Homework for young children: Is it justified?

© 2011 - 2019 Gwen Dewar, Ph.D., all rights reserved

Unanswered questions about homework for young children

Should the youngest students be assigned 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 young 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 kindergartners and first graders (Harris et al 2006).

Instead, we're left with a limited body of research on older students. What does it tell us?

Experimental studies suggest that certain kinds of homework can improve test scores. But 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 kindergartner 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 I think we should consider the following points.

1. 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 kindergartners 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.

2. Do most young children benefit when their parents provide them with intensive, after-school academic coaching? That's not clear.

In fact, it's not clear if even older kids benefit. 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 (Hill and Tyson 2009). So, too, does a recent meta-analysis of nearly 450 published studies addressing children's homework (Barger et al 2019). Parental assistance and supervision was linked with lower, not higher achievement.

These correlations might merely reflect the fact that struggling, low achieving students need more help. But we're still left to wonder. 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 are equipped -- emotionally and intellectually -- to tutor restless, frustrated young children?

3. Families face difficult time constraints

When do you have time for a supervised homework session? Young children need more sleep than older people do. Indeed, the average 5- or 6-year old may need about 11 hours of sleep each night (Iglowstein et al 2003), necessitating an early bedtime. Given that many parents have job demands that prevent them from helping their children until the evening, they may be left with a very narrow time window.

4. Some teachers underestimate how time-consuming or difficult their assignments are.

If you read online discussions between 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. 

5. Some assignments are simply inappropriate.

To see what I mean, consider this math problem sent home to some American kindergartners -- 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."

This is 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 kindergartners.

First of all, most kids won’t even 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, this problem demands a lot of careful record keeping, so the problem-solver can keep track of all the possible (and impossible) combinations. This doesn't come naturally to most 5-year-olds. They’ll need an adult to guide them.

And the deeper lessons about algebra? I doubt many kindergartners are ready to learn them. This math problem is for older, more sophisticated students.

What should we do?

In my personal view, it comes down to stress. 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.

What if we assign children much less daunting tasks? Homework that is age-appropriate, that doesn't require intense adult supervision?

In this case, we will still need to weigh the costs and benefits. Do kids enjoy the homework? Does it provide them with any substantial academic advantages? Perhaps someday researchers will provide us with more evidence on the subject.

More reading

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. 

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

Barger MM, Kim EM, Kuncel NR, Pomerantz EM. 2019. The relation between parents' involvement in children's schooling and children's adjustment: A meta-analysis. Psychol Bull. 145(9):855-890.

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