Homework angerDear Dr. Debbie,

I know I can’t be the only parent who has issues every single night with their 9-year-old over homework. I realize it does no good to be yelling at him to stop crying about it. Some days he has an after-school activity, then has some free time, then opens his back pack (as I’m starting to prepare dinner) to see that he has four pages (two front/back) of homework.

He can’t go straight from sitting at school to sitting for homework. He needs time for energy release. But it takes him an hour or more to do homework, and we haven’t been able to find that golden hour. If we did it immediately after school, he’d resist and struggle more, taking away time that he might get to play outside before it gets dark. When I’m making dinner is not the best time for me to be available if he gets stuck. And after dinner, we’re all pretty exhausted.

Can’t School Be Done at School?

Don’t miss last week’s column Moving with a middle schooler mid-year — Good Parenting

Dear Done at School,

The hot subject of homework — particularly when children and parents are raising voices and shedding tears — has been debated by families, educators, policy makers and researchers since the education reform movement of the 1800’s. Many people agree with your son.

Sara Bennet and Nancy Kalish wrote a book about it titled, “The Case Against Homework: How Homework Is Hurting Our Children and What We Can Do About It”. The authors urge parents to speak up to reclaim play and family time. There is scientific evidence to back up the notion that homework does no good.

John Hattie, a distinguished professor of education in Melbourne, Australia, led a team that investigated 198 variables believed to affect academic achievement, looking at more than 1,000 research reviews comprising more than 50,000 individual studies. This was the largest meta-analysis ever conducted in the field of education with data over many years from schools around the world. Class size had some effect on academic achievement, although teacher characteristics had more. And what about the amount of homework? The United States is about in the middle when it comes to how much homework students receive. Countries with less homework, such as Finland, which has none, seem to be more highly literate and better educated. Actually the family’s or the country’s economic status has more to do with children doing well in school than the amount of homework assigned. Hattie concludes, “Homework in primary school has an effect of around zero.”

So why do teachers assign homework? Time Magazine recently summarized the research on homework this way: “Even education experts disagree about what’s bests for kids.” Some studies showed a correlation between how much time was spent on homework and how well students did on tests (for middle and high school students). However, the question remains as to whether time spent on homework actually caused the higher scores, or whether students who do well on tests are the ones who spend more time on homework. Think of it this way, someone who spends a lot of time talking about movie stars may also watch movies a lot. It’s hard to say that one behavior causes the other, they just go together. Perhaps teachers who assign homework were formerly successful students who also happened to do a lot of homework. They may (wrongly) think that if their students would only do more homework, then, they too would be good students.

Professor Gerald K. LeTendre of Pennsylvania State University, goes further to say that not only does homework not appear to help academic achievement, it may be harming students. If there’s not enough time in the day to get the homework done, stress is generated and sleep may be sacrificed. He cautions that higher stress levels and inadequate sleep jeopardize health.

So what are you to do when homework threatens the health and peace of your family? Cathy Vatterott, a professor of education at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and a nationally recognized expert on the subject of homework, has a few recommendations to reduce homework meltdowns. She notes that the National PTA and the National Education Association suggest 10 minutes per grade level (10 minutes for 1st graders to 2 hours for 12th graders) and zero homework for kindergartners and pre-K students.

Writing on the National PTA website regarding homework, Vatterott advises:

  • Find out what the consequences are for missed or late homework. There may be times when all you need to do is to write a quick note that he was too tired, or the game ran late, or the babysitter wasn’t up to making sure the work got done. Don’t make a battle with your son where you don’t need to.
  • Communicate with the teacher. Let her know if directions were confusing or content is too difficult for your child. Get a sense from her about the other students. If your son is alone in his struggles, she may need to alter her expectations for him. This could be an indication of a learning disability or maturational delay. If many students are challenged to turn in assignments, she may need to lighten the load for the whole class.

The teacher will (hopefully) appreciate that you are aware of your son’s assignments, but also hear from you that the limitations of a 9-year-old and family life made completing them impossible. You can reduce the friction between you and your son when you play the role of his spokesperson, not his taskmaster.

A good teacher is responsive to parents and tuned in to her students. However, teachers are overseen by principals who take direction from school system boards who answer to mandates from state boards of education and the federal government. Find out if there are efforts to make changes in practice or policy regarding homework in your son’s school system, and if not, start pointing your policy makers in the right direction. A policy statement, or a change to an existing one, could reduce the amount of homework teachers are allowed and expected to give.

Policies aside, accept your son’s resistance and let the issue go. This is not high stakes here if, as the research suggests, homework is unrelated to academic achievement. Turn that fretful hour into a 10-minute sprint, and forget about the unfinished work. Set a timer and quit when it goes off. Your son’s attitude toward homework should greatly improve in a week. Little by little add five minutes and see if he just might get it all done in 40 minutes, as is recommended for fourth grade, and still have plenty of room in the day to enjoy his out-of-school time.

Dr. Debbie

Deborah Wood is a child development specialist in Annapolis. She has a doctorate in Human Development from the University of Maryland at College Park and is founding director of the Chesapeake Children’s Museum. Long-time fans and new readers can find many of her “Understanding Children” columns archived on the Chesapeake Family Magazine website. You can find her online at drdebbiewood.com.

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What do you think? Leave your thoughts in the comments or submit a question to Dr. Debbie at Betsy[at]jecoannapolis.com.