Updated: Apr 23
Question: Do we really need to do all this homework?! Any of it?
Homework is a controversial topic. But I’ll bite.
Disclaimer: I don’t assign homework much because, as a teacher, it can be an uphill battle with students and parents, and tends to waste my time on clerical issues that don’t benefit my classroom as a whole.
To that, my students cheer.
That is not to say that homework is not useful in certain contexts.
What my students do not know is that I simply rearranged my weekly schedule so that what might have been homework is now possible during discretionary time under my supervision. Then, if they don’t finish their work, they are accountable for that time. They have access to my help on the spot, rather than burdening the parent. Most of the time, this works really well for my classroom community.
When I have taught in different environments, homework was expected by families, if not demanded. Homework was for the sake of homework—not always the learning itself. It did help reinforce rote skills, but I suspect it was just as much to keep the child occupied at home as anything else. Filling time is not always a poor reason to have kids do homework, depending on the amount. It depends on your goals as a parent, which the points below will explain.
Point 1: Understand the goal of homework is holistic.
The obvious goal of school is to teach students content knowledge and cognitive skills. Simultaneously, social and emotional learning takes place naturally in the process of schooling. These are two wings of the same bird, and it is misguided to say that one is more important than the other.
So, to the whiz kid who thinks homework is stupid because he or she, “already know this stuff!” I would exhort that family on the value of homework. The practice and discipline-which forces the child to work semi-independently-- is also meaningful. A child will not be served by the mindset that they should only have to do what they perceive as important. That will not go well when they are an employee, marriage partner, or parent themselves.
More often, I see families overwhelmed by at-home work. “Little Johnny is 7 years old and has 3 to 5 hours of homework per night!” the parent will lament. I do take such comments in stride as sometimes hyperbolic, until I know their situation better. Managing a child’s behavior at home can be just as much of those seemingly endless hours as the actual cranking through their tasks.
It is often the parent who doesn’t want to deal with the hassle; the child is too young to really register any angst. I feel sorry for that child and empathize with the adults.
To be fair, there are some kiddos and parents who really are trying and really are struggling because of a deficiency in skill or the length of the assignment. These are legitimate factors that can be modified, if and only if it gets the child on track academically.
Point 2: Help your child ease into time management skills.
One of the most important life skills we learn is that time is more valuable than just about anything in our lives. Managing time is truly important to sustaining a balance in which our lives feel worth living.
The punchline is that little kids have almost no number sense, and thus, no sense of time. They don’t know how much something costs, weighs, or how to schedule. With this in mind, realize that the adult must set up a system or routines that works with the child’s developmental capacities and their individual needs.
We all know children want two things: to play and for us to play with them!! They need loving attention and to explore. Homework can become a vehicle for this if we are clever about it.
Your child’s age will be roughly their attention span in minutes. In working with middle school students, I try to shift activities in class from a passive to active one every 10-15 minutes. Applying this to a primary school student, they will be able to focus on homework for about 5-10 minutes and then legitimately need a break.
It is not going to work to have your first grader sit at the kitchen table for 30-60 minutes and complete all their work in one sitting. They will be saturated and most of the time will prove unproductive.
Heck, long periods of attention to something I dislike doesn’t always work for me as an adult either! Reward a kid’s bout of effort with similar or shorter periods of rest, fun, and productive diversion. For a 10-year-old 5th grader with an hour of homework, it might look like this:
3:45 Arrive home from school; snack
4:00 Rest and talk with the caretaker; look over the assignments.
4:15 Do a chore that uses gross motor skills
4:45 Use an electronic device for fun
5:00 Homework continued
5:15 Play outside with friends; a physical activity
5:45 Homework continued
6:00 Set the dinner table (fine and gross motor skills)
6:15 Finish homework
This is just a rough example to give you some clue about how to punctuate the family routine in a way that works with your child’s rhythms. Adjust this to suit the child’s age, interests, needs, and the amount of homework they are assigned. When a child knows they will not be imprisoned for a full hour at a time, the tasks will seem more manageable.
Point 3: Build a good working relationship with the teachers early in the year.
Make a strong effort to be on a first name basis with your child’s teachers. The squeaky wheel always gets the oil first—especially if they like you and feel liked by you. Teachers are just people but with an enormously difficult job. If you give them an inch of appreciation, most will go miles to cooperate with you as a parent.
Be warm and friendly when you first meet your child’s teacher. You don’t need to bribe them with a gift. A heart-felt handwritten note of support and appreciation will go a long way when first meeting them—and throughout the year.
My younger sister, having heard my stories of caustic parents, is a gem at building positivity with her children’s teachers. I think she mentally puts me as her sister in the place of that year’s educator. Her compassion and appreciation exude a vibe that draws in the teacher like a magnet. Try it sometime.
If you have a relative or a friend who is an educator, imagine that you are talking with them when you contact the school about a concern. Presume positive intentions on the part of the classroom until you have abundant evidence to believe otherwise.
In this posture, give the teacher a summary of your child’s strengths and weaknesses early on in the school year. This will help them see you are fair; not a hovering enabler who will criminalize them anytime their child is dissatisfied. Throughout the year, send a quick note or email. Aim for once a month or term if everything is going smoothly. You can:
-thank them for their care of you child
- let them know something came up at home
- ask them a polite question about the curriculum
- let them know you’d like to help in some small way
- inquire about what they or their room might need.
Then, when you have a homework hassle come up, they will be used to hearing from you regularly, and most important-positively. They will be more open to negotiating homework from comradery than complaint.
Point 4: Apply the 80/20 Rule to Homework.
Having established a cooperative relationship with the child and student about homework, we can now get down to the nitty-gritty.
The 80/20 Rule is the casual name for the work of its founder, the Italian economist Vilfredo Pareto, back in 1895. You can learn more about it here.
Here is how I recommend applying the 80/20 Rule to a large amount of homework: Require your student to complete the most important 20% of their daily or weekly assignments if pressed for time:
- 5 of the 20 math exercises on the worksheet
- 2 pages of the ten-page reading task
- The first paragraph of the essay
- The most important 3 assignments of the 15 that are late
Send this much work into the teacher with a note that explains if your child is feeling overwhelmed with the workload. Write down any questions on the assignment itself that you cannot figure out at home, and request an email reply. This shows a goodwill effort on the part of the household to try the work and be responsible for the instruction. It is a safeguard to your pupil from being entirely lost in class the next day. It also gives the teacher enough data to assign some credit and diagnose mastery or misunderstandings.
If you do not know the most important part of the homework to tackle, ask! Email the staff quickly after school and they likely will reply that night. Let the teacher know that you want to help, but that all the work will probably not get done today. What part would they suggest starting on first? Which is most important to the child being able to progress and achieve learning goals?
The teacher will know, and they will usually be grateful you asked and followed through at home. If your child has multiple teachers, email them as a group and ask the same questions. If there is any wiggle room for a major project, they will probably let you know that. Accomplish the urgent in light of the important.
What you want to achieve eventually is your child 's ability to apply the 80/20 by themselves within the long-range scope of their educational journey. Most middle school and high school students can email a teacher themselves. It is great practice for them! If they have developed respectful relationships and are polite, you can excuse yourself as a parent from being the middleman, and hang back as support.
One day, when your child is an adult and you are not present, they will have automated the 80/20 Rule and become excellent managers of their own learning!
Point 5: Consider the differences between mastery, retention, and daily discipline.
When choosing not to do an assignment, it is critical to know its original intent. Mastering a new skill will take practice, and blowing off most of the homework will hinder most students on exam day. For brand new skills consider doing all or most of the work. If certain assignments seem unhelpful, ask for additional or modified practice options. Schools usually have resources to share.
For previously understood content and processes, the work of learning is generally not a once-and-done proposition. In a subject area that could get rusty and is complex, review is useful. Education theory calls this “spiraling”-coming back to a previously taught concept so students will not forget it. Math and foreign languages, for instance, really need to have repeated exposure.
Reading, on the other hand, is a skill that we don’t lose once we have acquired it—but may “level up” in rigor. That’s why we can get away with a summary or an abstract for some reading tasks as a fluent reader. In subjects where your child excels, they may not need to do all the work assigned. Be judicious about what work is skipped. The critical thinking for such a choice is a learning process in itself.
Homework, as in all educational situations, is best fit to the individual child. Though a well-trained teacher will differentiate both instruction and homework (if they assign it), they cannot drill down from afar on what each individual child's needs at home. That is the work of a parent, guardian, or tutor.
The caring adults in a child’s life do well to inspect the granularity of what the homework process is doing to or for their students. You may have a handful of children to manage, but remember the teacher may have dozens or hundreds. If a child is progressing well academically, most teachers won’t mind missing work that much if the parent explains it—as long as it doesn’t become a recurring excuse.
Ask the teacher how important an item is to their overall course performance and grades, and most will tell you bluntly. There is a difference between a project like a science experiment, which of logistical necessity must be done at home--and a math worksheet that the child receives on a weekly basis. The latter could probably be skipped when the child isn’t feeling well, the family is abnormally busy, or something unusual comes up.
Frankly, it is one less paper for the teacher to grade!
You know your child best. What outcomes do you seek as you raise them into adulthood?
Remember that the teacher is your teammate in advancing the work of maturation down the field of childhood. Your goal is touchdown status of adult independence. Work with your team when they pass you the ball of homework, and everyone wins the game.