Should young children--kindergarteners and first graders--get homework?
And if so, how much?
The question has already been decided in some schools.
Five-year-olds take home daily assignments. First graders spend hours each week reading, writing, and doing mathematics.
But is homework for children really worthwhile?
Maybe not. As Harris Cooper notes, the best way to answer the
question is to run an experiment. Randomly assign some kids to get
homework, and let other kids do without. Then measure the outcomes.
But there haven’t been any rigorous, experimental studies of
homework for kindergarteners and first graders (Harris et al 2006).
For older elementary school students, homework might help. Some
experimental studies suggest that certain kinds of homework can improve
test scores. Other, correlational studies have failed to establish any
substantial links between time spent doing homework and achievement in
elementary school (Harris et al 2006).
Maybe that’s because young children are too immature to cope with
the challenges and distractions of working at home. Or maybe, says
Cooper, it’s because the kids with the lowest test scores are also the
kids who take the longest to get through their homework.
In any case, we are left with an information void. It’s not clear
that homework benefits the average kindergartener or first grader. In
fact, cross-cultural evidence leaves us with good reason to doubt. In
Finland, a country renowned for producing some of those most
high-achieving students in the world, children don't begin elementary
school until the age of 7, and don't normally receive homework until
they are teenagers (Anderson 2011).
What about the costs of homework? Those haven’t been tested,
either. But general observations about child development--and the
everyday experiences of parents--suggest several problems with homework
for young children.
Homework for young children is really homework for parents.
Compared to older kids, young children are notably lacking in
“executive control," the ability to concentrate on a task, follow
directions, control impulses, and keep the details in mind (Rothbart and
Rueda 2005; Rueda et al 2004).
Moreover, many kids can’t competently read the instructions that accompany their homework.
So it’s unrealistic to expect most kindergarteners or first
graders to complete homework assignments on their own, particularly
after they've finished a day at school. Experiments on adults suggest
that self-control can get depleted. When you use willpower to cope with
one temptation, you have less to resist the next, and this seems to be
true even after controlling for general fatigue (Hofmann et al 2012).
While similar experiments on children have yet to be conducted,
it seems a sure bet that kids, too, need time out after long bouts of
effortful self-control. Put it all together, and it's no wonder if kids
doing homework need intense supervision and coaching to stay on-task.
Is such intense coaching the best approach for long-term academic success?
Not necessarily. A study of over 700 American parents found that parental support for student homework autonomy
was linked with better grades, higher test scores, and more homework
completed. Elementary school students with highly involved parents had lower grades and test scores (Cooper et al 2000).
An analysis of 50 published studies on middle school students
reports similar results. Parental supervision of homework was linked
with lower, not higher achievement (Hill and Tyson 2009).
These correlations might merely reflect the fact that competent
students need less help. They might reflect powerful cultural factors, too.
Westerners put a high value on autonomy, and they tend to lack a tradition of parenting academic coaching. Cross- cultural research shows that American kids respond differently to parental pressure depending on their ethnic background. European Americans tend to lose motivation when their mothers pressure them to succeed. Asian Americans -- who report greater feelings of interconnectedness with their parents -- tend to gain motivation (Fu and Markus 2014). If we were to make a more fine-grained analysis of parental coaching, we might learn that it's effectiveness depends on details of the parent-child relationship.
But the middle school results are also consistent with other
research linking academic success with the
authoritative parenting style,
an approach to child-rearing that emphasizes high standards and the encouragement of independence.
So the research raises an important question. If high parental
involvement in homework is linked with lower achievement, can we be sure
that parents are helpful?
Most parents aren't trained educators. How many
equipped--emotionally and intellectually--to tutor restless, frustrated
At the end of the school day, by the time he’s finished the
commute home, he might have 4 hours left each day to get everything
done--eat, play, attend after school lessons, do homework, do chores,
bathe, and interact with other family members. And he isn’t free to do
his homework whenever he likes, because he can’t do it without
supervision. He must wait until an older helper is available.
Some teachers underestimate how time-consuming and difficult their assignments are.
If you read online discussions between teachers and parents, you’ll
notice a common theme. Parents report that assignments take much longer
to complete than teachers anticipate.
How does this happen? Maybe teachers get misled by their
classroom experience. At 11:00 am, in the context of a lesson plan, a
motivational pep talk from the teacher, and peers all focused on the
same task, first graders might spend 25 minutes writing an essay.
But conditions are different at home. After spending 6 or 7 hours
at school, a restless, distracted first grader might have a lot of
trouble staying focused. She might spend 15 minutes just trying to
understand the instructions. She might get stalled trying to figure out
what to write. That same essay might take 2-, 3-, or 4-times longer to
Some assignments are just inappropriate.
For instance, consider this math problem sent home to some American kindergarteners--without classroom preparation--at the beginning of the school year:
“Farmer John has cows and chickens in his barn. Altogether, the
animals have 14 feet. How many of these animals could be cows? How many
might be chickens? Think of as many different combinations as you can,
and show how you solved the problem."
That’s an excellent, thought-provoking math problem. It’s the
sort of task that’s supposed to encourage kids to discover
problem-solving techniques and mathematical principles on their own. But
it’s not suitable homework for most entering kindergarteners.
First, most kids won’t be able to read the instructions. They’ll
need an adult to read for them, and then they’ll have to keep the
details in mind as they work. Keeping such information in active,
working memory is more difficult for young children because they have
smaller working memory capacities.
Second, we expect kids to tackle such a problem with
trial-and-error. But they’ll also need to be systematic, keeping track
of the possible (and impossible) combinations. That doesn’t come
naturally to most 5-year-olds. So they’ll need an adult to guide them.
And the deeper lessons about algebra? I doubt many kindergarteners are
ready to learn them. This math problem is for older, more sophisticated
Changing the status quo
Are these problems insoluble?
Personally, I’m not sure we can get around problem #1. If young
children can’t do homework without tears and resentment, if they need
constant, intense parental coaching to get their work done, then I would
prefer that they do no homework.
But perhaps teachers can do a better job designing brief,
developmentally-appropriate homework tasks. Maybe they can create
assignments that don’t require intense adult supervision.
If so, we will still need to weigh the costs and benefits. There
should be substantial educational benefits to justify homework for
little kids. And we currently lack evidence of any substantial benefits.
In a blog post for BabyCenter, I asked readers to share their
experiences of homework for young children. You can read their
comments--and add one of your own--
Alfie Kohn is a former teacher and well-known critic of homework.
References: Is homework for young children justified?
Anderson J. 2011. From Finland, an intriguing school-reform model.
New York Times. Published online December 11, 2011:
Cooper H, Robinson JC, and Patall EA. 2006. Does homework
improve academic achievement? A synthesis of research, 1987–2003. Review
of Educational Research 76(1): 1–62.
Cooper H, Lindsay JJ, and Nye B. 2000. Homework in the Home: How
Student, Family, and Parenting-Style Differences Relate to the Homework
Process. Contemp Educ Psychol. 25(4):464-487.
Fu AS and Markus HR. 2014. My Mother and Me: Why Tiger Mothers Motivate Asian Americans But Not European Americans.Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin 40(6): 739-749.
Hill NE and Tyson DF. 2009. Parental involvement in middle
school: a meta-analytic assessment of the strategies that promote
achievement. Dev Psychol. 45(3):740-63.
Hofmann W Schmeichel BJ and Baddeley AD 2012. Executive functions and self-regulation. Trends in Cognitive Sciences 3: 174-180.
Iglowstein I, Jenni OG, Molinari L, Largo RH. 2003. Sleep
duration from infancy to adolescence: Reference values and generational
trends. Pediatrics 111(2): 302-307.
Rothbart MK and Rueda MR. 2005. The development of effortful
control. In U. Mayr, E. Awh, & S. Keele (Eds.), Developing
individuality in the human brain: A tribute to Michael I. Posner
(167-188). Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Rueda MR, Posner MI, and Rothbart MK. 2004. Attentional control
and self-regulation. In R. F. Baumeister & K. D. Vohs (Eds.),
Handbook of self-regulation: Research, theory, and applications (pp.
283-300). New York: Guilford Press.