Homework: The great debate
School days! School daze! Homework haze! Ugh. Homework…It can be a challenging or rewarding time for parents and their children.
The academic benefits of homework have been debated since the late 1800s. In the late 19th and early 20th century, homework was primarily assigned to students in fifth to eighth grades and was seen as an activity to exercise the “brain muscle.” During the 1930s the Great Depression was central to the homework debate where teachers and parents were concerned that homework led to increased child stress. By the 1950s, at the start of the Cold War, student achievement became a central focus as the United States competed with Russia. Homework was seen as a tool to help improve student achievement to enhance the ability of the U.S. to compete with Russia. During the 1960s, when the U.S. became involved in the Vietnam War, the educational pendulum swung once again toward less homework where educators and parents saw homework as adding to student stress levels at home. During the 1980s, academic achievement in the U.S. began to fall behind other countries, such as Japan. Therefore, homework was again seen as a necessary tool to help students in the U.S. compete with students in Japan. This philosophy continued throughout the 1980s and 1990s. At the turn of the 21st century, however, with passage of the No Child Left Behind Act of 2001, the value of homework has been debated again, with concerns that increasing levels of homework may lead to student burn-out. Interestingly, studies found that the amount of homework students are assigned has not changed much over the past 50 years.
Research about the academic benefits of homework has mixed results. Some studies show homework is more beneficial academically to students in middle school and high school, with minimal academic benefit for elementary school students. Other studies find that certain types of homework can be beneficial to students in all grades. Still other research questions the value of homework all together.
With busy family schedules, making sure children complete their homework can be stressful for parents and children. Researchers do agree that homework can provide non-academic benefits, such as teaching students self-discipline, time management and prioritizing. Since your child or children are bringing homework home, here are some practical tips for helping it be less stressful for parents and students alike:
- Homework time: Set aside homework time where the household environment is conducive to studying—no television, telephone or unnecessary distractions. Everyone in the household should respect homework time. If a child does not have homework, then they can read a preferred book, put together a jig saw puzzle or do a pencil-and-paper puzzle during that quiet time. When determining how much time you should set aside for homework, consider the “10-minute Rule”—homework should take 10 minutes per grade level. For example, a second grader should spend 20 minutes completing homework, a third grader 30 minutes, and so forth.
- Homework space: Set aside a homework space in your home. Every household is different and every child’s needs are different. Your homework space should contain a table or desk, comfortable chair, plenty of lighting and have the necessary school supplies. I discourage having children do homework while lying in bed. My rule is “Do not sleep where you study or study where you sleep.” This sends the brain mixed signals.
- Homework box: To prevent your child from wandering around the house searching for school supplies, create a homework box for each child. An old shoe box can do the trick. Your children can even decorate their homework boxes. Only provide them with the necessary school supplies—pencils, pens, hand-held sharpeners, index cards, highlighters, scissors, timer, etc.
- Homework chunking: Often children become distracted while working on non-preferred homework assignments. I suggest chunking homework, or breaking assignments down, into amounts your child can complete in a specific amount of time based upon how long she can pay attention to a non-preferred task. For example, if your daughter can focus on a non-preferred task for four minutes without become distracted, then that is how long she should work on her homework at a time and then take a timed one minute break. Providing chunks of work sets a specific goal to be completed in a specific amount of time. Allowing for scheduled timed breaks prevents mental fatigue. My rule is five minutes of work for a one minute break; 10 minutes for a three minute break; 15 minutes of work for a five minute break.
- Homework practice: Incorporate learning activities into daily life experiences, such as using math in the grocery store or to balance your check book; reading recipes while cooking; or reading driving directions. Parents can read out loud with their children and discuss the books in order to make reading more enjoyable and bring life to the story.
If your child is having a significant challenge completing homework, please consider talking to his teacher about it and develop a plan of action, such as hiring a homework tutor or modifying his assignments.
For more homework tips, you can visit the following resources: