It was a crystallizing moment for Sara Youngblood-Ochoa. She was sitting with her first-grade son last winter as he struggled to do “extra credit” homework after a long day at school. Getting frustrated, she snapped at him. He cried.
She knew he was doing fine in school, so they just stopped doing the packets of worksheets that came home every week. “It took a load off our afternoons and made it easier for him to do after-school activities that he wanted to do,” said the Chicago-area mother. “If there’s something our son is struggling in, we’ll absolutely do the work. But after eight hours at a desk, to make him sit down and do more seems silly.”
After a summer of camps, freedom and running around outside, the transition back to school can be tough for any child — or parent. Add to that the scads of homework sent back with kids to complete before the next day, and parents can find themselves torn between wanting to encourage children to complete their work and wanting them to get exercise, play, just be a kid. And so for some parents, homework, particularly for kids in the younger grades, has become a big, fat zero. No more worksheets and reading logs. Other parents stop all homework if it takes longer than 10 or 15 minutes, believing the assignments should be a simple review of what was learned in school, not an hours-long process to struggle through. The conversation about banning homework, especially for young children, appears to be growing in popularity, even among teachers themselves. When a second-grade teacher in Texas recently sent a letter home explaining that she no longer would give homework, the letter went viral. Most important to parents, studies show that homework for younger children doesn’t actually correlate with improved school performance, and in fact, can hinder learning.
Homework, in other words, is really a sore subject.
When Jeanne Hargett’s youngest son started kindergarten in Arlington Public Schools last year, he was given weekly homework packets. “We just didn’t do it,” she said. “Honestly, he’s an active child. And I really feel like after asking him to sit on his bottom for most of the day, and asking him to come home and do it again, is not fair. I want him to go outside and exercise, look at bunnies and bugs and crawl around in the grass.” She said he didn’t get “dinged” for not doing the homework, and explained her stance to his teacher, but she is worried about first grade. “I’m hearing they give rewards to the entire class if everyone does their homework. That puts pressure on these 6-year-olds.”
That lack of free playtime is what most parents argue is missing when children are forced to come home and review what they did at school by doing worksheets. “It’s really important, especially for young kids, to play. Playing is a cornerstone for learning,” said Erica Reischer, a clinical psychologist and author of the book “What Great Parents Do.” “Playing is learning. That’s it. Parents need to protect that space.”
But what happens when parents simply stop forcing their kids to do homework? For those interviewed here, they explained their reasoning to teachers and principals and say they were mostly met with support, and their children didn’t fall behind. “There’s a long tradition of homework, and a lot of passion behind it from parents and teachers,” Reischer said. “It’s what we do. So it feels a little scary to let that go… It shouldn’t be a crazy idea that elementary school shouldn’t have homework.”
Of course, not everyone is ditching homework. For older students in particular, homework often has a purpose, including learning about time management and solidifying complicated lessons. Jonathan Brand, headmaster of Chelsea Academy in Front Royal, Va., said his school has general guidelines about homework amounts, even for older students. “We lower the homework requirement in younger grades,” he said. In grades 4 and 5, their youngest, teachers try to give no more than 30 minutes per night. “We’re very careful about the kind of homework assignments we give to students. The benefit they receive from homework diminishes significantly in the lower grades.”
Parents who are opting out are generally in a place of privilege, says Harris M. Cooper, a Duke University professor in the department of psychology and neuroscience, whose research often focuses on homework. “These are typically parents who have the resources and capacity to substitute their own choices of academic things to do after school.” For parents whose first language isn’t English, or parents who work long hours, homework can be a good resource and supplement to regular school days.
John Seelke, father to twin second-grade girls, and a former teacher who now works at the University of Maryland’s College of Education, said he’s torn about the homework issue at home. From a professional perspective, he knows there is sometimes too much emphasis put on homework, noting that research shows a disconnect between the amount of homework students are given and their success at school. “As a parent, though, I sort of like that my kids have something to work on,” he said. “In education, there’s a swing in the pendulum. First, the students get too much, especially in high school, with three to four hours a night. But then to swing completely in the other direction and say no homework?”
So he and his wife have set it up that the girls’ routine includes homework after school. If they have an activity at night, they can complete the work before school in the morning. “I also know that if my kids are struggling with something, we know what resources to go to because of my background,” he said. “I don’t know that every parent has those resources, especially if they are working two jobs or from another country. In some cases, for them, homework is a steady way of practice.”
In general, younger children’s homework shouldn’t last more than 10 to 20 minutes, Cooper said. “Parents should be watching their child, especially for signs of fatigue and frustration.” If they feel the homework is too much or inappropriate, “speak with the teacher. Because if enough parents have the same concern, a good educator will modify their practices.”
Annie Richman of Shaker Heights, Ohio, put that time limit on her children’s homework when they were young. “I think that’s enough time to focus” after a long day at school, she said. If her children ran out of time or got frustrated, Richman would write a note to the teacher. A former second-grade teacher herself, she rarely gave homework unless it was something that specifically needed to be done at home.
The policy in her children’s upper elementary school was 20 minutes of homework per teacher. But with four teachers, that added up. Plus they were told to read for 30 minutes and practice their instrument for 30 minutes. “So when are they going to eat dinner, have a bath and get to bed?” Richman asked. “It’s really important to rake the leaves, take responsibility for setting the table and play with friends.”
Cara Paiuk stopped her son’s homework last year, when he was in kindergarten at his school in West Hartford, Conn. She told his teacher, who was very receptive and didn’t seem bothered. As for this year? She’s going to watch what happens. “I think parents are the most challenging part for teachers, more than the kids, and I really try not to be a high-maintenance parent.”
That said, she felt last year that her young son should be spending his few hours after school with his younger sisters, instead of doing worksheets. “To see my children … playing together in the couple hours after school and before bedtime, that is so important for conflict resolution, learning how to play with different age groups,” she said. “To take time away from that to do homework doesn’t do it for me.”