Many parents are surprised to see a flood of projects and homework sent home with their kids starting as early as Kindergarten. And a nasty surprise it is. Combine a snack-hungry 5-year-old with a math worksheet and you’ve got a parental nightmare. Still, that angst would — one could at least argue — be worthwhile if it meant greater scholastic achievement. The problem? There is very little evidence to suggest that homework is anything more than a hassle when it’s assigned to young children.
Dr. Cathy Vatterott, an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needshas spent much of her career researching the research about homework. The findings, she told Fatherly, are unambiguous. “They really can’t prove any benefit in elementary school,” she says.
What is, however, a bit harder to understand is the nature of the “they.” Who wants to give young children homework and why? The answer has a lot to do with ideas about education that don’t make any sense if recontextualized within the body of research on developmental psychology.
“Teachers and possibly schools confuse homework with rigor,” Vatterott says. She notes this is particularly true in private schools and high-income school districts that pride themselves on awards and college placement. These institutions lean into homework, conflating student achievement with evidence of homework efficacy. In reality, the teachers (and by extension their students) are victims of educational superstition.
“There are teachers out there who see things are going really well,” Vatterott says. “And they think, ‘We better keep doing what we’re doing or all hell is going to break loose.’”
In truth, data indicates that homework for the youngest students in the elementary grades has, at best, has no bearing on achievement. And the studies that do suggest homework has positive effects can only prove correlation, not causation. That’s because it’s incredibly difficult to control for all of the other variables that can lead to better academic outcomes, including factors like teacher quality, parental involvement, amount of sleep a child receives, proper nutrition, and — here comes the big one — socio-economic status. And, yes, there is research that suggests homework can have negative effects.
“There’s a lot of evidence that it’s putting too much stress on families,” Vatterott explains. “And that it’s contributing to whether kids like school or not. We certainly don’t want kids to hate school.”
There is very little evidence to suggest that homework is anything more than a hassle when it’s assigned to young children.
Temple University professor, early learning researcher, and Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution, Dr. Kathryn Hirsh-Pasek places an even finer point on the damage homework can do. “All this homework is also changing the dynamic of parent-child relationships,” she tells Fatherly. “It certainly isn’t making learning fun, and learning doesn’t just happen at school.”
Hirsh-Pasek acknowledges that practice is necessary for learning, but she rejects the idea that said practice must be completed through worksheets and homework packets. The play that kids naturally engage in, she points out, helps them practice the skills they develop in the classroom.
“Believe it or not, you learn about math when you’re playing different board games,” Hirsh-Pasek explains. “And you learn about space when you put together train tracks and play with Legos. You learn important skills, like how to get along with other people when you play with other people. They’re learning way more important skills when they’re not doing their homework.”
That said, there is one activity that researchers feel that parents and children should be doing at home: reading.
“There is practically nothing that will be more important than reading time,” Hirsh-Pasek says. “It’s a time when kids learn integrated narrative. It’s a time when they learn about relationships and hear vocabulary that they don’t hear anywhere else.”
Vatterott explains that a similar sentiment about reading seems to be gaining ground nationally. “Trend-wise, what’s happening across the country, is that we’ve started to see an increase in elementary schools eliminating homework, or saying that homework is just to read or be read to,” she says, though she notes that achievement-obsessed schools are obstinate holdouts. And it could be that some parents are holdouts too. After all, doesn’t homework teach grit and responsibility to kids that desperately need it? Shouldn’t they stop whining and knuckle down?
Yes and no. There is virtue to struggle and to responsibility, but homework is really more of an obligation than anything.
“A struggle is good when there is a success at the end of the struggle,” suggests Vatterott. “But it’s a very simplistic view to suggest that homework teaches them responsibility and to delay gratification. It’s a really weak argument.”
Hirsh-Pasek agrees. “The truth is that everything has to be put in balance,” she says. “If you want your child to learn perseverance give them some chores at home. The worst thing that you can do today is to have people sit when they should be standing and stand when they should be moving.”
A Florida School District Is Replacing Homework With Reading
Hate Math? Then Your Kid Will Probably Fail
President Obama’s pick for Education Secretary, John King, Jr., is headed for confirmation Mar. 9. King’s track record shows he loves standardized testing and quantifying learning. If he loves numbers and research, he should welcome what some teachers and families have known for years: that homework at young ages does more harm than good.
Click here to get Time for Parents, a roundup of the week’s parenting news that doesn’t feel like homework.
We’re currently enmeshed in a high-pressure approach to learning that starts with homework being assigned in kindergarten and even preschool. Homework dominates after-school time in many households and has been dubbed the 21st century’s “new family dinner.” Overtired children complain and collapse. Exasperated parents cajole and nag. These family fights often ends in tears, threats, and parents secretly finishing their kid’s homework.
Parents put up with these nightly battles because they want what’s best for their kids. But, surprise, the opposite is more likely to be true. A comprehensive review of 180 research studies by Duke University psychologist and neuroscientist Harris Cooper shows homework’s benefits are highly age dependent: high schoolers benefit if the work is under two hours a night, middle schoolers receive a tiny academic boost, and elementary-aged kids? It’s better to wait.
If you examine the research—not one study, but the full sweep of homework research—it’s clear that homework does have an impact, but it’s not always a good one. Homework given too young increases negative attitudes toward school. That’s bad news, especially for a kindergartener facing 12 more years of assignments.
Read More: Why You Shouldn’t Do Your Child’s Homework
Children rebel against homework because they have other things they need to do. Holler and run. Relax and reboot. Do family chores. Go to bed early. Play, following their own ideas. Children have been told what to do all day long at school—which is mostly sitting still and focusing on the academic side. Academic learning is only one side of a child. When school is out, kids need time for other things.
Some schools are already realizing this. New York City’s P.S. 116 elementary school made news last year when its principal Jane Hsu abolished homework and asked families to read instead. Individual schools and teachers from Maryland to Michigan have done the same, either eliminating homework in the elementary years or making it optional. But schools also report that if teachers don’t give it, some parents will demand it.
Believers in homework say it teaches soft skills like responsibility and good study habits. That’s another problem with homework in elementary school. Young kids can rarely cope with complex time management skills or the strong emotions that accompany assignments, so the responsibility falls on parents. Adults assume the highly undesirable role of Homework Patrol Cop, nagging kids about doing it, and children become experts in procrastination and the habit of complaining until forced to work. Homework overtakes the parents’ evening as well as the child’s. These roles aren’t easy to shake.
Read More: How Hard Is Too Hard to Push Kids?
When homework comes at a stage when it can academically benefit students, it can also be a student’s responsibility. That means a high school student should be expected to do her homework without being reminded. It may take a year or two of practice in middle school, but it doesn’t require years of practice. Before age 11, responsibility can be taught in other ways. For a 6-year-old, that means remembering to feed the cat and bring home her lunchbox.
If we want students to improve memory, focus, creative thinking, test performance and even school behavior, the answer is not more homework, the answer is more sleep. The National Sleep Foundation reports that our children are suffering sleep deprivation, partly from homework. If we pride ourselves on a rational, research-based approach to education, we must look at the right facts.
Parents often feel stuck with homework because they don’t realize they have a choice. But they do. Schooling may be mandatory, but homework isn’t. Families can opt out. Parents can approach the teacher either about homework load or the simple fact of doing homework at all, especially in elementary school. Many teachers will be more than happy with the change. Opting out, or changing the homework culture of a school brings education control back down to the local level.
That’s another thing the new Education Secretary has promised: to turn more control for education decisions over to states and local school districts. That could spell good news for students – if local teachers and principals do their own homework and read up on what the research says about making kids do school work after school is done.