Homework assignments have been a central feature of the Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy (CBT) process since the 1970s (Kazantzis, 2005).
Take-home assignments provide the opportunity to transfer different skills and lessons learned in the therapeutic context to situations in which problems arise.
These opportunities to translate learned principles into everyday practice are fundamental for ensuring that therapeutic interventions have their intended effects.
In this article, we’ll explore why homework is so essential to CBT interventions and show you how to design CBT homework using modern technologies that will keep your clients engaged and on track to achieving their therapeutic goals.
Before you continue, we thought you might like to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free. These science-based exercises will provide you with a detailed insight into positive CBT and give you the tools to apply it in your therapy or coaching.
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Why Is Homework Important in CBT?
Many psychotherapists and researchers agree that homework is the chief process by which clients experience behavioral and cognitive improvements from CBT (Beutler et al., 2004; Kazantzis, Deane, & Ronan, 2000).
We can find explanations as to why CBT homework is so crucial in both behaviorist and social learning/cognitive theories of psychology.
Behaviorist models of psychology, such as classical and operant conditioning, would argue that CBT homework delivers therapeutic outcomes by helping clients to unlearn (or relearn) associations between stimuli and particular behavioral responses (Huppert, Roth Ledley, & Foa, 2006).
For instance, imagine a woman who reacts with severe fright upon hearing a car’s wheels skidding on the road because of her experience being in a car accident. This woman’s therapist might work with her to learn a new, more adaptive response to this stimulus, such as training her to apply new relaxation or breathing techniques in response to the sound of a skidding car.
Another example, drawn from the principles of operant conditioning theory (Staddon & Cerutti, 2003), would be a therapist’s invitation to a client to ‘test’ the utility of different behaviors as avenues for attaining reward or pleasure.
For instance, imagine a client who displays resistance to drawing on their support networks due to a false belief that they should handle everything independently. As homework, this client’s therapist might encourage them to ‘test’ what happens when they ask their partner to help them with a small task around the house.
In sum, CBT homework provides opportunities for clients to experiment with stimuli and responses and the utility of different behaviors in their everyday lives.
Social learning and cognitive theories
Scholars have also drawn on social learning and cognitive theories to understand how clients form expectations about the likely difficulty or discomfort involved in completing CBT homework assignments (Kazantzis & L’Abate, 2005).
A client’s expectations can be based on a range of factors, including past experience, modeling by others, present physiological and emotional states, and encouragement expressed by others (Bandura, 1989). This means it’s important for practitioners to design homework activities that clients perceive as having clear advantages by evidencing these benefits of CBT in advance.
For instance, imagine a client whose therapist tells them about another client’s myriad psychological improvements following their completion of a daily thought record. Identifying with this person, who is of similar age and presents similar psychological challenges, the focal client may subsequently exhibit an increased commitment to completing their own daily thought record as a consequence of vicarious modeling.
This is just one example of how social learning and cognitive theories may explain a client’s commitment to completing CBT homework.
How to Deliver Engaging CBT Homework
Let’s now consider how we might apply these theoretical principles to design homework that is especially motivating for your clients.
In particular, we’ll be highlighting the advantages of using modern digital technologies to deliver engaging CBT homework.
Designing and delivering CBT homework in Quenza
Gone are the days of grainy printouts and crumpled paper tests.
Even before the global pandemic, new technologies have been making designing and assigning homework increasingly simple and intuitive.
In what follows, we will explore the applications of the blended care platform Quenza (pictured here) as a new and emerging way to engage your CBT clients.
Its users have noted the tool is a “game-changer” that allows practitioners to automate and scale their practice while encouraging full-fledged client engagement using the technologies already in their pocket.
To summarize its functions, Quenza serves as an all-in-one platform that allows psychology practitioners to design and administer a range of ‘activities’ relevant to their clients. Besides homework exercises, this can include self-paced psychoeducational work, assessments, and dynamic visual feedback in the form of charts.
Practitioners who sign onto the platform can enjoy the flexibility of either designing their own activities from scratch or drawing from an ever-growing library of preprogrammed activities commonly used by CBT practitioners worldwide.
Any activity drawn from the library is 100% customizable, allowing the practitioner to tailor it to clients’ specific needs and goals. Likewise, practitioners have complete flexibility to decide the sequencing and scheduling of activities by combining them into psychoeducational pathways that span several days, weeks, or even months.
Importantly, reviews of the platform show that users have seen a marked increase in client engagement since digitizing homework delivery using the platform. If we look to our aforementioned drivers of engagement with CBT homework, we might speculate several reasons why.
- Implicit awareness that others are completing the same or similar activities using the platform (and have benefitted from doing so) increases clients’ belief in the efficacy of homework.
- Practitioners and clients can track responses to sequences of activities and visually evidence progress and improvements using charts and reporting features.
- Using their own familiar devices to engage with homework increases clients’ self-belief that they can successfully complete assigned activities.
- Therapists can initiate message conversations with clients in the Quenza app to provide encouragement and positive reinforcement as needed.
The rest of this article will explore examples of engaging homework, assignments, and worksheets designed in Quenza that you might assign to your CBT clients.
However, if you’d like to dive in and explore these activities for yourself, you can do so by taking advantage of the platform’s 30-day trial, which gives you full access to Quenza’s Activity Builder and Expansion Library of activities.
Using Quenza for CBT: 3 Homework Examples
Let’s now look at three examples of predesigned homework activities available through Quenza’s Expansion Library.
Many of the problems CBT seeks to address involve changing associations between stimulus and response (Bouton, 1988). In this sense, stimuli in the environment can drive us to experience urges that we have learned to automatically act upon, even when doing so may be undesirable.
For example, a client may have developed the tendency to reach for a glass of wine or engage in risky behaviors, hoping to distract themselves from negative emotions following stressful events.
Using the Urge Surfing homework activity, you can help your clients unlearn this tendency to automatically act upon their urges. Instead, they will discover how to recognize their urges as mere physical sensations in their body that they can ‘ride out’ using a six-minute guided meditation, visual diagram, and reflection exercise.
Moving From Cognitive Fusion to Defusion
Central to CBT is the understanding that how we choose to think stands to improve or worsen our present emotional states. When we get entangled with our negative thoughts about a situation, they can seem like the absolute truth and make coping and problem solving more challenging.
The Moving From Cognitive Fusion to Defusion homework activity invites your client to recognize when they experience a negative thought and explore it in a sequence of steps that help them gain psychological distance from the thought.
Finding Silver Linings
Many clients commencing CBT admit feeling confused or regretful about past events or struggle with self-criticism and blame. In these situations, the focus of CBT may be to work with the client to reappraise an event and have them look at themselves through a kinder lens.
The Finding Silver Linings homework activity is designed to help your clients find the bright side of an otherwise grim situation. It does so by helping the user to step into a positive mindset and reflect on things they feel positively about in their life. Consequently, the activity can help your client build newfound optimism and resilience.
3 Assignment Ideas & Worksheets in Quenza
As noted, when you’re preparing homework activities in Quenza, you are not limited to those in the platform’s library.
Instead, you can design your own or adapt existing assignments or worksheets to meet your clients’ needs.
You can also be strategic in how you sequence and schedule activities when combining them into psychoeducational pathways.
Next, we’ll look at three examples of how a practitioner might design or adapt assignments and worksheets in Quenza to help keep them engaged and progressing toward their therapy goals.
In doing so, we’ll look at Quenza’s applications for treating three common foci of treatment: anxiety, depression, and obsessions/compulsions.
When clients present with symptoms of generalized anxiety, panic, or other anxiety-related disorders, a range of useful CBT homework assignments can help.
These activities can include the practice of anxiety management techniques, such as deep breathing, muscle relaxation, and mindfulness training. They can also involve regular monitoring of anxiety levels, challenging automatic thoughts about arousal and panic, and modifying beliefs about the control they have over their symptoms (Leahy, 2005).
Practitioners looking to support these clients using homework might start by sending their clients one or two audio meditations via Quenza, such as the Body Scan Meditation or S.O.B.E.R. Stress Interruption Mediation. That way, the client will have tools on hand to help manage their anxiety in stressful situations.
As a focal assignment, the practitioner might also design and assign the client daily reflection exercises to be completed each evening. These can invite the client to reflect on their anxiety levels during the day by responding to a series of rating scales and open-ended response questions. Patterns in these responses can then be graphed, reviewed, and used to facilitate discussion during the client’s next in-person session.
As with anxiety, there is a range of practical CBT homework activities that aid in treating depression.
It should be noted that it is common for clients experiencing symptoms of depression to report concentration and memory deficits as reasons for not completing homework assignments (Garland & Scott, 2005). It is, therefore, essential to keep this in mind when designing engaging assignments.
CBT assignments targeted at the treatment of depressive symptoms typically center around breaking cycles of negative events, thinking, emotions, and behaviors, such as through the practice of reappraisal (Garland & Scott, 2005).
Examples of assignments that facilitate this may include thought diaries, reflections that prompt cognitive reappraisal, and meditations to create distance between the individual and their negative thoughts and emotions.
To this end, a practitioner looking to support their client might design a sequence of activities that invite clients to explore their negative cognitions once per day. This exploration can center on responses to negative feedback, faced challenges, or general low mood.
A good template to base this on is the Personal Coping Mantra worksheet in Quenza’s Expansion Library, which guides clients through the process of replacing automatic negative thoughts with more adaptive coping thoughts.
The practitioner can also schedule automatic push notification reminders to pop up on the client’s device if an activity in the sequence is not completed by a particular time each day. This function of Quenza may be particularly useful for supporting clients with concentration and memory deficits, helping keep them engaged with CBT homework.
Homework assignments pertaining to the treatment of obsessive-compulsive disorder typically differ depending on the stage of the therapy.
In the early stages of therapy, practitioners assigning homework will often invite clients to self-monitor their experience of compulsions, rituals, or responses (Franklin, Huppert, & Roth Ledley, 2005).
This serves two purposes. First, the information gathered through self-monitoring, such as by completing a journal entry each time compulsive thoughts arise, will help the practitioner get clearer about the nature of the client’s problem.
Second, self-monitoring allows clients to become more aware of the thoughts that drive their ritualized responses, which is important if rituals have become mostly automatic for the client (Franklin et al., 2005).
Therefore, as a focal assignment, the practitioner might assign a digital worksheet via Quenza that helps the client explore phenomena throughout their day that prompt ritualized responses. The client might then rate the intensity of their arousal in these different situations on a series of Likert scales and enter the specific thoughts that arise following exposure to their fear.
The therapist can then invite the client to complete this worksheet each day for one week by assigning it as part of a pathway of activities. A good starting point for users of Quenza may be to adapt the platform’s pre-designed Stress Diary for this purpose.
At the end of the week, the therapist and client can then reflect on the client’s responses together and begin constructing an exposure hierarchy.
This leads us to the second type of assignment, which involves exposure and response prevention. In this phase, the client will begin exploring strategies to reduce the frequency with which they practice ritualized responses (Franklin et al., 2005).
To this end, practitioners may collaboratively set a goal with their client to take a ‘first step’ toward unlearning the ritualized response. This can then be built into a customized activity in Quenza that invites the client to complete a reflection.
For instance, a client who compulsively hoards may be invited to clear one box of old belongings from their bedroom and resist the temptation to engage in ritualized responses while doing so.
A Take-Home Message
Developing and administering engaging CBT homework that caters to your client’s specific needs or concerns is becoming so much easier with online apps.
Further, best practice is becoming more accessible to more practitioners thanks to the emergence of new digital technologies.
We hope this article has inspired you to consider how you might leverage the digital tools at your disposal to create better homework that your clients want to engage with.
Likewise, let us know if you’ve found success using any of the activities we’ve explored with your own clients – we’d love to hear from you.
We hope you enjoyed reading this article. For more information, don’t forget to download our three Positive CBT Exercises for free.
- Bandura, A. (1989). Human agency in social cognitive theory. American Psychologist, 44(9), 1175–1184.
- Beutler, L. E., Malik, M., Alimohamed, S., Harwood, T. M., Talebi, H., Noble, S., & Wong, E. (2004). Therapist variables. In M. J. Lambert (Ed.), Bergin and Garfield’s handbook of psychotherapy and behavior change (5th ed.) (pp. 227–306). Wiley.
- Bouton, M. E. (1988). Context and ambiguity in the extinction of emotional learning: Implications for exposure therapy. Behaviour Research and Therapy, 26(2), 137–149.
- Franklin, M. E., Huppert, J. D., & Roth Ledley, D. (2005). Obsessions and compulsions. In N. Kazantzis, F. P. Deane, K. R., Ronan, & L. L’Abate (Eds.), Using homework assignments in cognitive behavior therapy (pp. 219–236). Routledge.
- Garland, A., & Scott, J. (2005). Depression. In N. Kazantzis, F. P. Deane, K. R., Ronan, & L. L’Abate (Eds.), Using homework assignments in cognitive behavior therapy (pp. 237–261). Routledge.
- Huppert, J. D., Roth Ledley, D., & Foa, E. B. (2006). The use of homework in behavior therapy for anxiety disorders. Journal of Psychotherapy Integration, 16(2), 128–139.
- Kazantzis, N. (2005). Introduction and overview. In N. Kazantzis, F. P. Deane, K. R., Ronan, & L. L’Abate (Eds.), Using homework assignments in cognitive behavior therapy (pp. 1–6). Routledge.
- Kazantzis, N., Deane, F. P., & Ronan, K. R. (2000). Homework assignments in cognitive and behavioral therapy: A meta‐analysis. Clinical Psychology: Science and Practice, 7(2), 189–202.
- Kazantzis, N., & L’Abate, L. (2005). Theoretical foundations. In N. Kazantzis, F. P. Deane, K. R., Ronan, & L. L’Abate (Eds.), Using homework assignments in cognitive behavior therapy (pp. 9–34). Routledge.
- Leahy, R. L. (2005). Panic, agoraphobia, and generalized anxiety. In N. Kazantzis, F. P. Deane, K. R., Ronan, & L. L’Abate (Eds.), Using homework assignments in cognitive behavior therapy (pp. 193–218). Routledge.
- Staddon, J. E., & Cerutti, D. T. (2003). Operant conditioning. Annual Review of Psychology, 54(1), 115–144.
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