I remember the first time I really started questioning whether homework the way we knew it from our childhood was relevant today. The September 15th, 2006 cover story of MacLean’s Magazine was staring at me, Homework Is Killing Our Kids with the dramatic picture of a girl hunched over her books. I nodded, “Yes, it is.”
Back in my teaching days, I taught junior and senior high school for ten years both in private and public schools. I saw first-hand the harm of too much irrelevant homework. Kids were bursting into tears and telling me how they were going to bed at 1am because that was when they finished their homework.
I also saw how teachers would create an assignment and continue to use it year after year without evolving along with technological advances and new information about learning. I heard two weeks ago that a child was sent home with an assignment revolving around the phone book. I wonder when the teacher first created that assignment!
Recently, at a presentation I did at Canyon Ranch Lenox, the mother of a teenager in a “prestigious prep school” was at her wit’s end about her son’s stress level because of the homework volume. The doctor also shared his concern, citing that the teen had drastically dropped off his growth curve. The mom was wondering how to still get her son into Harvard without harming his health along the way.
Now as a psychotherapist and parenting educator, I get pleas for help to “manage the stress of homework.” Parents are battling with their kids to get the work done, help with projects, and improve understanding, all while still getting to activities and some food in. Many families are over the breaking point.
The research on homework is very clear: homework in elementary grades has little or no impact on later success. Several studies showed that homework, especially assigned in lower grades or improperly, was useless.
I can hear teachers and administrators waving their hands saying, “But homework provides a content link between school and home.” Sure, maybe. But, this isn’t a necessary method for this link. Most schools have websites now, and many teachers are tweeting out content links. Communication is essential, but homework does not need to be a communication tool.
The other comment I hear from teachers is, “Homework gives the parent and child an opportunity to spend time together.” This makes my shoulders go in a knot. Do not tell me how to spend quality time with my kids! Homework is not quality time in my book.
The flip-side of this is that some parents expect homework or feel more satisfied seeing it because that improves their feeling of “getting their money’s worth” if it is a private school, or “proof that learning is happening.” I wish parents could feel school was “working” without requiring this evidence through homework.
Many schools are still using the “ten-minutes a day rule” (my kids’ whole school division still uses this), which is that the amount of homework should be ten minutes per grade, per day. So in grade five, according to this rule, each child should be doing fifty minutes of homework per day. The problem is, this rule has NO GROUNDING IN EDUCATIONAL RESEARCH. Yes, I’m yelling. Actually, according to Dr. Linda Cameron and Dr. Lee Bartel, as kids move to higher grades, if homework increases, their enthusiasm for it decreases. They found that by grade four, many kids have a negative attitude toward homework.
Dr. Cameron said, “The findings are that homework is completely inappropriate for the younger child for lots of reasons. School is enough, and they need time to play and relax.” Amen! (This quote was pulled from The end of homework as we know it? written by Tim Johnson and published in September 2013 edition of Canadian Family Magazine)
When homework decreases a child’s love of school or learning, more harm is done than good. Children have a natural love of learning, curiosity and inquiry. Homework needs to get out of the way of these natural states.
Here are my recommendations to thrive in school without homework stress:
No study has proven that homework for elementary kids is necessary for future success. This means that as a parent, you can talk to the teacher about any assignment you feel is outdated, irrelevant, or too long. You have the power to graciously decline your child’s homework. I do. Rather than let a school's often outdated homework policy negatively affect us, we have created a family homework policy. I am going to provide a list of resources at the end of this post for you to read and pass along to your child's teachers.
Form a strong connection with your child’s teacher.
As with any relationship, taking the time to know and care for someone helps smooth out any challenges. As much as you are able, offer to help the teacher, and smile and chat with him or her when you can.
Use worksheets as fire-fuel or paper airplanes.
Most worksheets are called, “skill and drill” assignments. These are generally not useful.
Ask, “What is the purpose of this assignment?”
If the answer to this question is not clear or beneficial, or if you get a vague answer from the teacher, you are allowed to veto the assignment.
Do not take on the role of your child’s grade-school teacher.
It is very clear that new school learning should not happen at home at the hands of the parents. If a new concept is sent home, gently remind your child’s teacher that new content is her responsibility, not yours.
Resist the temptation to do your child’s work for her.
I know, you need to get to soccer practice and it is just easier to finish the ninety multiplication questions for your child. It is better to make the time to talk to the teacher about the assignment’s appropriateness, the teacher’s ability to prepare the child to do the work, and the amount of time it takes to complete. You many only need to speak with the teacher a few times until things start to move more smoothly.
Make sure each and every part of a project can be done with your child’s hands.
I have seen school projects completed by parents. Adopt a rule that your child’s hands will be the only ones to touch a project. Teachers need to design the projects so this is possible. By all means help your child if she asks to have a picture printed out or a piece of Bristol board purchased, but let your child make all the decisions and creative touches.
Support well thought out assignments.
These kinds of homework are super!
Want more information?
Here is a list of awesome homework resources:
The end of homework as we know it? by Tim Johnson – September 2013 issue of Canadian Family Magazine. I couldn't find a web link to this story so here is a link to the magazine's website www.canadianfamily.ca.
The end of homework? by Shanda Deziel – September 2013 issue of Today’s Parent Magazine
Should I Stop Assigning Homework? – by Jessica Lahey published on September 20, 2013 in The Atlantic. I love this article! Lahey, a middle-school teacher in a prep school, carefully considers the answer to this question.
Parents: Hands Off The Homework – by KJ Dell’Antonia published on May 10, 2012 in The New York Times Motherlode
Alfie Kohn’s website – www.alfiekohn.com. Kohn has an exhaustive list of articles and resources for parents. You can find printable handouts for help speaking with teachers and administrators about homework.
Do you know about Khan Academy? This is a free educational resource, funded partly by the Bill Gates Foundation, which has wonderful videos to explain academic concepts. I strongly encourage each parent and teacher to look through this website. The "I am terrible at math" excuse is no more!
If your child is losing his or her love of learning and checking out of school, there could be factors beyond homework stress in play. I encourage you to book an appointment with your child's teacher early before waiting for the trouble to grow larger. If you have any questions or comments, I invite you to post them below or over on my Facebook page.
Photo -- flickr creative commons Crystal L Davis