Homework for young children: Is it justified?

© 2011 - 2013 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

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 young children?

Young children have special time constraints.

The average 5- or 6-year old may need about 11 hours of sleep each night (Iglowstein et al 2003). If he leaves for school early in the morning, he should have an early bedtime.

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 write.

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 students.

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.

More reading

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-- here.

Alfie Kohn is a former teacher and well-known critic of homework.

He doesn’t just oppose homework for young children. He thinks schools should eliminate homework for older kids, too. You can read his essay, “The truth about homework," here.

For an overview of the research, see Harris Cooper’s “Does Homework Improve Academic Achievement?: If So, How Much Is Best?" This is a summary of the author’s scholarly work (reference below).

For a discussion of working memory capacity in young children, see this Parenting Science article.

And what about older kids? If you read Karl Taro Greenfield's account of his 13-year-old daughter's homework regimen, it sounds like some kids are suffering with workloads that are counter-productive. But other high school students may not be doing enough. Check out the discussion here.

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: http://www.nytimes.com/2011/12/13/education/from-finland-an-intriguing-school-reform-model.html?src=me&ref=general&_r=0

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.

Content last modified 10/13

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