It was a crystallizing moment for Sara Youngblood-Ochoa. She was sitting with her first-grade son last winter as he struggled to do “extra credit” homework after a long day at school. Getting frustrated, she snapped at him. He cried.
“I looked at him and said, ‘Do you want to do this?’ He said no, and I said, ‘I don’t either.’ ” And that was the end of homework for her 6-year-old.
She knew he was doing fine in school, so they just stopped doing the packets of worksheets that came home every week. “It took a load off our afternoons and made it easier for him to do after-school activities that he wanted to do,” said the Chicago-area mother. “If there’s something our son is struggling in, we’ll absolutely do the work. But after eight hours at a desk, to make him sit down and do more seems silly.”
After a summer of camps, freedom and running around outside, the transition back to school can be tough for any child — or parent. Add to that the scads of homework sent back with kids to complete before the next day, and parents can find themselves torn between wanting to encourage children to complete their work and wanting them to get exercise, play, just be a kid. And so for some parents, homework, particularly for kids in the younger grades, has become a big, fat zero. No more worksheets and reading logs. Other parents stop all homework if it takes longer than 10 or 15 minutes, believing the assignments should be a simple review of what was learned in school, not an hours-long process to struggle through. The conversation about banning homework, especially for young children, appears to be growing in popularity, even among teachers themselves. When a second-grade teacher in Texas recently sent a letter home explaining that she no longer would give homework, the letter went viral. Most important to parents, studies show that homework for younger children doesn’t actually correlate with improved school performance, and in fact, can hinder learning.
[Texas teacher stops giving homework. The Internet gives her an A.]
Homework, in other words, is really a sore subject.
When Jeanne Hargett’s youngest son started kindergarten in Arlington Public Schools last year, he was given weekly homework packets. “We just didn’t do it,” she said. “Honestly, he’s an active child. And I really feel like after asking him to sit on his bottom for most of the day, and asking him to come home and do it again, is not fair. I want him to go outside and exercise, look at bunnies and bugs and crawl around in the grass.” She said he didn’t get “dinged” for not doing the homework, and explained her stance to his teacher, but she is worried about first grade. “I’m hearing they give rewards to the entire class if everyone does their homework. That puts pressure on these 6-year-olds.”
That lack of free playtime is what most parents argue is missing when children are forced to come home and review what they did at school by doing worksheets. “It’s really important, especially for young kids, to play. Playing is a cornerstone for learning,” said Erica Reischer, a clinical psychologist and author of the book “What Great Parents Do.” “Playing is learning. That’s it. Parents need to protect that space.”
But what happens when parents simply stop forcing their kids to do homework? For those interviewed here, they explained their reasoning to teachers and principals and say they were mostly met with support, and their children didn’t fall behind. “There’s a long tradition of homework, and a lot of passion behind it from parents and teachers,” Reischer said. “It’s what we do. So it feels a little scary to let that go… It shouldn’t be a crazy idea that elementary school shouldn’t have homework.”
Of course, not everyone is ditching homework. For older students in particular, homework often has a purpose, including learning about time management and solidifying complicated lessons. Jonathan Brand, headmaster of Chelsea Academy in Front Royal, Va., said his school has general guidelines about homework amounts, even for older students. “We lower the homework requirement in younger grades,” he said. In grades 4 and 5, their youngest, teachers try to give no more than 30 minutes per night. “We’re very careful about the kind of homework assignments we give to students. The benefit they receive from homework diminishes significantly in the lower grades.”
Parents who are opting out are generally in a place of privilege, says Harris M. Cooper, a Duke University professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience, whose research often focuses on homework. “These are typically parents who have the resources and capacity to substitute their own choices of academic things to do after school.” For parents whose first language isn’t English, or parents who work long hours, homework can be a good resource and supplement to regular school days.
John Seelke, father to twin second-grade girls, and a former teacher who now works at the University of Maryland’s College of Education, said he’s torn about the homework issue at home. From a professional perspective, he knows there is sometimes too much emphasis put on homework, noting that research shows a disconnect between the amount of homework students are given and their success at school. “As a parent, though, I sort of like that my kids have something to work on,” he said. “In education, there’s a swing in the pendulum. First, the students get too much, especially in high school, with three to four hours a night. But then to swing completely in the other direction and say no homework?”
So he and his wife have set it up that the girls’ routine includes homework after school. If they have an activity at night, they can complete the work before school in the morning. “I also know that if my kids are struggling with something, we know what resources to go to because of my background,” he said. “I don’t know that every parent has those resources, especially if they are working two jobs or from another country. In some cases, for them, homework is a steady way of practice.”
In general, younger children’s homework shouldn’t last more than 10 to 20 minutes, Cooper said. “Parents should be watching their child, especially for signs of fatigue and frustration.” If they feel the homework is too much or inappropriate, “speak with the teacher. Because if enough parents have the same concern, a good educator will modify their practices.”
Annie Richman of Shaker Heights, Ohio, put that time limit on her children’s homework when they were young. “I think that’s enough time to focus” after a long day at school, she said. If her children ran out of time or got frustrated, Richman would write a note to the teacher. A former second-grade teacher herself, she rarely gave homework unless it was something that specifically needed to be done at home.
The policy in her children’s upper elementary school was 20 minutes of homework per teacher. But with four teachers, that added up. Plus they were told to read for 30 minutes and practice their instrument for 30 minutes. “So when are they going to eat dinner, have a bath and get to bed?” Richman asked. “It’s really important to rake the leaves, take responsibility for setting the table and play with friends.”
Cara Paiuk stopped her son’s homework last year, when he was in kindergarten at his school in West Hartford, Conn. She told his teacher, who was very receptive and didn’t seem bothered. As for this year? She’s going to watch what happens. “I think parents are the most challenging part for teachers, more than the kids, and I really try not to be a high-maintenance parent.”
That said, she felt last year that her young son should be spending his few hours after school with his younger sisters, instead of doing worksheets. “To see my children … playing together in the couple hours after school and before bedtime, that is so important for conflict resolution, learning how to play with different age groups,” she said. “To take time away from that to do homework doesn’t do it for me.”
In the last couple years, there’s been a national discussion about how much homework schools should be giving to students. Parents see their children coming home from school with assignments to complete, and it’s only natural for them to wonder if the extra time studying is worth it.
My answer to parents concerned about homework is, “It depends on the quality of the homework—and how intentional teachers are about giving homework.” In some cases, additional practice helps. In others, it can actually hurt your child’s education. Let me explain further.
How Homework Can Help Students Learn
There’s a reason that teachers send children home with assignments to complete in the evening. If completed, homework has been shown to help students reinforce what they learn in the classroom and increase retention of factual knowledge. It can help reinforce critical life skills such as time management and independent problem solving. Plus, it creates opportunities for parental involvement—which has been proven to increase academic achievement.
At its best, homework is additional practice for students. Practice is important because it helps students make a skill automatic and encourages the brain to move knowledge from short-term working memory into long-term memory.
If kids are invested and engaged, homework can really help them learn. After all, the more a student practices something, the better they get and the faster they become.
The Challenges Educators Face When Giving Homework
Homework stops benefiting students when it’s done wrong. For practice to be most effective it has to be on the edge of too challenging—but that can be hard to monitor when children are completing assignments alone at home.
As an educator, I’ve seen too many times where the students will repeatedly make the same mistake throughout an assignment. In those cases, homework isn’t helping students. In fact, without getting timely feedback, it actually reinforces the wrong knowledge in their brain and leads to frustration.
Another problem is that without an educator monitoring students, homework could be either too challenging or not challenging enough. Neither benefits students. When homework is too hard, students become frustrated and often give up. When homework is too easy, students feel it’s a waste of time—which leads to feelings of resentment.
Homework that’s not designed well can also be damaging to the relationship between parents and their children. As a parent myself, I know how important it is to teach my kids the value of responsibility, of work, and commitment. I want them to follow through on the assignments they’re given. Yet if my child is given homework that feels unproductive or like busywork, it creates an internal battle for me as the parent. Do I undermine the teacher and tell my kids they don’t need to do their homework? Or do I support the teacher and say “You have to do the homework?”
Another issue is how schools use homework to assess students and assign grades. As a teacher, I only know what the product was, not sure if it was a result of working with tutor or parent. Students may turn in a perfect piece of work—but if they got help along the way, the struggles and mistakes that could better inform teaching gets erased and edited, and the final mistake-free product that the teacher sees cannot result in meaningful feedback.
How Much Homework Is Too Much?
At Whitby, we believe that teachers should be very intentional about the homework they assign. The key to the “right” amount of homework is to make sure it’s given in a deliberate way that benefits students.
Good homework should be challenging, but not so hard that it’s discouraging. Students feel much more positive about their homework if they can complete it in a reasonable amount of time.
One of the ways that educators can hit that balance is to figure out ways for students to receive immediate feedback or to design homework that isn’t practicing a skill, but frees up in-class time. Teachers can effectively leverage homework to have students watch a video, read a chapter at home, reflect on a class or assignment, or create a second draft of an essay based on feedback received that day. Then subsequent class time can be used more efficiently to promote learning. Practice, discussions, engaging in activities and asking questions about the concepts and material for questions, practice and discussions about the material.
Teachers can also make homework feel less overwhelming by giving students some flexibility about when they turn in the assignment. Then it’s possible for students to work around performances or other commitments. Grade level teams also coordinate so that students don’t have too many assignments due the same day. An amount of homework that may seem reasonable on a normal day will feel unreasonable if that student has a big presentation due at the same time.
The Other Work of Childhood
The research shows that kids grow to be more creative, confident, and resilient when they are rested and have opportunities for unstructured play. As educators, it’s important for us to take that into consideration when we’re assigning homework. We have to decide, “Is this homework worth it?”
Whitby educators are very intentional about what we assign outside of class and work to respect students’ unstructured time, family time and other outside activities. When Whitby teachers assign homework I’m confident that the vast majority of work assigned is “good” homework. I don’t want to be the school that brags about our students spending hours and hours each night doing homework, but we don’t shy away from giving kids work to do at home when the assignment will help them learn. After our students graduate from Whitby, they frequently tell us “We’re doing more homework at our new high school —but we’re not learning any faster or deeper.” That’s music to our ears.
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