The Dog Ate It

The Dog Ate It

When Clients Don't Do Their Homework

By Bill O'Hanlon

May/June 1998

Q: How do I get clients to do homework assignments?

A: Please don't call them homework assignments. That evokes memories of tasks handed out in school, which often seemed like busywork. The best way to ensure clients' cooperation is to make the assignments relevant for them. Task assignments are designed to bring about changes in the presenting problem. We try to make sure they are relevant to clients by having a mutually agreed upon definition of the problem being addressed and then collaboratively designing tasks that relate to it. In fact, when the tasks derive from a collaborative relationship, they often don't feel like tasks at all.

There are several ways to design tasks collaboratively. We present multiple possibilities and suggestions and then try to anticipate clients' responses to potential tasks by telling stories about other clients who performed a task assignment similar to the one we think might help them. If clients shake their heads adamantly during such a story, we understand that this may not be the best task for them. Likewise, if clients are smiling or nodding, we get a sense we are probably on the right track.

Steffanie once saw a family who had been referred by their pediatrician because their 10-year-old son had been having escalating temper tantrums since his surgery for severe colitis. The family had never been to therapy, but they settled in quickly and readily discussed their son's…

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