President Obama’s pick for Education Secretary, John King, Jr., is headed for confirmation Mar. 9. King’s track record shows he loves standardized testing and quantifying learning. If he loves numbers and research, he should welcome what some teachers and families have known for years: that homework at young ages does more harm than good.
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We’re currently enmeshed in a high-pressure approach to learning that starts with homework being assigned in kindergarten and even preschool. Homework dominates after-school time in many households and has been dubbed the 21st century’s “new family dinner.” Overtired children complain and collapse. Exasperated parents cajole and nag. These family fights often ends in tears, threats, and parents secretly finishing their kid’s homework.
Parents put up with these nightly battles because they want what’s best for their kids. But, surprise, the opposite is more likely to be true. A comprehensive review of 180 research studies by Duke University psychologist and neuroscientist Harris Cooper shows homework’s benefits are highly age dependent: high schoolers benefit if the work is under two hours a night, middle schoolers receive a tiny academic boost, and elementary-aged kids? It’s better to wait.
If you examine the research—not one study, but the full sweep of homework research—it’s clear that homework does have an impact, but it’s not always a good one. Homework given too young increases negative attitudes toward school. That’s bad news, especially for a kindergartener facing 12 more years of assignments.
Read More: Why You Shouldn’t Do Your Child’s Homework
Children rebel against homework because they have other things they need to do. Holler and run. Relax and reboot. Do family chores. Go to bed early. Play, following their own ideas. Children have been told what to do all day long at school—which is mostly sitting still and focusing on the academic side. Academic learning is only one side of a child. When school is out, kids need time for other things.
Some schools are already realizing this. New York City’s P.S. 116 elementary school made news last year when its principal Jane Hsu abolished homework and asked families to read instead. Individual schools and teachers from Maryland to Michigan have done the same, either eliminating homework in the elementary years or making it optional. But schools also report that if teachers don’t give it, some parents will demand it.
Believers in homework say it teaches soft skills like responsibility and good study habits. That’s another problem with homework in elementary school. Young kids can rarely cope with complex time management skills or the strong emotions that accompany assignments, so the responsibility falls on parents. Adults assume the highly undesirable role of Homework Patrol Cop, nagging kids about doing it, and children become experts in procrastination and the habit of complaining until forced to work. Homework overtakes the parents’ evening as well as the child’s. These roles aren’t easy to shake.
Read More: How Hard Is Too Hard to Push Kids?
When homework comes at a stage when it can academically benefit students, it can also be a student’s responsibility. That means a high school student should be expected to do her homework without being reminded. It may take a year or two of practice in middle school, but it doesn’t require years of practice. Before age 11, responsibility can be taught in other ways. For a 6-year-old, that means remembering to feed the cat and bring home her lunchbox.
If we want students to improve memory, focus, creative thinking, test performance and even school behavior, the answer is not more homework, the answer is more sleep. The National Sleep Foundation reports that our children are suffering sleep deprivation, partly from homework. If we pride ourselves on a rational, research-based approach to education, we must look at the right facts.
Parents often feel stuck with homework because they don’t realize they have a choice. But they do. Schooling may be mandatory, but homework isn’t. Families can opt out. Parents can approach the teacher either about homework load or the simple fact of doing homework at all, especially in elementary school. Many teachers will be more than happy with the change. Opting out, or changing the homework culture of a school brings education control back down to the local level.
That’s another thing the new Education Secretary has promised: to turn more control for education decisions over to states and local school districts. That could spell good news for students – if local teachers and principals do their own homework and read up on what the research says about making kids do school work after school is done.
“My Child Refuses to Do Homework.” Here’s How to Stop the Struggle
By Janet Lehman, MSW
Do you get sucked into a fight over homework with your child every night? So many parents tell me that this is one of their top struggles with their kids. If you’re dealing with this now, you probably dread saying the words, “Okay, time to do your homework,” because you know what’s coming next — screaming, stomping, book-throwing and slammed doors. Or it might simply be hours of dealing with your complaining, whining or noncompliant child or teen who just hates to do the work. Even though you reason, lecture, nag and yell, nothing seems to change — and each night turns into a battle with no victors.
Trust me, I get it. I have to admit that dealing with my son’s homework was one of my least favorite experiences as a parent. It felt overwhelming to me; often, I just wasn’t equipped to offer the help he needed. Our son struggled with a learning disability, which made the work and the amount of time required feel unending at times — both to him and to us. My husband James was much better at helping him, so he took on this responsibility — but even with this division of labor, we had to make adjustments to our schedules, our lives and our expectations to make sure our son turned it in on time.
They Don’t Call It “Homework” for Nothing
Here’s something I learned along the way: homework is work, and there’s no getting around that fact. It’s a chore for both the child and parent. It’s important to understand that schoolwork is often the most difficult part of your child’s busy schedule. Helping your kids manage it despite all the other activities they would rather be doing can be challenging at best. Remember that it’s your child’s job to go to school and learn (including getting homework completed) and your job to provide for your kids, run the house and offer love and guidance to your children.
I know from experience how easy it is to get caught up in power struggles over homework. These struggles begin for several reasons, but the most common one is because your child would rather be relaxing, playing, texting with friends, or doing almost anything else. Know that if you deal with their frustration by losing it and getting mad out of your own frustration, it will be a losing battle. Some kids are even able to manipulate parents this way, because they know the battle over homework may result in your giving up on expectations to get it done.
Here’s the truth: letting your child off the hook for their work will ultimately create problems in their lives. Instead, focus on the fact that as a parent, you need to teach your child how to follow through on expectations and be accountable. All the more reason to take control and make homework just another part of your child’s daily responsibilities.
Here’s my advice for reducing homework hassles in your home:
- Try to stay calm: Try to avoid losing your cool and yelling and screaming, arguing about the right answer for the math problem or the right way to do the geography quiz, ignoring the homework altogether or being inconsistent with what you expect, being overly critical, or giving up and just doing the work for your child. The first step is to try to stay as calm as you can. If you get frustrated and start yelling and screaming at your child, this sets a negative tone and is likely not going to help them get the work done.
- Set clear expectation around homework time and responsibilities. Let your children know that you expect them to get the work done on time and to the best of their abilities; the most important thing is that they try their best. Set aside the same time each afternoon or evening for them to do their work. Understand that kids are all different in how they feel about and approach homework. Some may find English easy, but get really frustrated with math. Another may be a science whiz, but have no patience when it comes to writing. It’s important to know your child: their strengths and struggles, and how they learn. Some kids need small breaks throughout a session, while others may need the task to be broken down into smaller pieces and then varied. While there are some children and teens who are self-directed and able to complete homework without assistance, most require some type of guidance and/or monitoring, depending on their age. This makes it especially challenging for parents, because it means you need to perform different functions with each child you have, depending on their needs.
- Have a relationship with your child’s teacher. Try your best to build a good relationship with your child’s teacher. Start off at the beginning of the school year and stay in touch as the year progresses. Your relationship with your child’s teachers will pay off during the good times as well as the challenging times.
- Play the parental role most useful to your child. Some kids need a coach; others need a “monitor,” while others need more hands-on guidance to complete tasks. Try to match your help with what is most needed. Remember also that your child is doing the homework as a school assignment. The teacher will ultimately be the judge of how good or bad, correct or incorrect the work is. You’re not responsible for the work itself, your responsibility is to guide your child. You can always make suggestions, but ultimately it’s your child’s responsibility to do his or her assignments, and the teacher’s job to grade them.
- Keep activities similar with all your kids. If you have several kids, have them all do similar activities during homework time. Even if one child has less homework or finishes more quickly, they need to be respectful of their siblings by doing quiet, non-disruptive activities.
- Set up a structured time and place for homework. Choose a time and place and stick to a routine as much as possible. Consider adding in break times for kids with shorter attention spans. They might work on their spelling words for 15 minutes, and then take a 5 minute break, for example. Offer snacks to keep kids “fueled” for the work. Keep the house generally quiet for everyone during homework time—turn off the TV (or at least keep the volume down). Make sure your kids have a “space” for doing their work. For some kids this will mean a large work space like a kitchen table to spread out their papers and books, and for others it may mean a small quiet area in their room.
- Start early: Start early with your young children setting up “homework” time, even if it’s just some quiet reading time each night. This helps get them used to the expectation of doing some “homework” each night and will pay off as the actual work gets harder and more time-consuming.
- Offer “Hurdle Help”: Some kids need what we call “hurdle help.” Let’s say your child has big test to study for, but can’t seem to get started. You can help out by running through the first few problems, for example, until he gets the hang of it. Or you might brainstorm with your teen to help her choose a topic for the big paper she has to write. You’re not doing the work for them, rather, you’re helping them get going so the task doesn’t seem so daunting. (This concept, along with many other effective parenting techniques, is explained in The Total Transformation Program.)
- Choose the best person for the job: If you are part of a couple, consider that one of you might be better at “teaching” and then let that person take on the homework monitoring responsibilities. It will likely help the routine become more consistent and effective for your child. If you are a single parent, you might have a friend or family member (an older cousin who’s good at math, or a neighbor who’s a writer, for example) who would consider helping your child from time to time.
- Offer empathy and support. If your child is really struggling, give them some support and guidance and show some empathy. Kids are expected to do some difficult work, and your child may sincerely be struggling with it. If you have a child who is really having a hard time, it’s important to have communication with the teacher to see if this is typical for all kids, or if it’s unique to your child. If your child also has these problems in class, know that there are different approaches to helping them learn that can be useful. The teacher may recommend some testing to see if there are learning problems. While this can be hard to hear as a parent – as if something is wrong with your child – it’s important to find out how your child learns best and what your teacher and you can do to support their learning style.
- Use positive reinforcement and incentives: It’s always important to reinforce positive behavior, and that may mean offering some kind of incentive for completing homework or getting good grades. Most kids get personal satisfaction out of getting good grades and completing their work, and that’s what we’re aiming for. But, it’s also helpful to offer some incentives to encourage them. Rather than money, I would recommend offering rewarding activities for your child’s academic successes. This could include going shopping for some “goodie” the child has really wanted, renting their favorite movie and having “movie night” at home, or other ways of spending special time with a parent. These things can become more meaningful than money for most kids and they get to experience their parent in a loving, supportive and reinforcing role.
Most kids will never really “enjoy” homework, and for some it will always be a struggle. Our children all have different strengths and abilities, and while some may never be excellent students, they might be great workers, talented artists, or thoughtful builders. While it would be easier if all children were self-motivated students who came home, sat down and dug into their homework, this just isn’t going to be the case with most kids. As James often said to parents, “We need to learn to parent the child we have – not the child we’d like them to be.” Our role is to guide our children, support them through the challenging tasks, and teach them about personal responsibility.