17 December 2014

Letters About Homework

Photo by Kevin Miller
Two letters I have written to my daughter’s teacher regarding homework. 

I want to emphasize that, overall, we are very pleased with her school and their educational approach. I am posting these letters primarily because I believe that the escalation of homework in the American educational system, starting at earlier and earlier ages, is detrimental to the overall development of young children. I hope these letters may help other parents who feel their children are overburdened. 

(Throughout, I have changed my children’s names to the pseudonyms I use on my blog.)

 Letter 1

(Excerpt from an e-mail to our principal in which I copied the original letter to my daughter’s teacher and added the paranthetical paragraph.)


Regarding homework, we have settled on a policy at home: If Silver wants to do the homework, we do it. If she doesn’t want to, we don’t. 

We arrived at this policy based on three things: 1) The research on the utility of homework in elementary school does not demonstrate any clear benefit to the student’s academic progress, much less to her social/emotional development. 2) On the other hand, research into the benefits of free play for young children demonstrate that children develop a range of skills, both emotional and intellectual, through unstructured, self-directed play time, something that Silver does not get at school. Most importantly, free play contributes significantly to self-regulation. 3) We struggle with Silver in several ways daily—to get out the door on time, to fulfill her (very basic) chores, to get along with her little brother, to stay within our agreed limits—and because we use positive parenting methods, each of these struggles can take a long time. Because of the points above, we are not willing to add homework to the list of struggles in our household. 

(An additional thought I did not include in the original email: Much of the current educational advice on homework—which seems to be a compromise, not a research-based conclusion—is to assign 10 minutes per grade level, e.g. 10 minutes for first grade, 20 for second grade, etc. I understand that, ideally, the HW packet would allow for work to be parceled out over a few days. This is not how it works for Silver. Silver either wants to sit down and complete her entire packet at one time—and gets extremely frustrated if the packet is too long for her to complete in one sitting—or she does not want to do it AT ALL. In this way, I feel she is often “set up” for HW failure.)

Articles on HW: 

Homework: An unnecessary evil? Surprising findings from new research (Kohn 2012) 

Studies support rewards, homework, and traditional teaching. Or do they? (Kohn 2011)

Is homework necessary?

Should I stop assigning homework? (written by a teacher)


What the research says about kids and homework

Less work, more play: A Quebec elementary school bans homework for the year 

Forget homework: It's a waste of time for elementary-school students  

Articles on free play: 

The American Association of Pediatrics on the importance of play  

The serious need for play in Scientific American (I can get the full text for you if you like) 

Scientists say child's play helps build a better brain from NPR 

All work and no play: Why your kids are more anxious, depressed from The Atlantic 

Old-fashioned play builds serious skills from NPR 

Article on happiness: 

Emotional health in childhood ‘is the key to future happiness’ (findings from the London School of Economics, not exactly the most sentimental bunch)

Daydreaming:

Teach Kids to Daydream: Mental downtime makes people more creative and less anxious



Family time
Photo by Kevin Miller
Letter 2 

(To my daughter’s teacher.)

I am writing to continue our discussion about homework. 

First of all, I have to say that this week’s packet is excessive. It would be for a 7-day week, and it is even more so for a 5-day week. There are a total of 7 open-ended questions throughout the packet. The character study alone would be sufficient for this week’s work. I described this week’s packet to my parents’ group on Facebook, which includes parents from all over the country (most of them academics). Other parents of first graders were unanimous that the homework was far above what their children are assigned. (“Mine has 20 minutes of reading Mon-Fri., nothing more.” “That is waaay too much for 1st grade.” “That HW seems like a TON. I know my son would lose it before it was done.”) 

I read the updated December 2014 guidelines for homework. I feel that my main concern was not addressed by the new policy. 


No mention is made of the amount of homework. Silver and I get home at 3:30 p.m. We pick up her little brother at 5:00 p.m., and when we get home, their routine is to help with and eat dinner, take a bath, and go to bed. This leaves a maximum of 1.5 unstructured hours of time that she and I have together during the day. If homework takes 20 minutes per day, that can reduce our unstructured time together by nearly 25 percent. 

Secondly, I still cannot in good conscience force my 6-year-old child to do her homework. If she wishes to do the homework, I am happy to sit with her and help her with it. If, however, she wishes to engage in pretend play, or draw, or lie on her bed and daydream (all her preferred after-school activities), I believe—and will continue to believe—that these activities are more healthful and vital to her intellectual and emotional development than homework. 

I base this not only on my knowledge of my own child and her emotional needs, but also on the extensive research—some of which I shared with you and [principal]—that finds that children (not just my own child, but ALL children) need free-play time and space to daydream. The research on the benefits of homework to elementary school-aged children is nowhere near as robust. I vaccinated my children because scientific evidence overwhelmingly tells me that it’s the best way to keep my children from suffering from common, terrible childhood diseases. My position on homework is similarly formed. 


According to the guidelines, homework is supposed to develop “‘21st century skills’ such as curiosity, imagination, critical-thinking, creativity and innovation, initiative, effective oral and written communication, accessing and analyzing information, agility and adaptability, and collaboration.” Need I point out that play develops all these skills, and even better, the child develops them on her own initiative

I had an extensive talk with Silver yesterday about homework. She has a new plan she wants to try in the new year, but she is adamant that she has no interest in doing any homework before Winter Break. If there are consequences for opting out of homework, please let me know. 

Free play
Photo by Anoosh Jorjorian
As an example, here is what we did yesterday instead of homework: We came home. I asked Silver if she wanted to do homework. “No,” she said. “I want to play with you.” “What would you like to play?” I asked. She went to our Ideas Box, a box that holds scraps of paper where we had written ideas for pretend play. We pulled out two, and Silver decided she wanted to do the idea where we pretend we are on the moon. “Let’s make space suits!” she said. We ran around the house gathering materials for space suits, including helmets and air tanks. Then we made the rocket ship by spreading out a blanket to form the wings and positioning two chairs. Silver found a yogurt top to use as a steering wheel and a drum mallet to use as the thruster. She grabbed silk cloths to serve as seatbelts. 

We blasted off. We talked about how the ride was bumpy while we were in the atmosphere, but when we reached space, it became smooth. We landed on the moon. We put hula hoops around our waists to serve as tethers that would keep us from losing the rocket ship. We jumped around the play room in “low gravity.” Then Silver decided that it was time to go to the Space Station. We went into the space station and then could move normally because of the artificial gravity. We ate a dinner of astronaut food and went to bed. 

Then it was time to pick up Ocho. 

When we got home, Silver texted a short shopping list to Kevin [my husband]. She got mad when I told her to brave spell “carrots.” We talked about why she needs to brave spell, and she did it, but she was still angry about it. Ocho wanted to read a book. I told Silver, “We have had play time, but Ocho hasn’t had any time with me yet, so I need to sit with him and read a book.” Silver did not like this plan. We talked about whether she wanted to go to her Peace Corner. She did not. She sat with us while I read one book. Ocho wanted another book, but Silver wanted to play a matching game. “Why don’t you get the game and set it up while I’m reading the book to Ocho? Then when the book is done, the game will be ready.” We agreed to this plan. Silver set up the game. She didn’t want to wait until the second book was done, but eventually she sat next to me while I finished the second book. 

Kevin came home and played the matching game with the kids while I made dinner. When the game was done, Silver cut up some green beans and helped set the table before we sat down to dinner. 

Yesterday was a good day, and I feel like Silver got everything that she needed: connection time with her family, opportunities to practice emotional self-control, chances to provide help and feel a sense of responsibility, and—most of all—time to exercise her body and her rich, abundant imagination. I hope you understand why I feel that the time we spent yesterday could not possibly be better spent doing homework. 

Yours sincerely, 


Addendum 

My description of the HW packet (5 days instead of 7 due to Winter Break starting):
2 math story problems; emotional/social exercise where kids read 2 sentences, figure out which is the “accident” then answer 3 questions about how the kids in the scenario feel and what they should say; “character study” where kids read a book, draw the main character and come up with 3 adjs to describe her/him, answer 2 questions about the character, then do 2 beginning-middle-end exercises; and finally a “talking question”: If you could only keep 1 toy, which would it be and why? 


Additional thoughts

- Several articles have been published on whether ADHD is overdiagnosed in the United States due to school models that keep children—particularly boys—sitting for extended periods of time that are inappropriate for their developmental levels. Some have theorized that a lack of exercise and free play may also contribute.

- Two countries lead in education worldwide: South Korea and Finland. Their methods are drastically different. South Korean students succeed, but at a high cost to their students in terms of well-being and happiness. Finnish students, on the other hand, dont start school until age 7, and they build in frequent free time and include non-academic activities, and teachers are concerned with developing well-rounded children.  

Please add your children’s experiences with homework, links to further research, or relevant articles in the comments!

5 comments:

  1. Thanks for this great information. I totally agree with your perspective. Your articles made me want to read more.

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  2. I find myself in an odd spot -- I have read research on the value of play and drew similar conclusions to what you describe, but when homework started, I found my daughter liked it. She seems very proud (if not a little smug!) about her abilities and enjoys things, like doing spelling exercises with words she knew how to spell on the first day, that I remember despising with all my guts, when I was a kid. I'm keeping an eye out to see if the novelty of homework wears off (she's in first grade and it's her first time getting homework) while trying to keep an open mind about the experience my individual kid is having.

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    Replies
    1. First of all, it's lucky that your child is only getting homework for the first time in first grade! Homework in kindergarten is standard for many schools now. My daughter, now in second grade, sometimes enjoys homework, but what most concerns me is that if she is doing homework, what isn't she doing, like imaginative free play. Our time after school, which ends at 3:15 p.m., seems very limited. At school, her recesses don't give her enough time to engage deeply in imaginative free play, so the only time during weekdays when she can immerse herself is after school. Her entire day at school, which is a full seven hours, is devoted almost entirely to academic activities. The research shows clearly that kids need free play, and I want to defend her time to have it. Sometimes, she uses that time to ask me to give her math story problems, and that's OK with me. But if she wants to use her three hours before dinner--minus chore time--to pretend to be a snow queen, or a bat finding her way around with echolocation, or a famous animal trainer, I think she has a right to it.

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  3. I do agree with your point that homework is the essential part of the school. Sometimes students don't get time to complete this just because of overloaded assignment and many other works. There Are some companies which offer get papers done facility and provides professional to complete your task in a very good manner. So you can take help with that.
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