The boy across from me was fighting back tears. He was tall for his age, with long, sandy brown hair that grew over his eyes and hid his emotions in a way that was not entirely unintentional.
He wanted to succeed and – as a new teacher – I wanted to do everything I could to give him that chance. Now, as the tears welled in his eyes, he stood up and pushed the desk over. He hadn’t completed his spelling homework (again) and I, his teacher, had to administer a test we both knew he would fail. He’d requested more time to study but there was none left. The class had to move forward.
This was a weekly dance for us and there had been days, though rare, when I could coax him into finishing his work at home through heartfelt pleading and thinly veiled bribes. Today was not one of those days and since I couldn’t let him skip the test while the rest of the class took part, he knew he faced another failure. The homework designed to support him was actually leaving him further and further behind when he didn’t do it. And I think a part of him hated me for it.
Five years later, I’m no longer a teacher but I’m now a parent and I have to admit, I cheered a little bit on the inside when I read the letter announcing that our local elementary school had done away with homework. Teaching at a new charter school that was attempting to assert itself as a balance between arts integration and academic rigor, homework had been a regular part of our routine. And just as regularly, I had students who did not, or could not, complete it. It was always a difficult balance.
On the one hand, there were students who were working hard at home to complete the tasks assigned, and on the other I had students who sometimes did not understand the work, had no help at home to complete it, or had a schedule so filled with extracurriculars that they didn’t even sit down at the table until past 8 p.m. The deck was stacked against us.
While there does exist plenty of research supporting the academic boost from homework in older grades, most of it also suggests that these benefits don’t begin in earnest until middle school. Even an overview of the studies revealing academic advantages of homework notes that for elementary students “the average correlation between time spent on homework and achievement … hovered around zero,” meaning there was no relationship.
Other studies found that too much homework, in fact, can have negative effects. Opponents assert that homework can increase boredom with schoolwork and decrease the time that kids have for leisure activities such as sports, music, and playing outside – in short, the stuff childhood is made of. Another study reveals that homework widens the achievement gap and reinforces socio-economic disparities.
But is homework always a bad thing for our youngest students? One study suggests that homework does in fact produce positive outcomes at the elementary level, but not specifically in terms of academics. Instead, it proposes that homework for elementary students is a good thing because it fosters positive work habits and responsible character traits, encourages parental involvement in school-related work, and reinforces simple skills learned in class.
This is also the argument from local parents in our town who were concerned about the shift away from formal homework. They echoed the lead researcher who notes that, “a little amount of homework may help elementary school students build study habits and learn skills developed through practice.” But can these skills only be learned through homework?
What’s a parent to do? Are there ways to reap the benefits of homework at the elementary age without actually subjecting your grade-schooler to potentially fruitless work? Of course there are! The benefits of homework for elementary schoolers are skills easily reinforced at home, without any actual assignments from school. Here are six simple ways for parents of grade school students to reinforce academic skills, foster good work habits, and teach responsibility at home without the help (or hindrance) of homework.
1 | Talk to your kids about what they’re learning
Make a habit of checking in daily with your children about what they’re currently doing in school. Go through their backpacks every afternoon or evening to find completed work and ask your child to explain it to you. Or start a family tradition of sharing over dinner one new thing they learned each day. It can sometimes be tiring to pull all of the details out of your child, but there are some good tips on how to get them talking here.
Also make sure to keep communication open and flowing with your child’s teacher. Most teachers can now be reached easily through email and will be happy to keep you updated on current curriculum and any skills that your child may need reinforced at home. Studies on academic achievement agree that high-achieving students have parents who work together with teachers to support learning at school and at home.
2 | Give your children real responsibilities at home
It’s never too early for kids to start taking some responsibility at home. Even toddlers can be in charge of turning off the lights or wiping out the sink. In the beginning, share the work with your child by starting the task and then inviting them to help. Young children will initially be more willing to work if they view it as a team effort.
Also, make sure to model responsibility yourself and talk about it as you go. For example, when you come in the door, hang up your coat and put your shoes away while saying aloud, “Now I put my coat on the hook and my shoes on the mat so that no one will trip on them and I can find them when I need them next.”
A family is a child’s first introduction to community life and children who do chores learn to support a community and work towards common goals. They also experience higher levels of confidence and self-esteem. It may take more time to teach these skills now, but the long term benefits are well-documented.
3 | Foster an appreciation for reading
Some schools may ask students to keep a list of books they’ve read or time they’ve spent reading at home. Even if yours does not, encourage your child to keep track of what she reads and how much she likes it.
Set reading goals together and support your child in her efforts to tackle them independently. Let her choose books that she’s interested in and encourage her to seek input from friends, teachers, and the librarian once she knows what she likes. Read together to tackle new subject matter or trickier chapter books. Talk often about what she reads.
Children who read for pleasure build vocabulary and are exposed to new ideas more frequently. While the link between reading and achievement in language arts is obvious, recent research shows that reading for pleasure is also associated with higher achievement in math and sciences.
4 | Create a space in your home where your child can work
He may not have formal homework, but kids are naturally curious and by providing him space and resources to explore, he’s more likely to learn independently. Make sure your child has a desk, table, or counter space dedicated to him and keep age-appropriate learning toys and books available there.
Younger students might keep educational games, books, art supplies and puzzles in this space. Older students might have reference books like a dictionary, atlas, or thesaurus, and even a computer if there’s one available.
Children who play with blocks and puzzles have been shown to develop better spatial skills than children who participate in parent-led activities. And beyond that, children who have more cognitive stimulation in early years have been shown to have a more refined brain cortex as teens.
5 | Teach time management
Most children struggle with time management because the area of the brain responsible for executive functioning is the last to develop. While their brains are maturing, children will need support in grasping this concept.
To teach time management, begin with the basics of telling time on an analog clock. A child who cannot tell time cannot be expected to independently manage it. Keep analog clocks visible throughout your home and make a habit of noting the time and guessing the time throughout the day.
Once your child can understand the basics, practice estimating time through simple games. These can easily be played in the car or while waiting in line. Expand her knowledge by challenging her to estimate time spent on simple tasks. Children with a better grasp of time will naturally develop better time management skills.
You can reinforce basic time management skills through structure and routines. For example, your child should know that after dinner, he must put away his toys, take a shower, brush his teeth, and put on pajamas before he can watch a show or play a game on the computer.
Rather than using the screen time as a reward, it’s the positive end result of his actions. The logical consequence of not completing his after-dinner routine in a timely manner then becomes not having enough time to use the computer. Sometimes setting a timer or alarm can help to reinforce that time is not flexible.
6 | Support organizational skills
Organizational skills are another concept linked closely with executive functioning. While their brains are still developing in the prefrontal cortex, children will need support in developing organizational systems that work for them.
On the small scale, help your child with daily organization by providing written checklists of the day’s activities, responsibilities, and commitments. Very young children might need pictures instead of words. Though you may need to fill them out for your child initially, keep him involved so that he can make the lists himself in the future.
Another way to support your child’s developing organizational skills now is to lay the foundations for daily routines that can continue when your child is older and does have homework.
Set up a filing system that is easily accessible to your child. It could be color coded folders, drawers, or boxes. Have one box for things your child wants to keep over the long term, have another drawer for works in progress, and have one last drawer for papers ready to be returned to school, like completed permission slips or reading logs, and completed homework further down the line.
Help your child to go through his backpack each night and sort any papers into the filing system. Keep a recycling bin handy so that anything that doesn’t warrant keeping can be efficiently purged.
Finally, keep a large monthly calendar accessible in your home. This will reinforce for your child that organizational skills are a lifelong process. Have your child help you to fill it in at the start of each month and add important deadlines, commitments, and responsibilities together as they arise.
Don’t let a lack of homework mean less responsibility at home; instead, let it be an opportunity for more meaningful, authentic responsibilities. Though the absence of homework might initially seem like permission to let skills slide at home, it’s really an invitation for parents to become more involved and invested in their child’s development.
Schools, especially crowded or understaffed ones, cannot possibly be responsible for teaching our kids everything they need to be successful in life. When parents and teachers work together to nurture well-rounded kids and to reinforce budding skills both at school and at home, everyone comes out on top, homework or no homework.