Reducing Homework For School Activities

As teachers, we all want our students to learn, practice skills, and thrive. Time is certainly limited in our classes. Even critical academic time gets interrupted with so much from assemblies, to guest speakers, and even standardized assessments themselves. So, homework often seems to be a great way to get kids to practice those skills we have taught. It’s a deceiving idea, though. There is substantial research that extra homework is NOT the answer to getting children and young adults to learning more. In fact, sometimes overdoing the homework can have a pretty negative result, overflowing to the home and school the next day. Here are some thought provoking reasons why it is okay to reduce the homework.

Not All Kids are Created Equal – For some students, doing homework might be fairly quick. I know several students who enjoy homework, even. It comes easy to them and they can finish with their assignments within an hour of getting home. For other students, though, that same homework is a significant and painful challenge. Students with reading disabilities and weaknesses may struggle with just reading the directions. Children without access to computers or technology may lack the ability to find information online or access websites. Kids with limited attention may sit for 30 minutes and only get one problem done. Since not all kids are created equal, it seems insane to assign homework that is a one-size-fits-all. Simply put, kids who struggle are going to need less.

Home Time is Important – Working families are so busy. Parents come home, do chores, and start dinner. Time is really so limited to spend with kids. Consider that single hour left before bed time. Do you really want the only family time being used struggled with homework? While this could serve as family time, in many families it is probably more important for children to sit with their parents and talk, watch the news, or play a board game together.

Kids are Busy, Too – Children and young adults are so busy with their own activities that homework is often quite a struggle to fit in. Some who disagree with this mentality might say that academics should come before sports. It’s true! That is why kids spend six or seven hours a day in a school learning. It’s extremely important to a child’s social, emotional, and academic well-being to be involved outside of school in all sorts of ways. This might include sports, music, drama, dance, and a variety of other extracurrricular activities. Of course we want our kids to be academically solid learners, but we also want them to be well-rounded individuals who can balance all aspects of their lives.

Homework is About Practice, Not Endurance – Imagine doing the same type of math problems over and over again thirty times. It gets old pretty quickly! At some point, it becomes only a race for endurance and no longer practicing the actual skill. So many kids burn out this way. Reducing homework to a minimum, though, is one simple way to get around this. You can still provide the practice and allow for independence while keeping the work to a reasonable level.

These points are not at all to say that some homework is not helpful- it is! Homework, in moderation, can help children and young adults practice skills, learn their weaknesses and strengths, build confidence, and come to class the following day prepared to ask questions and get necessary support. However, some points need to be remembered when you do in fact assign homework.

1. Give homework as practice, not a graded assessment. Homework should not be graded for accuracy. This is the time when kids should be practicing the skills. They should feel free to try new things and take risks. It’s perfectly find if students come to class with homework that is wrong, as long as they made a genuine effort. Homework should aid in the learning process and be a tool to help teachers guide instruction. It shouldn’t serve as an assessment.

2. Homework should be independent work. Some students have extremely supportive homes with parents available to sit with their children through the homework. Others simply do not, for a variety of reasons. The reasons really aren’t important. What is important is that homework shouldn’t need to be something a child does with their parent. The ultimate goal is that homework is done independently. If the homework is too challenging for a student to do on their own, consider changing that student’s assignment or the homework entirely.

3. Accommodate or modify for your struggling learners. The students needing specialized instruction or intervention support in specific subjects will need different and lower level assignments to help them through. As stated above, since not all kids are created equal, it’s impossible to think that a student reading two grades below grade level should be able to read and complete the same passage as someone reading on grade level or above. Consider your learners and allow differentiation. It’s also an important lesson for the kids to learn that sometimes what is fair doesn’t mean exactly the same.

4. Make homework meaningful. If you assign homework, you should definitely give time to go over problems, provide extended examples, and allow students to ask questions. Show students that the homework assignments are extensions of your learning during the day.

5. Be comfortable assigning just a few questions or problems. Sometimes teachers feel like they have to assign twenty or thirty questions for a homework assignment. If the goal is some practice to see if students really understand a skill or idea, just a few problems will often do.

6. If a student is struggling, ask them why. Recently, I had a student who was not completing any math assignments. When I talked to her about her lack of homework, she told me that the math was too challenging for her and she lost her calculator. What an easy fix! I immediately gave her what she deemed to be a “fancy” calculator. Within a week, her math work was caught up and her confidence zoomed through the roof. The lessons here is that if you have a student who is not turning in homework, talk to him or her personally. Find out why. It will give you so much insight to the student’s life and give you ideas for how you can help him or her along the way.

As the school year rolls on by, remember that homework is just one small part of the big equation. Students who are in our classrooms and schools are there for several hours each day. Homework should help reinforce skills, encourage independence, build confidence, and encourage questions for upcoming classes so that students are even more ready to learn. Always come back to these core principles with homework and you can’t go wrong.

If you are a parent struggling with homework completion at home, or a teacher who wants to help parents with this, consider the Parent Homework Helper to save you some time.

Filed Under: Back to School, Behavior Management, Classroom Management, Special Education, Study Skills, Tips for Teachers

There are many aspects of my more than decade-long career as a teacher that I’m proud of. My reputation for giving lots and lots of homework is not one of them.

For most of my teaching career, I taught fifth or sixth grade. Sometimes I gave more than two hours of homework. Kids complained a lot, though parents rarely did, at least not to my face. I think parents mostly felt the same way I did: that homework was the best way to practice new skills, that it teaches responsibility and helps to develop a strong work ethic, and that it’s an opportunity to reflect on new learning.

But most of all, my students’ parents and I were more than a little afraid that our kids would fall behind – behind their classmates in the next classroom, behind the kids in a neighboring school, behind the kids in other countries. Homework was considered one of many ways to prevent that from happening.

I wasn’t entirely wrong about all of that, and I still believe a lot of those things. But only for middle and high school students (and not hours of assignments). Not for elementary students, and certainly not for kindergarteners or preschoolers.

When I entered a doctoral program in education policy, I learned about the research that suggests that homework is not good for young kids. Not only does it fail to improve the academic performance of elementary students, but it might actually be damaging to kids’ attitudes toward school, and to their physical health. In a review of available research studies, Harris Cooper, a leading researcher who has spent decades studying the effect of homework, concluded that “there is no evidence that any amount of homework improves the academic performance of elementary students.”

When I became a parent during graduate school, I experienced for myself just how tired and overwhelmed kids can be after a full day at daycare, preschool, or elementary school, often followed by more after school activities. After hours spent sitting and engaging in mostly adult-directed activities, children’s minds and bodies need other kinds of experiences when they get home, not more academics.

It’s not just that homework itself has no academic benefits for little kids, and may even be harmful, it’s also that homework is replacing other fun, developmentally appropriate, and valuable activities – activities that help them grow into healthy, happy adults.

So, what are some of the things kids could be doing in those hours between the end of the school day and bed time? 

1 | Jump rope.

An important part of how young kids’ minds develop is through free, self-directed play. According to David Elkind, Ph.D., author of The Power of Play: How Spontaneous, Imaginative Activities Lead to Happier, Healthier Children, free play is critical now more than ever, as recesses are shortened or eliminated, and kids’ calendars are busier than ever.

“Through play,” Elkind writes, “children create new learning experiences, and those self-created experiences enable them to acquire social, emotional, and intellectual skills they could not acquire any other way.”

2 | Talk with parents.

I’ve heard from countless friends about their daily battles with their elementary-aged kids struggling to do homework, and the way it’s negatively affected their relationships.

Instead, of parents nagging their overtired kids to do homework they’re too young to do independently, families should spent much time talking together about their day. In fact, conversation is the best way for all of us – especially young children – to learn about our world and cultivate empathy.

3 | Sleep.

The National Sleep Foundation estimates that between 25 and 30% of children aren’t getting enough sleep. Lack of sleep can cause all sorts of problems in kids, including poor attention, behavior problems, academic difficulties, irritability, and weight gain. But even small amounts of additional sleep can have big impacts. One study found that only 20 additional minutes of sleep can improve kids’ grades.

4 | Independent reading.

Most of us know that developing good habits (and hopefully a love of reading) is critical to doing well at school. However, homework can actually interfere with the time that kids can spend on reading.

5 | Listen to a book.

Studies show that kids who are read aloud to do better in school and have better vocabularies.

6 | Work on a puzzle.

Being able to play on their own without adults (called “solitary play”) builds confidence in kids and makes them more relaxed.

7 | Go up a slide backwards.

“Risky” play — activities like climbing a tree — is good for kids. Children need to explore their own limits, to be able to assess risks, and to learn how to negotiate their environments.

Researchers theorize that risky play, found across all cultures and in other mammals, has a evolutionary role in preparing offspring for life without their caretakers.

8 | Dig in the dirt.

Another type of play, sensory play, is also critical for kids’ development. When kids knead clay or finger paint, they are stimulating their senses. “Sensory experiences,” explains one early childhood educator, “provide open-ended opportunities where the process is more important than the product; how children use materials is much more important than what they make with them.” 

9 | Playing with a friend in a sandbox.

Parallel play, or the type of play in which kids play next to each other, begins in toddlers. But even for older kids, parallel play can help develop critical social skills.

10 | Help with dinner.

Kids who learn about new foods, and how to prepare them, may be more likely to choose more nutritious foods later on.

11 | Walk the dog.

Kids who help take care of family petsmay be less anxious, less likely to develop allergies and asthma, and are more active.

12 | Volunteer at an animal shelter.

Even kids who don’t have pets at home can benefit from being around animals. The emotional and psychological benefits of being around animals can also be found when kids care for injured animals and take on care-taking responsibilities for other people’s pets.

13 | Plant a garden.

Kids who work in gardens may have higher achievement scores in science than those who don’t. That’s because they’re actively engaging in scientific concepts and practicing math skills as they learn about plants.

14 | Practice an instrument.

Kids who participate in musical activities – those who practice an instrument regularly and participate actively in music groups – may have brains who are better wired for literacy skills, according to one study.

15 | Hang out at Grandma’s.

Encouraging multi-generational relationships can yield many lessons for kids. They can learn how other adult role models in their lives who love them handle conflict, create and negotiate rules and routines, and embrace family traditions.

16 | Participate in a community service project.

Through volunteering, kids can become more grateful, empathetic, and feel more connected to the wider community.

17 | Draw a picture.

For kids who have trouble expressing themselves verbally, drawing can be a way for them to relax and communicate in a different way.

18 | Do a science experiment.

Kids are naturally curious and want to know how things work. Scientific exploration outside the classroom may be particularly effective at teaching kids about scientific thinking.

19 | Play dress up.

The significance of imaginative “pretend” or “fantasy” play for kids’ creativity and future problem-solving skills is difficult to overstate. When kids pretend they’re superheroes or talk to stuffed animals, they’re learning about social roles, setting the stage for later learning, and processing ideas from the world around them. In fact, some research suggests that kids who don’t engage in fantasy play may actually struggle in the classroom later.

20 | Wrestle with a sibling.

“Rough and tumble” play is not the same as aggression. It’s vigorous, free-form, whole-body, energetic, happy play.Kids learn decision-making skills, relieve stress, improve their ability to read social cues, and enhance their cardio-vascular health.

21 | Clean their room.

When kids are spending their afternoons working on homework, there’s often not time for them to help out with housework and other chores. A University of Minnesota researcher, Marty Rossman, found that one of the best predictors of a kid’s future success is whether they contributed to household chores as a young child.

According to Rossman, “Through participating in household tasks, parents are teaching children responsibility, how to contribute to family life, a sense of empathy and how to take care of themselves.”

22 | Write a story.

By writing down stories, kids can express their feelings, stretch their imaginations, and practice their fine motor skills.

23 | Zone out.

Just as important as play is “down time.” The authors of “Overloaded and Underprepared: Strategies for Stronger Schools and Happy, Successful Kids“ argue that every kids needs PDF: playtime, downtime, and family time.

Downtime is when kids are allowed to literally do not much of anything, like sit around and listen to music or stare at the ceiling. These moments allow children to reflect, rest, and reset their minds and bodies.

24 | Meditate.

Kids also benefit from meditation. Studies have found that mindfulness and meditation can improve behavior, focus, and reduce impulsiveness.

25 | Create a collage.

“Constructive play” – building a fort, making a snowman – is goal-oriented and involves kids building something using tools and materials. Constructive play also has an important role in developing children’s communication, mathematical, and socio-emotional skills.

26 | Listen to classical music.

One study found that playing classical music to children can improve their listening and concentration skills, as well as self-discipline.

27 | Learn to knit.

Knitting, sewing, and crocheting are hobbies that can help enhance fine motor skills, improve coordination, and develop longer attention spans.

28 | Take pictures.

“Photography can help develop a child’s voice, vision and identity as it pertains to their family, friends and community,” according to one photographer who teaches photography to children in Canada.

29 | Ride a bike.

Kids who are physically active – as well as adults! – have stronger hearts, lungs, and bones. They are less likely to develop cancer or be overweight and more likely to feel good about themselves.

30 | Listen to a long bedtime story.

Babies, children, and adult sleep better when they have a regular (not rushed) bedtime routine. Kids who don’t have bedtime routines are more likely to have behavior problems, be hyperactive, and suffer from emotional difficulties.

31 | Play “Simon Says.”

During cooperative games, kids collaborate to reach a common goal. There may be a leader, and kids start to learn about social contracts and social rules.

When homework is assigned to young children, it doesn’t improve academic learning. In any case, the learning done in school is only one form of learning. Homework takes away from the time available to engage in endless other forms of learning, such as social, physical, and emotional, as well as rest.

Our kids deserve a chance to spend all their other hours outside of school doing their most important job of all: being a kid.

Jessica Smock

Jessica Smock is a writer and editor living in upstate New York with her husband and two children. A former teacher and curriculum coordinator, she has a doctorate in educational policy from Boston University.

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