Have you ever sat at the kitchen table trying to get your frustrated child to complete his or her homework after a long day of school and extracurricular activities? As a parent, you may have felt conflicted in those moments. On one hand, you want to respect your child’s teacher and their approach to learning. But, on the other hand, your intuition might tell you that nightly struggles with homework aren’t helping your child — and may even be hurting him or her.
That’s the conclusion Heather Shumaker, author of “It’s OK to Go Up the Slide: Renegade Rules for Raising Confident and Creative Kids,” came to when her son started school. She realized that completing assignments at home wasn’t contributing to her son’s academic achievement, so she decided her family would opt out of homework altogether.
“I knew as a mother and because of my background with early childhood development that my oldest, when he hit first grade, had other things to do after being told what to do all day — playing piano or just playing on a log outside, having his own spirit come out and having emotional support from the family in his off hours, which aren’t very many,” Shumaker says.
There’s no standard policy regarding homework across districts, or even individual schools, so it’s typically up to teachers to decide how much to assign. Many teachers, particularly those who are new to the profession, pile on the homework because they are under pressure to cover too much material in order to drive standardized test scores.
“Studies show we can’t teach every aspect of every standard that is expected,” says Eric Carbaugh, a professor and faculty member of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development. “So if we have all this content, it becomes more vital that students do some of that learning outside of school just because we don’t have time for it.”
Education consultant and author Mike Anderson says that in some schools, teachers assign homework to appease parents, who want a signal that the curriculum is sufficiently rigorous. But, Anderson, who never gave homework when he was a teacher, says at-home assignments don’t have the effect on learning that some parents and teachers believe they do.
The best learning occurs in what Anderson calls the “zone of proximal development.” That is when a person is learning something that isn’t so difficult that it’s frustrating, but not so easy that it can be completed without assistance. After all, if you can do a task completely independently, you’ve already mastered it. Homework of that nature is nothing more than busy work, which Anderson says is not a good use of students’ after-school energy.
“Homework that is assigned by a teacher, if it is truly in that learning zone, it is left to parents to be the coaches,” Anderson says. “But it can be very hard for parents to support kids in that way because they don’t have the time and they don’t have the training that teachers have.”
The research backs up what many parents already know in their guts. Anderson says Alfie Kohn’s book “The Homework Myth” does a good job of analyzing research that has been done about the effects of homework.
“The research about the correlation between homework and achievement is pretty clear — there’s really no correlation in elementary and middle school. You start to get light correlation at the high school level, but I have never seen a study that shows causation,” Anderson says. “In some studies, there’s even shown to be an inverse relationship in elementary school.”
Parenting coach Eirene Heidelberger says that plenty of public elementary schools in the Chicago area dole out hefty amounts of homework. She has clients who come to her for advice because their children are having tearful nightly struggles to get assignments done.
“School gets out at 3 p.m., then a kid might have soccer practice until 4:30 p.m., dinner is done at 6 p.m., and then it’s time to do homework when the kid has been awake for 12 hours,” Heidelberger says. “It frustrates kids, and takes away from their downtime and family time.”
So, if not homework, what should kids be doing after school? Good old-fashioned playtime is likely better for their development, according to Shumaker. They need to move their bodies, get fresh air, use their imaginations and have quality time with mom and dad.
“There’s a lot of childhood depression and anxiety and that is because they don’t play,” Shumaker says. “They need to be part of a family — doing chores, having dinner, reading bedtime stories and going to bed early.”
If parents want to make sure children’s after-school hours are valuable, Anderson recommends encouraging them to read. But, there’s a catch: They should be allowed to read books they find pleasurable, and the reading shouldn’t be homework in disguise.
“We shouldn’t layer it with accountability, like having parents sign off on it or keeping journals of pages read,” Anderson says. “That kind of beats the joy out of reading.”
Shumaker says sleep is one of the most critical factors that affects how well students master the lessons they learn in the classroom. Staying up late to finish homework defeats the purpose.
“Most children are sleep deprived,” Shumaker says. “When they get sleep, memory is improved, focus is improved — all of these skills they need to be successful in school. Homework doesn’t have that benefit, but sleep does.”
If you feel that your children are bringing too much work home from school, Shumaker says your job is to be their advocate. She recommends scheduling a meeting and having an honest conversation about the stress that homework is creating in your home.
“You are the one raising your kids,” Shumaker says. “The school is not in charge, they cannot tell you what to do in your own family time in your own living room.”
Shumaker says her kids’ teachers had mixed responses to her family opting out of homework. Even if you disagree with their approach to homework, most teachers have good intentions, and there are plenty of other ways you can support them — volunteering in the classroom or bringing them dinner during parent-teacher conferences, for example. And, Shumaker says just because you’re not requiring your kids to do homework, you can still be very involved in their studies.
“When my kids came home from school, we would talk about what they learned that day, have a snack and debrief,” she says. “If they wanted to talk more about it, they would, and if they learned about, say, butterflies, we might go to the library and research butterflies or go outside and look for them.”