Questioning Your Child's Homework: Is It a Help or Hindrance to Your Child's Development?

By Brianna Hansen on November 19, 2018

Ask any kid their least favorite part about school and chances are extremely high, regardless if they're elementary, middle or high school age, you'll get a near universal answer.

Homework. More specifically, the amount of it.

Long the bane of school kids everywhere—and plenty of parents, too—homework is one aspect of today's schooling that unites almost all students.

Even as schools fully embrace the digital age and relics of the past disappear, homework remains a constant. It was true as far back as the 1950s, it was true at the turn of the century, and it's true today.

Is homework a good thing though?

Should there be so much of it?

Does homework have a positive impact on a child's learning as some may propose or does it place an undue burden or stress on a kid?

Indeed, there are plenty of opinions as to whether homework is an effective means in helping to educate our nation's youth or if it's merely busy work.

What's the Point?

Older male helping a young child color a picture

Let's take our original question one step further and imagine the results if you asked students their actual opinion of homework. There's little doubt one of the common retorts would be, what's the point of it?

Many people who support homework point out there are several.

Not nearly as nefarious as students might imagine, homework can be a useful tool. Through the act of repetition, it aids in a student mastering the lessons taught in the classroom. It also provides more time to improve upon concepts that a student failed to understand in the group setting.

Homework also serves to build skills beyond just the work itself.

A 2017 study revealed that homework helps children become more conscientious—dedicated and diligent about their efforts not just in what's assigned, but elsewhere in their lives.

It goes further than that.

As an adult in the labor force, much of an individual's success stems from being a good problem solver—the ability to quickly work out issues and move on to what's next. Homework spread across multiple disciplines does well to emulate this.

Homework also promotes independent work habits. The comfort of a classroom or group setting won't always be there once a student graduates.

Depending on the workload, a student acquires valuable time management skills from a nightly load of math equations and reading assignments. Learning how to wisely dole out minutes and hours to a given task is one of those skills that many adults still have problems mastering, so the sooner a young individual learns it, the better.

Is it Really Necessary?

Older adult male helping two young children with a hands-on project

Opponents to a daily dose of after-school study may acknowledge that those skills are indeed valuable. But they also ask if attaining the skills require saddling a kid with evening assignments equal to the time spent in school.

Unfortunately, much of the available research is unable to answer that question.

It does however provide guidance with regard to the academic effects of homework and offers that for certain age groups, too much of it may not be ideal.

According to Duke University research by Harris Cooper, the younger the student, the lighter the load should be.

"Homework for young students should be short, lead to success without much struggle, occasionally involve parents and, when possible, use out-of-school activities that kids enjoy, such as their sports teams or high-interest reading," Cooper says.

Many will probably agree that primary-school age may indeed be a bit young for large amounts of at-home assignments. What about when the child grows older?

For middle school-aged children, results were similar to those in lower grades. They stood to benefit more from reading or pursuits away from the classroom.

Once you get to high school students, homework finally finds its place, but even then it comes with a caveat. Academically speaking, assigning homework in moderation is helpful for grades 9-12. The Duke study suggests that two hours of homework per night should be the maximum at this level.

Cooper added that "even for high school students, overloading them with homework is not associated with higher grades."

The research does show though that there is still some benefit, and as Cooper points out "the amount and type should vary according to their developmental level and home circumstances."

Other research points to similar conclusions, and that perhaps the concerns over homework stem from its one size fits all nature.

A 2013 study by Adam Maltese of Indiana University, focused on high school sophomores, reflected that homework helps a student perform well on standardized tests. Beyond that, there was little else to show links between homework and improved performance in classes such as science and math.

Maltese commented on the discrepancy, noting, "our results hint that maybe homework is not being used as well as it could be."

What Cooper's analysis and Maltese's study show is that the educational benefit of homework isn't universal, and where there is some usefulness, it's limited.

So what about other virtues, such as the vital life skills we mentioned earlier? It turns out that after-school assignments could actually prove more harmful, and not just for a student's attitude toward school.

The Opposite of Fun

Adult doing taking notes while looking at a textbook

Of course, any kid will latch onto the negative connotations that come with being loaded down with homework, but the concerns are more profound than simply avoiding extra work.

Consider for a minute what it's like as an adult to come home from a full day at work. You're probably tired, hungry, perhaps a bit irritable. The last way you want to use your free time is to think about the office.

Now consider that elementary, middle school or high school kid. They are at school around six or seven hours a day, after which, in many cases, they come home with an additional two to four hours of work.

The first thought is that there's no faster way to sour a kid's enthusiasm for school than that scenario. Then there are also parents pushing the child to get the homework finished, which creates unnecessary tension within a household.

Finally comes a lack of sleep. Numerous studies show the correlation between poor academic performance and lack of rest, and yet we expect children to perform this ritual every night, five nights a week, with plenty of schools even handing out weekend work.

All of that is without even mentioning if the student chooses to participate in any extracurricular activities.

Alfie Kohn has authored 14 books about education and parenting, including the "The Homework Myth," and agrees with the negative, unintended impacts that homework can bring. Kohn noted, "It causes frustration, unhappiness, and family conflict; it often makes children less excited about learning and leaves them with less time to pursue other interests and just enjoy their childhoods."

A Different Approach

Adult female looking over a child's shoulder while he does homework

Some schools are starting to agree.

For the 2017-18 academic year, the 42,000 strong Marion County public school district in Florida eliminated homework for 31 elementary schools based on the Cooper data. Instead, the district directed parents to read with their children for at least 20 minutes every night.

Elementary schools in the Long Beach district on Long Island also deferred after-school tasks in favor of encouraging at-home reading.

The Orchard School in South Burlington, Vermont nixed homework due to increased anxiety in its students due to the growing workload.

Perhaps a real trendsetter, in its 14-year existence, the Great River School, a Minnesota-based charter school, has never assigned homework for its elementary students. Middle and high school students have the option to take larger projects home but only should the need arise.

What many of these schools are discovering is that by eliminating homework, especially at the younger developmental ages, kids are free to learn other vital skills that will aid in future success, such as:

  • Connecting more deeply and regularly with their families.
  • Getting out and exploring new interests or using their creative sides versus being closed up inside a room, toiling away on busy work.
  • Getting to bed at a decent time and having a full night's rest.

These non-academic pursuits can ensure a child develops a healthy, well-rounded personality.

Final Thoughts

Perhaps the most significant takeaway is the importance for a student to have the opportunity to be something other than a student.

Cathy Vatterott, a University of Missouri-St. Louis professor and author of "Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs," identifies something similar.

"I also see a trend growing in our culture that people are getting burned out on the hyper-competitive 'let's practice now in elementary school for college' mindset," she said. "People are ready to slow kids down a little bit and let kids be kids. I think we're moving culturally in that direction."

That's not to say that homework is without virtue.

A little extra study, even if it's just 10 to 20 minutes per night, tailored specifically to a child's needs, can be beneficial. But even with an eye on their future, it's important they still have the opportunity to be a kid.

Like most things in the development of a child, balance is essential.

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