These days we have so much information at our fingertips to help solve any parenting dilemma (admittedly, most of the times we may have too much). You could argue the Internet was both the best and worst thing to ever happen to parenting.
Despite the sometimes overwhelming amount of information, it’s still nice to consult a parenting expert once in a while to get some new ideas, advice and even a dose of perspective.
At LiveMom, we want to help answer your questions, and so we have a recurring feature called Ask the Expert. We’ll take on anything from potty training to car seats to dealing with kids and technology to anything in between. Then, we’ll find local and national experts to help guide us to make the best choices for our families.
When my son was on the cusp of entering elementary school, several documentaries came out on the subject of education reform. One was Race to Nowhere, a compelling film which chronicled the increasing pressure American students are now under and the repercussions. One of the focuses of Race to Nowhere is the amount of homework high-achieving students are now assigned. While my son is now the tender age of 8 and homework is manageable, I am nervous about what lies ahead.
We received a question from one frazzled mom about homework. Thankfully, Sarah Dille, a fellow blogger who was also recognized as Teacher of the Year, recommended Oona Hanson, who recently launched Homework That Works, to help us answer it.
Oona taught high school English and coached students in two states before getting two Master’s degrees: one in English, and another in Educational Psychology. While in graduate school, Oona designed a professional development program for teachers to help apply the latest in research to their homework policies. Now, as a parent of two school-aged children and the founder of Homework That Works, Oona helps parents work with teachers and administrators to improve homework practices and policies in schools throughout the country.
Now that we have the perfect person to help us with our question, let’s get to it!
Homework with my elementary-aged child is a struggle. There is bargaining, threats, frustration and usually tears. Most of what he brings home is busy work and so it’s hard to blame him for wanting to do something else. I feel like time after school just flies by in between activities, making and eating dinner and getting ready for bed. Homework and the struggle to get it done is really putting a damper on our family time. I’m pretty much at my wit’s end. I want him to succeed in school, but feel like this just can’t keep going on. What should I do?
Here’s Oona’s response:
It’s a nightly battle in almost every home in America. Many will blame the parents (funny how our generation is told we’re too hard on kids, pushing and hovering, but then we’re also told we’re slackers who don’t teach discipline and hard work. We can’t win!). But the bigger issue is that we didn’t have this load in elementary school, and kids today shouldn’t have it either. The kids are telling us something, and we have to listen.
The good news is that elementary school children can definitely succeed in school without much, if any, homework. In fact, in schools that have eliminated or greatly reduced homework, achievement has actually gone up!
Yes, isolated studies have shown some benefits for younger kids, especially when that homework is essentially test prep—and of course kids then do better on those tests. But meta-analyses (where researchers combine data from multiple studies) covering decades of research find no correlation between homework and achievement in elementary school.
So why do teachers still assign it, and why do some parents ask for more?
Homework plays into deeply held beliefs about the value of hard work, and there is a powerful cultural myth that more homework means more learning. Many people even think a high homework load is a sign of a “good teacher” or a “good school.” But it simply isn’t true—especially for younger kids and especially when it’s the kind of busywork your son is bringing home. With the high-stakes testing under No Child Left Behind, however, teachers are under increasing pressure to give kids as much preparation as possible, and it often results in excessive homework.
Once you’re aware of the research, you may be tempted to opt out of homework, something many families have done. This approach is problematic, however, because most classrooms have a system of punishments and rewards tied to homework. So a child who doesn’t complete homework can really suffer at school.
So if you want to end the nightly tears, here are three steps to try (in increasing order of effort):
1. MAKE SOME CHANGES AT HOME. Talk with your child about the teacher’s expectations, and share your values about education. Discuss the nightly battles and how you both want things to change. Start by limiting the time allowed for homework so it’s not taking over the entire afternoon. Unless the school has a specific homework policy, follow the so-called “10-minutes-per-grade rule,” a widely accepted guideline. So a third grader should have no more than thirty minutes of homework per night (Monday through Thursday). So when it’s homework time, set a timer, and have your child try to complete the work before the timer goes off; after that point, you will no longer be available (for questions, supplies, etc.). Depending on your child’s temperament, your relationship with your child, and the classroom situation, you can even simply take the homework away after the timer sounds. It’s entirely possible the homework won’t get done in that amount of time, and there may be some consequences for your child in class. In a few days kids will usually figure out how to be more efficient and simply get it done. If your child is still struggling to complete the work in the allotted time, or if the tears and nagging continue, it is time to go to Step 2.
2. TALK TO THE TEACHER. Make an appointment to talk with your child’s teacher. Rather than criticize the homework quality or quantity itself, focus the conversation on what you are observing in your child (tears, anxiety, stomachaches, changing attitude toward school, interference with play time, etc.). Be sure to explain how much you care about your child’s education; and remember the power of “and” (instead of “but”). For example, you might say, “My son enjoys your class, and I’m worried that his homework frustrations are hurting his love of school.” (If you use the conjunction “but” in a sentence like this, it puts the teacher immediately on the defensive.) Ask the teacher for his/her advice about how to remedy the situation. You may be surprised by what you hear. If you are unsatisfied with the teacher’s response, then gear up for Step 3.
3. MAKE CHANGES AT THE SCHOOL. Find out if your school has a homework policy and if it follows research-based guidelines. Stanford School of Education has a great user-friendly resource: http://www.challengesuccess.org/portals/0/docs/ChallengeSuccess-Homework-WhitePaper.pdf. If your school lacks a good homework policy, find some other like-minded parents and form a committee. The book The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About Itby Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish offers terrific instructions about how to work with other parents to effect change at your child’s school. Note that this process can take a year or more. Schools are like oil tankers; they don’t take sharp turns. And you’ll need multi-stakeholder engagement—parents, teachers, and administrators all need to understand what makes engaging, developmentally-appropriate homework.
Have you struggled with the amount of homework your child is assigned? Have you tried to make changes at home or at school? What has worked for you?