The other day in the clinic, Tommy, a fourth grader, complained about “just not having enough time for anything I like…all I do is homework!” Even Tommy’s mom seemed concerned, stating, “We have so much homework that it’s hard for us to get it all done each night.”
As I thought about their comments, it became painfully clear to me that Tommy and his mother – and I suspect many of you – have some significant homework problems. I asked Tommy for a listing about how he spends his after-school time. His extremely tight schedule sounded all too familiar.
Tommy plays soccer (60 minutes), practices piano (30 minutes), does his thirty minutes of nightly reading and completes his other homework (60–120 minutes), eats dinner (20 minutes) and prepares for bed (15 minutes). He has little time to play with his friends, work on his model airplane or play his favorite video games. During his jam-packed evenings he becomes irritable. He is frustrated about all the demands and expectations placed on him. Simply put, he just wants more time.
Tommy’s mom added perspective: “There is just so much to get done after school that there is no peace in our house. I never get to sit and talk with Tommy. ….He becomes so overwhelmed that getting his homework done requires me to act like a policewoman.” She added quietly, “and to be honest I end up doing much of the work…I will do anything to get it done so he can just go to sleep.”
Let’s really think about the subject of homework, since Tommy and his mother are not the only families with these issues. What is the history behind assigning homework? What role does homework play for your child? Does homework have positive outcomes? What can parents do to be helpful?
What does the history of homework tell us?
Did you know that in 1901 Congress banned homework for children in kindergarten through eighth grade because at that time children needed to use after-school hours to complete farm chores? That situation had changed by the 1950s. The “Sputnik age” pressured the educational establishment to catch up to and surpass the scientific knowledge of the USSR.
Ultimately, homework, which had been gaining in common practice since the early part of the 20th century, acquired increased prominence.
Homework used to be governed by the rule of tens. Accordingly, a child in first grade received 10 minutes of homework, and each year another 10 minutes was added, so by fifth grade a student received 50 minutes of homework. However, today the amount of homework given to students each night has risen significantly and in the period between 1944 and 1999, the time expectations for nightly homework assigned in the early grades has increased from 44 minutes to two hours, or 300 percent.
Furthermore, the focus on academic accomplishments continues to escalate. Parents of older students tell me that they worry about their child getting into the right college, while parents of younger children worry about getting their child into the best pre-school. The stress of those competitive scenarios finds its way into the classroom and is reflected in homework expectations.
Why is homework important?
What are the intended outcomes of significant amounts of nightly homework? On the positive side, homework is intended to strengthen what students have learned in school. It is used to extend what students know and to integrate a student’s abilities. It is also seen as a means for teaching self discipline.
One might assume there is a measurable, positive outcome from this large amount of homework assigned on a regular basis. A review of the literature on homework reveals a mixed picture. The data does not clearly show a relationship between duration of completed homework and achievement, especially in younger, school-aged children.
What can parents do?
One of the first steps is for you and your child to conduct some research to help better identify the problem. The following questions can begin the discussion. Keep in mind that each answer should reflect the specific needs of your child: 1. Is too much homework being assigned? 2. Are the assignments too long? 3. Is the work in one or more subject areas too difficult?
Next, think about who is doing your child’s homework. Homework is assigned for the student. Your child is the person to begin and complete their homework. Your role as a parent may include supporting your child’s efforts by helping organize his/her homework time, but you should not be the person doing the homework. When parents do their children’s homework, the child may perceive a negative message that s/he is not capable of completing the work and is not responsible for it.
Let’s also deal with an often heard concerned parent comment: “What if s/he doesn’t turn in his/her homework?” Usually if homework isn’t turned in, there is a natural consequence of grade reduction. Experiencing natural consequences is often the most effective means of shaping a child’s behavior.
What should be done if, after investigating, you conclude that the amount of homework is excessive? Opening and maintaining a dialogue among family members and between school and parents is an important step in beginning to resolve questions about the amount of assigned homework. Having this conversation with your child’s teacher could result in agreeing on a specific time limit for your child to complete a reasonable amount of homework each night.
Working with problem-areas in a pro-active manner is usually the first step toward finding a solution. On the adjacent page you will find an example from the RNBC Executive Functions Curriculum Notebook explaining a notation system from an assignment notebook. You can use or adapt this system as a first step in providing more effective homework support for your child.
Here is a key take away: Your child’s learning strengths and weakness need to be understood by yourselves, your child’s teachers, and your child. That information should guide the development of a homework program that ensures a positive learning experience. Your child should meaningfully engage in his/her homework and experience a sense of accomplishment based on timely homework completion.
In the end, developing and maintaining a balanced home and educational life is a continuing process. The role of homework grows as children move upward through the grades. Too often the importance of family and individual time gets lost in the mix of things. The key word is balance. Reasonable amounts of useful homework are important, but so are family and individual time, play and fun.