Parents Are Asking for No Homework Before Middle School—Here's What Experts Say
Well before the pandemic, the years-old debate around homework for elementary schoolers was reaching a fever pitch. Older research published in the American Journal of Family Therapy found that elementary school students were receiving about three times as much homework as recommended by the National Education Association (NEA). (The NEA's go-to rule is that students should have a nightly 10 minutes per grade level.) Add a pandemic, remote learning, stress of all kinds amplified to the nth degree for both parents and kids to the mix, and it's no surprise that parents are speaking out in favor of putting a stop to homework for elementary school children altogether.
"Kids have been through a tough couple of years, and they may need some downtime," says Michele Borba, Ed.D., an educational psychologist and best-selling author of Thrivers: The Surprising Reasons Why Some Kids Struggle and Others Shine. "Homework is becoming more busywork as opposed to a learning tool, and many parents are raising the white flag."
Here is what parents and experts are currently saying about the homework debate, along with tips to make assignments less burdensome.
The 'No Homework Before Middle School' Movement
In September, Melinda Wenner Moyer, journalist and author of How to Raise Kids Who Aren't Assholes, wrote a piece on her Substack newsletter calling attention to the science of homework and the issues facing parents with elementary schoolers specifically. She points to a 2006 analysis of the research on homework by Harris Cooper, a neuroscientist and social psychologist at Duke, which found no relationship between the amount of homework elementary school students did and their overall academic achievement.
"Maybe, after such a trying year, schools will recognize that the emotional health of their students should be priority—and that homework doesn't provide much of a benefit," writes Moyer.
In response, organizational psychologist Adam Grant agreed, tweeting, "In elementary schools, assigning more homework doesn't improve grades or test scores. And it seems to hurt those who are already disadvantaged. The past 18 months have been stressful enough. Let's give kids a break: no homework before middle school."
Twitter users jumped onboard, applauding the take. But how educators will respond to this plea has yet to be seen.
What Experts Say About Homework
According to some parents, elementary schoolers spend about one to two hours a day on homework, says Reena B. Patel, licensed educational psychologist, board-certified behavior analyst, and author of Winnie & Her Worries. That means they're lacking time to unwind, participate in leisure activities, and get a good night's sleep. "Plus, if you have a child in extracurricular activities, they may not get to homework until later that night," she notes.
Susan Kuczmarski, Ed.D., author of Becoming A Happy Family: Pathways to the Family Soul, agrees, emphasizing the importance of unstructured, relaxing moments for kids. "There is tremendous value in what I call 'hammock time.' This means daydreaming, hanging out, getting lost in your thoughts, doodling, and reading. Children are nourished by introspective time to wonder and dream."
Beyond that, researchers have yet to find that homework bolsters learning for elementary schoolers.
"There is no evidence, in any research conducted on homework, of any benefits to homework before middle school," says Dorothy Shapland, Ed.D., an associate professor at Metropolitan State University of Denver. "All arguments for homework are based on the idea that it is beneficial and not on any research that it makes a difference in learning."
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What Parents Can Do to Help
In the meantime, kids are still getting homework, but experts say there are ways for parents to help them through it. Dr. Borba advises parents go to kids' annual back-to-school night session and learn more about each teacher's expectations for homework. If they say it's 30 minutes or 15 minutes, but you're spending more like three hours, that's your cue to call a parent-teacher conference and discuss the disconnect.
Parents can feel empowered to speak up about their child's homework, because in the long-run, what elementary school kids need more than anything is to prioritize their mental health and well-being, focusing on getting outdoors and enjoying physical activity, as well as reading and doing intellectually-stimulating games and puzzles.
Ultimately, using the NEA's guideline, kids can slowly but surely get accustomed to putting in more minutes of homework per night as time goes on. "Moderation is critical," says Dr. Borba.
In the meantime, if you and your elementary schooler are still struggling with squeezing in homework, consider the following tips:
Break it up
Instead of waiting until after dinner, sprinkle in a few minutes here or there. "Spend five minutes on flashcards while waiting to pick up big brother from a soccer game," suggests Dr. Borba. "Figure out how to weave it in, so it's little nuggets along the way, and therefore, more natural, easy, and stress-reducing."
Do the hardest homework first
Getting more difficult assignments out of the way first will boost your child's feeling of accomplishment while reducing their anxiety about having to tackle something they find challenging, explains Dr. Borba.
Set a timer
Whether a child needs to put in a little more time on their homework or they are actually working too long and hard, you can set a boundary around how long they're sitting. Dr. Borba recommends setting a timer. When it goes off, it's time to put homework aside and go play.
In the end, Dr. Borba says parents and schools need to get on the same page about elementary school homework. "We've gotta get our kids back on track," she notes. "But we've gotta do it in a way in which it's reasonable, it's manageable, and it's also in line with our kids' mental health and well-being."