Disabilities, 27(2), 75-81.