My grandson is in kindergarten, and like many kindergartners today, he has homework. Not just a little homework, but a lotof it. Each week, he comes home with a homework packet that is due the next Monday—a good enough due date, I suppose, because like 64% of mothers with young kids, my daughter works. Having the packet due on Monday at least gives her the weekend to force him to do it, because of course he can’t do this homework on his own. Getting it done requires hands-on parental support and intervention. And predictably, getting it done has turned into a huge battle.
Why? Because he’s five, and like most five-year-olds he’d rather be spending time with his family than doing homework; he’d prefer to be building with Legos or going to the zoo, or happily playing at a park. But instead of being able to do those things, he spends 3-4 hours every weekend crying over his homework. He has become a homework-hater well before he can read the directions by himself.
To give you a sense of what his school is asking of him and his parents, here’s what a typical weekly homework packet looks like for this kindergartener.
Let’s start with the Reading Log. Reading to a five-year-old is great homework. And if this were the end of the assignment, it would be better still. But the actual reading is only the beginning of what’s required. The students are first asked to discuss the characters in the story. Then come the next, painful steps: The child and adult are asked to “echo read” the book twice. That means the adult reads the story in short phrases that the student must repeat (echo). Then, the student has to “choral read” the book twice. This means the adult and child say the words of the story together.
At this point, you might rightfully think (hope?) the assignment is finished. Remember, many of these kids don’t really know how to read yet. But no. At this point, the student is expected to read the story to the adult, using the “finger reading” technique. I assume this means pointing to each word as he reads it. Given that our little guy turned five in June and only knows how to read the “sight words” he has memorized, this last step seems particularly ridiculous. He’s instructed to then read the story to himself—after which he’s told to “celebrate.” (My guess is the only thing being celebrated is that this part of the homework is done.)
Think he’s done now? Nope, not even close. The next set of tasks is focused on “reading comprehension.” Students are instructed to “visualize” in their minds what is happening in their story, draw a picture of what he or she visualized when reading that story, and then write a sentence about their “illustration.”
On a recent visit, my daughter thought it would be good fun for me, the former educator, to tackle this piece of the assignment with my grandson. He had already read a book with her about a garbage truck, and he and I were engaged in drawing pictures with some fun new tempura crayons I had brought him. He had already drawn a very detailed train and rocket ship; how hard could it be to get him to draw the garbage truck?
Very hard, it turns out. In fact, it was an epic fail. When I asked him to visualize the garbage truck, he said, “I wanted to draw a train valentine and a rocket ship. I can’t even visualize. My brain does not know how to visualize. But I can draw lots of pictures because I have so many ideas in my head.” So he drew picture after picture and told me stories about all of them, but he refused to draw the garbage truck. It wasn’t in his head. And he declined to write a sentence about any of his “illustrations” because, as he reminded me, he doesn’t really know how to write yet.
My kindergarten-age grandson can build amazing Lego constructions and count to 100 not just forward (which was also part of the homework to be initialed by his parent) but backward (not assigned and rather amazing to me). But the rest of his weekly reading homework was extremely frustrating because it assumed he could “write neatly in pencil.” Except he can’t. His fine motor skills for printing are not there yet. So writing his “high frequency words” 10 times, as required, is pure torture. After the first two renditions of the word “my,” the letters fell off the lines and ran into each other.
All of this, of course, is just the reading portion of his homework; there are math worksheets that must be completed, too. Although my grandson seems to have a gift for numbers and can add in his head, being asked to write the number “13” five times and then draw 13 squares is agony for him. On that sheet, after drawing 13 wobbly squares he added an unauthorized 14th illustration: a robot. My daughter had to write a note to his teacher explaining that he did indeed know how to make and count 13 squares; he just wanted to add his own personal touch to the assignment.
Thankfully, his teacher responded to the note with a smiley face. She’s a good teacher who understands my grandson is imaginative and creative. I imagine it must be terribly painful for her to have to assign this kind of homework, every week, to kids who should be playing in a sandbox.
The Truth About Homework
As a grandparent and an educator, looking through my grandson’s homework journal breaks my heart. He and his peers are being given too much, too soon, and what they are being asked to do is rote and of generally low quality. I don’t remember my children receiving math pages and spelling lists until third grade, but the current, unofficial rule of thumb has become 10 minutes per night per grade level. But who does such a model serve? And what, exactly, is the point of homework at this stage, anyway?
What most schools seem to ignore is that there is absolutely no evidence that homework—beyond reading for pleasure—makes any difference in educational attainment before middle school. Nancy Kalish, co-author with Sara Bennett of The Case Against Homework, writes, “I'd always assumed homework was essential…But when I finally looked into the research about it, I was floored to find there's little to support homework—especially in vast quantities.”
Meaningful homework that reinforces what was taught in the classroom may make sense when children are old enough to do it with minimal support. But when parents must necessarily be deeply involved in the homework completion process, as is the case with most young students, what is it that homework is actually meant to achieve?
Alfie Kohn, who has written many articles about the negative effects of homework, points out that homework for our youngest learners is not merely useless, it is actually harmful. Completing homework assignments is stressful for children and their parents, and causes unnecessary conflicts over getting it done. It robs kids of time with their families and of opportunities to do other activities like play outside or draw. He writes,
“No research has ever found a benefit to assigning homework (of any kind or in any amount) in elementary school. In fact, there isn’t even a positive correlation between, on the one hand, having younger children do some homework (vs. none), or more (vs. less), and, on the other hand, any measure of achievement.”
In The Homework Myth, Kohn cites numerous studies showing homework to be of little value for young children. In fact, he believes it usually has the opposite effect, making them feel negative about their schooling and less inclined to do things that will enhance their education, like reading for pleasure. In addition to limiting the sheer volume of homework, especially in elementary school, Kohn believes it is also important to consider the quality of what is assigned to children. If children are asked to complete assignments at home, at least that work should be interesting, fun and doable by the child.
Like Kalish and Kohn, I am no fan of worksheet-type homework. But even if I bought into its educational value as children age, I still fail to see how it is useful in kindergarten. The only answer I ever get when I ask others to justify kindergarten homework is that it prepares kids for getting homework the next year; the argument being that kids need to get into the habit of doing homework as soon as they can grip a pencil. To me, it’s typical of the backward-thinking educational reform movement that has gripped our country since No Child Left Behind was passed in 2002. Rather than promoting developmentally appropriate sequences for educating children (which would build forward from the beginning of learning), we have instead been starting with the end goal and pushing expectations backward, regardless of what kids are capable of learning or understanding.
My grandson is not alone in his dislike of homework full of developmentally inappropriate expectations. Educational experts speak often of the misguided use of worksheets and workbooks with young children. They also acknowledge that, while some children in kindergarten learn to read, it is in fact normal for reading to take hold in first, or even second grade. Kindergarteners may be able to learn sight words and have some phonemic awareness, but many remain unable to read a book with true comprehension.
According to a report by early childhood experts Nancy Carlsson-Paige, Geralyn Bywater McLaughlin and Joan Wolfsheimer Almon, many children are not developmentally ready to read in kindergarten, and forcing them to do so is to their detriment. “Teacher-led instruction in kindergartens has almost entirely replaced the active, play-based, experiential learning that we know children need from decades of research in cognitive and developmental psychology and neuroscience,” their report states. And yet we press on, asking children to do things their brains simply aren’t ready to do.
On developmental checklists, the skills my grandson’s homework packets expects him to have mastered are listed under rubrics for children ages 6-10. In contrast, the CDC expects five-year-olds to be able to count at least 10 things, print a few letters or numbers, and copy a triangle. The gap between the curriculum’s expectations and the medical community’s understanding of how young children develop is no less than stunning.
Before my grandson started kindergarten, I wrote a piece called 10 Ways Kindergarten Can Stop Failing Our Kids. I voiced my hope that he would develop a deep love of learning, and that joy would accompany him as he began his formal education, because those are the very best things that we can wish for our youngest learners. I still hold those wishes out for him, but now they are accompanied by real trepidation. I simply never dreamed I would have to add a wish that homework not come knocking at his door so soon.
The Homework Battle: How to Get Children to Do Homework
By Debbie Pincus, MS LMHC
Parents often feel it’s their job to get their kids to do well in school. Naturally, you might get anxious about this responsibility as a parent. You might also get nervous about your kids succeeding in life—and homework often becomes the focus of that concern. But when parents feel it’s their responsibility to get their kids to achieve, they now need something from their children—they need them to do their homework and be a success. I believe this need puts you in a powerless position as a parent because your child doesn’t have to give you what you want. The battle about homework actually becomes a battle over control. Your child starts fighting to have more control over the choices in his life, while you feel that your job as a parent is to be in control of things. So you both fight harder, and it turns into a war in your home.
The truth is, you can’t make him care. Instead, focus on what helps his behavior improve. Don’t focus on the attitude as much as what he’s actually doing.
Over the years, I’ve talked to many parents who are in the trenches with their kids, and I’ve seen firsthand that there are many creative ways kids rebel when it comes to school work. Your child might forget to do his homework, do his homework but not hand it in, do it sloppily or carelessly, or not study properly for his test. These are just a few ways that kids try to hold onto the little control they have. When this starts happening, parents feel more and more out of control, so they punish, nag, threaten, argue, throw up their hands or over-function for their kids by doing the work for them. Now the battle is in full swing: reactivity is heightened as anxiety is elevated—and homework gets lost in the shuffle.The hard truth is that you cannot make your children do anything, let alone homework. Instead, the idea is to set limits, respect their individual choices and help motivate them to motivate themselves.
You might be thinking to yourself, “You don’t know my child. I can’t motivate him to do anything.” But you can start to do it by calming down, slowing down, and simply observing. Observe the typical family dance steps and see if you and your mate contribute to your child’s refusal, struggle and apathy. If you carry more of the worry, fear, disappointments, and concern than your child does about his work, ask yourself “What’s wrong with this picture and how did this happen?” (Remember, as long as you carry their concerns, they don’t have to.)
Guide Your Child—Don’t Try to Control Him
Many parents tell me that their children are not motivated to do their work. I believe that children are motivated—they just may not be motivated the way you’d like them to be. Here are some concrete tips to help you guide them in their work without having to nag, threaten or fight with them.
Ask yourself what worked in the past: Think about a time when your child has gotten homework done well and with no hassles. What was different? What made it work that time? Ask your child about it and believe what he says. See what works and motivates him instead of what motivates you.
Stop the nightly fights. The way you can stop fighting with your kids over homework every night is to stop fighting with them tonight. Disengage from the dance. Choose some different steps or decide not to dance at all. Let homework stay where it belongs—between the teacher and the student. Refuse to get pulled in by the school in the future. Stay focused on your job, which is to help your child do his job.
Take a break: If you feel yourself getting reactive or frustrated, take a break from helping your child with homework. Your blood pressure on the rise is a no-win for everyone. Take five or ten minutes to calm down, and let your child do the same if you feel a storm brewing.
Set the necessary structures in place: Set limits around homework time. Here are a few possibilities that I’ve found to be effective with families:
- Homework is done at the same time each night.
- Homework is done in a public area of your house.
- If grades are failing or falling, take away screen time so your child can focus and have more time to concentrate on his work.
- Make it the rule that weekend activities don’t happen until work is completed. Homework comes first. As James Lehman says, “The weekend doesn’t begin until homework is done.”
Get out of your child’s “box” and stay in your own. When you start over-focusing on your child’s work, pause and think about your own goals. What are your life goals and what “homework” do you need to get done in order to achieve those goals? Model your own persistence and perseverance to your child.
Let Your Child Make His Own Choices—and Deal with the Consequences
I recommend that within the parameters you set around schoolwork, your child is free to make his own choices. You need to back off a bit as a parent, otherwise you won’t be helping him with his responsibilities. If you take too much control over the situation, it will backfire on you by turning into a power struggle. And believe me, you don’t want a power struggle over homework. I’ve seen many kids purposely do poorly just to show their parents “who’s in charge.” I’ve also seen children who complied to ease their parents’ anxiety, but these same kids never learned to think and make choices for themselves.
I’m a big believer in natural consequences when it comes to schoolwork. Within the structure you set up, your child has some choices. He can choose to do his homework or not, and do it well and with effort or not. The logical consequences will come from the choices he makes—if he doesn’t choose to get work done, his grades will drop.
When that happens, you can ask him questions that aren’t loaded, like,
“Are you satisfied with how things are going?
“If not, what do you want to do about it?”
“How can I be helpful to you?”
The expectation is that homework is done to the best of your child’s ability. When he stops making an effort and you see his grades drop, that’s when you invite yourself in. You can say, “Now it’s my job to help you do your job better. I’m going to help you set up a plan to help yourself and I will check in to make sure you’re following it.” Set up a plan with your child’s input in order to get him back on his feet. For example, the new rules might be that homework must be done in a public place in your home until he gets his grades back up. You and your child might meet with the teacher to discuss disciplinary actions should his grades continue to drop. In other words, you will help your child get back on track by putting a concrete plan in place. And when you see this change, then you can step back out of it. But before that, your child is going to sit in a public space and you’re going to work on his math or history together. You’re also checking in more. Depending on the age of your child, you’re making sure that things are checked off before he goes out. You’re adding a half hour of review time for his subjects every day. And then each day after school, he’s checking with his teacher or going for some extra help. Remember, this plan is not a punishment—it’s a practical way of helping your child to do his best.
When Kids Say They Don’t Care about Bad Grades
Many parents will say that their kids just don’t care about their grades. My guess is that somewhere inside, they do care. “I don’t care” also becomes part of a power struggle. In other words, your child is saying, “I’m not going to care because you can’t make me; you don’t own my life.” The truth is, you can’t make him care. Instead, focus on what helps his behavior improve. Don’t focus on the attitude as much as what he’s actually doing.
I think it’s also important to understand that caring and motivation come from ownership. You can help your child be motivated by allowing him to own his life more. So let him own his disappointment over his grades. Don’t feel it more than he does. Let him choose what he will do or not do about his homework and face the consequences of those choices. Now he will begin to feel ownership, which may lead to caring. Let him figure out what motivates him, not have him motivated by fear of you. Help guide him but don’t prevent him from feeling the real life consequences of bad choices like not doing his work. Think of it this way: It’s better for your child to learn from those consequences at age ten by failing his grade and having to go to summer school than for him to learn at age 25 by losing his job.
When Your Child Has a Learning Disability
I want to note that it’s very important that you check to see that there are no other learning issues around your child’s refusal to do homework. If he is having a difficult time doing the work or is performing below grade level expectations, he should be tested to rule out any learning disabilities or other concerns.
If there is a learning disability, your child may need more help. For example, some kids need a little more guidance; you may need to sit near your child and help a little more. You can still put structures into place depending on who your child is. Oftentimes kids with learning disabilities get way too much help and fall into the “learned helplessness” trap. Be sure you’re not over-functioning for your learning disabled child by doing his work for him or filling in answers when he is capable of thinking through them himself.
The Difference between Guidance and Over-Functioning
Your child needs guidance from you, but understand that guidance does not mean doing his spelling homework for him. Rather, it’s helping him review his words. When you cross the line into over-functioning, you are taking on your child’s work and putting his responsibilities on your shoulders. So you want to guide him by helping him edit his book report himself, helping him take the time to review before a test, or using James Lehman’s “Hurdle Help” to start him on his homework. Those can be good ways of guiding your child, but anything more than that is taking too much ownership of his work.
If your child asks for help, you can coach him. Suggest he talk to his teacher on how to be a good student, and teach him those communication skills. In other words, show him how to help himself. So you should not back off all together—it’s that middle ground that you’re looking for. That’s why I think it’s important to set up a structure; just put that electric fence around homework time. And within that structure, you expect your child to do what he has to do to be a good student.
I also tell parents to start from a place of believing in their children. Don’t keep looking at your child as a fragile creature who can’t do the work. I think we often come to the table with fear and doubt; we think if we don’t help our kids, they’re just not going to do it. But as much as you say, “I’m just trying to help you,” what your child actually hears is, “You’re a failure.” There’s an underlying message that kids pick up that is very different than what the parents intended it to be. And that message is, “You’re never enough,” and “You can’t do it.” Instead, your message should be, “I know you can do it. And I believe in you enough to let you make your own choices and deal with the consequences.”