Is Homework Bad for Kids?
After eight hours at school, plus whatever extracurriculars they’ve got going on afterschool, your kid comes home, exhausted. They eat dinner and then: It’s right back to the grind as they tackle math worksheets and make spelling flashcards and do their assigned reading.
But is the struggle worth it? Some experts say no, depending on how old your children are.
“There is absolutely no evidence of any academic benefit from assigning homework in elementary or middle school,” Alfie Kohn, author of The Homework Myth: Why Our Kids Get Too Much of a Bad Thing, told Pacific Standard Magazine last year. Kohn, an outspoken advocate of progressive education and critic of traditional parenting, once called homework “educational malpractice” and believes “‘no homework’ should be the default arrangement” in school systems.
In an article published last month, Fatherly quotes Dr. Cathy Vatterott, an education professor at the University of Missouri-St. Louis and author of Rethinking Homework: Best Practices That Support Diverse Needs. Vatterott told the publication that the little findings there are on homework research are unambiguous: It can’t provide any real benefit to elementary schoolers.
“Teachers and possibly schools confuse homework with rigor,” Vatterott told Fatherly. “There are teachers out there who see things are going really well. And they think, ‘We better keep doing what we’re doing or all hell is going to break loose.’”
But despite the anti-homework arguments from Kohn, Vatterott, and embattled parents and kids everywhere, most experts seem to agree that after-school assignments may not be all that bad, actually — especially if there’s an emphasis on quality over quantity and a child’s age has been taken into account.
“Homework at a young age isn’t necessary, but I think it can be used to build skills,” says Dr. Daniela Montalto, a pediatric neuropsychologist and clinical director of the Institute for Learning and Academic Achievement at the Child Study Center at NYU Langone. Montalto says that elementary school children ages 4 to 10 need at least 20 minutes of reading time per day, as well as some time carved out to practice their motor skills, such as handwriting and cutting with scissors. Focusing on these foundational areas at home can be more beneficial than traditional homework, and the data backs this up. If students aren’t proficient readers by the third grade, they’re less likely to succeed academically and graduate high school, according to a 2013 study by the Annie E. Casey Foundation.
In 2006, Duke University’s Harris Copper found evidence to suggest that students who took work home did better in school. That said, the correlation was stronger for students in grades 7 through 12 than it was for kids in kindergarten through 6th grade.
Yet Copper still believes students younger than 6th grade should receive homework. He noted that practice assignments improve classroom test scores at all levels, while also setting up kids for longterm success by helping them build strong study habits.
“Homework overall — as much as parents hate it and kids don’t like it — it’s actually a good thing,” argues Dr. Sanam Hafeez, psychologist and founder of Comprehensive Consultation Psychological Services. “Your brain has the capacity to only learn so much in a straight stretch of eight hours a day. So when you come home it’s almost like your brain reshuffles and reprocesses that information because you’re problem solving and thinking critically. You’re doing it at home in a more relaxing environment, you have an adult’s attention ideally, and so whatever you learned haphazardly or where you couldn’t raise your hand and ask questions now gets solidified.”
That isn’t to say that there aren’t any problems with the way kids, parents, and teachers approach homework. If your children are swamped with hours of homework every night, and staying up past their bedtimes stressed about tomorrow’s spelling test, it’s time to reevaluate. A 2015 study found that when middle school students did more than 90 to 100 minutes of homework a day, their test scores actually began to decline.
Although there aren’t a ton of specific guidelines available, the National Educational Association recommends 10 to 20 minutes of homework a night for students in the first grade, then 10 minutes per grade level thereafter (which translates to 20 minutes for second grade, leading up to 120 minutes for 12th grade). High school students could do more homework, depending on the types of classes they take, such as AP or honors.
If kids are feeling anxious, or spending their entire evenings on their assignments, parents need to have a discussion with teachers to figure out what’s not working and why, Montalto says. “Parents should avoid battles around homework,” Montalto explains. “It should be a time that works well for them and that they’re able to balance.”
Overall, homework should be used as a tool to complement what kids learned in school and help them develop outside of the classroom. It should never feel like a burden or add stress to parents’ or kids’ lives.
“A good way to think about homework is the way you think about medications or dietary supplements,” Copper told Time. “If you take too little, they’ll have no effect. If you take too much, they can kill you. If you take the right amount, you’ll get better.”
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